In-Person Meetings Are Happening Sooner, And Hybrid Is Here to Stay

Planners booking live events for this year are finding hotel staffing more worrisome than Covid-19, per Northstar’s latest PULSE Survey.

nmg Pulse may 2021

All indications point to a healthy return of in-person meetings, even sooner than was expected just six weeks ago. In fact, 82 percent of the 305 planners who responded to Northstar’s latest PULSE Survey will hold live meetings this year. Among other notable findings, one-third will add a virtual component to those events.

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Survey results also suggest that planner readiness to book in-person events earlier in the year might be outpacing how quickly suppliers are prepared to get back to business. Respondents are finding hotels and meeting venues short-staffed, and their contacts no longer in place, among other current challenges. 

Confidence is rising in Europe, too, according to the latest U.K. PULSE Survey conducted by Northstar Meetings Group U.K.-based brands AMI and M&IT. Of the 107 respondents, 76 percent will hold an in-person or hybrid event this year. Those primarily focused on booking new events rose from 11 percent in February, to 16 percent in the May edition of the U.K. survey.

Northstar Meetings Group’s PULSE Survey, launched in March 2020, captures evolving planner sentiment as our industry responds to challenges brought on by the global pandemic. Following are highlights from the latest survey.

The Pace of Booking Quickens

Nearly 90 percent of the survey’s 305 meeting planner respondents are now focused on in-person events, with a relatively even mix of those who are primarily researching, sourcing, rescheduling, or booking new meetings. Specifically booking new events is top priority for 24 percent of respondents, up from 19 percent six weeks ago. Only 11 percent are not working on in-person meetings or events, down significantly from 19 percent in our last research cycle. 

Association planners are more actively booking than all other respondent categories; 40 percent say booking new meetings is their current priority, followed by third parties/independent planners (17 percent).

Another sign of optimism: More respondents will hold their next in-person meeting sooner in the year. Twenty-five percent of respondents will go live in Q2 2021, up from 21 percent in March. Those who will meet in person this year ticked up slightly, from 80 to 82 percent, while 18 percent plan to resume in-person meetings in 2022 or later.

Hybrid Is Growing, Too

Many live events won’t be in-person only: Hybrid meetings have gained significant traction. More than one-third (36 percent) are now planning events with both in-person and virtual audiences, up from just 21 percent in January 2021. Early in the year, 27 percent were not yet planning hybrid meetings, but intended to do so. That intent has become action, as evidenced by this month’s survey results. 

Expect the number of hybrid meetings to grow, as 15 percent have still expressed intent to plan multichannel events. Meanwhile, a consistent 27 percent are not considering hybrid.

Planners seem to be embracing the concept that adding a virtual component won’t detract from the physical event. Said one respondent, “I really don't see the in-person being replaced by this necessary digital platform. I mean, have we all forgotten about who we are?”

Not surprisingly, with the uptick in in-person and hybrid events, planners will hold fewer all-virtual meetings. Yet, they show more confidence in the effectiveness of virtual events — possibly because with the increased viability of in-person events, those meetings that continue to happen virtually are those most suited to the format.

Planners Are on the Road Again

Planners themselves are ready to travel. Fully 60 percent will attend an in-person meeting or business event within the next three months, a giant jump from 46 percent in March. 

Should the meetings industry be meeting? That was a topic of heated debate earlier in the year, but we’ve now reached a consensus: Nearly all planners — 97 percent — say yes. Two-thirds add the condition that all Covid-related restrictions and protocols should be followed and enforced. This sends a clear message to meetings industry associations: Let our in-person events resume, but health-safety measures should remain a priority.

And, of course, planners must remain flexible in light of shifting concerns and restrictions. “The issues around the coronavirus are extremely complex,” noted a planner in the U.K. “It is not simply a matter of ‘go’ or ‘no-go’ for in-person meetings. Levels of infection will increase and decrease as new variants take hold. Countries will close and open borders as infection rates in other countries increase and decrease.”

(Note: Northstar’s global editorial team discussed planners’ hesitancy to commit to in-person meetings, partly due to “snap closures,” during our biweekly global editorial team meeting this week.)

As Health Fears Wane, Practical Concerns Grow

With a large percentage of the population vaccinated and the spread of Covid-19 declining, planners’ worries are shifting from the health of meeting-goers to the health of the meetings industry itself. Inadequate hotel staffing is now the most pressing planner concern, far outweighing the fear of contagion. Also more worrisome than the virus: travel budgets, meeting budgets, inadequate airline service, legal constraints, government mandates and business liability.

Negotiations Have Been Strained

Those working on future meetings report difficulties due to the pandemic’s harsh impact on suppliers. First and foremost, 40 percent of planners are finding that hotels and venues lack adequate staffing, and 36 percent say their supplier contacts are gone. More than one-third (36 percent) say hotel rates are higher than expected, and 33 percent report that contract terms are not as flexible as they need them to be. Another 24 percent are having trouble finding the space and dates they want.

Meeting planners understand the reasons for these challenges, and many are sympathetic to the plight of their supplier partners. Clients, however, might require an explanation. 

“I’m worried my clients are still taking a wait-and-see approach, and by the time they decide to go there won't be any space in 2022,” said a respondent. “I can't seem to get them to understand the shortage of space due to everyone pushing back dates.”

Said another, “Clients seem to pay lip service to wanting to get back to live events but there is a massive fear of commitment.”

Sometimes the hotel sales staff, particularly with international properties, might only be working one or two days a week, said a respondent. “This definitely extends the timeline, and time is already a limited commodity.” 

Another noted that inquiries for space rental are going unanswered. The problem extends to CVBs, too, as some staff members are still furloughed or have left their positions, per planners’ comments. 

The New Normal Looks More Like the Old Normal

Greater uncertainty last year had respondents predicting they would hold fewer, smaller meetings this year, closer to home. Today, expectations are more in line with prepandemic numbers. Overall, 25 percent think audiences for in-person events will be smaller, while 8 percent anticipate more attendees and 43 percent don’t expect much change. The remaining 24 percent feel it’s too soon to know.

•   •   •

April 15, 2021

In-person meetings are a priority again. Booking live or hybrid events is now the primary job function of nearly one in five planners, a 50 percent increase since our last survey. Download the results.

March 3, 2021

This is the turnaround we've been waiting for. 81 percent of meeting planners say they will hold their next in-person event sometime this year. Download the results.

January 20, 2021

A new year brings new hopes — and new worries — to meeting and event professionals. Most expect the rollout of vaccines to accelerate our industry’s recovery. Download the results.

November 18, 2020

Planners who intended to hold in-person or hybrid meetings in the near future have adjusted their expectations — again — as Covid-19 numbers continue to rise. Download the results.

October 21, 2020

Even optimistic meeting professionals are growing jaded, as a timeline for pandemic recovery remains elusive. Download the results.

September 15, 2020

Planners have a relatively high degree of confidence in their ability to plan and produce virtual or hybrid events, according to our latest PULSE Survey. Download the results.

August 15, 2020

With coronavirus cases declining in the United States, it's not surprising that our survey reveals slight but encouraging gains in industry expectations. Download the results.

July 15, 2020

With a surge in COVID-19 cases in the United States, meeting planner confidence is waning. Download the results.

June 15, 2020

Look for live meetings to return this year: Forty-one percent of meeting planners expect to hold rescheduled events before year-end 2020. Download the results.

May 19, 2020

Meeting planner optimism about the return of live events is waning; fewer respondents are actively planning and booking meetings. Download the results.

April 21, 2020

The worldwide pandemic has been particularly harsh for the meetings industry, but a deep dive into planners’ individual experiences and expectations reveals that a majority are working on future business and anticipating fundamental changes. Download the results.  

March 31, 2020

No major changes were seen in the distribution of cancellations, postponements and virtual event alternatives. Download the results.

March 17, 2020

As confirmed cases and deaths related to the coronavirus have continued to rise in the U.S. and worldwide, it comes as no surprise that the results of our PULSE Survey reveal a pronounced shift in meeting planners’ actions and attitudes. Download the results.