Finally, Planners' Primary Focus is New Meetings; Many Will Be Hybrid

Inadequate staffing is now the biggest obstacle to getting back to business.

Face-to-face meetings are the primary focus for meeting planners, according to the results of Northstar's latest PULSE Survey, released today. Planners' key tasks have clearly shifted toward researching, sourcing and booking new meetings and events. For the first time since March 2020, more planners (30 percent) are booking new events than rescheduling events (18 percent).

Of note, though, is that 13 percent of planners are still not currently working on any in-person events, which is up two points since May. This suggests that business conditions – though improved – remain challenging. Even more worrisome than Covid, according to the 414 respondents to this month's survey, is inadequate staffing at hotels and venues. And, as a growing number of planners adopt a hybrid approach to meetings, less flexible contract terms have heightened worries about losing in-person attendees to virtual options.

Meanwhile, rising Covid cases worldwide due to the delta variant could dampen enthusiasm for getting back to business, as discussed in this week's Northstar Global Update.  

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. (See previous results below.) Following are highlights from this month's research, conducted from June 22 – July 7, 2021.

Hybrid Is Mainstream

This current cycle's PULSE Survey added several new questions about hybrid meetings in an attempt to understand the interest and rationale for hybrid platforms as in-person events recover. A steady increase in hybrid meetings is evident. In January 2021, 21 percent of planners were working on events with both in-person and virtual audiences. That number jumped to 36 percent in May and 40 percent this month.

Of those who aren't planning hybrid events now, 36 percent intend to or are considering hybrid meetings. Still, 24 percent won't go that route, down slightly from 27 percent earlier this year. 

Why or Why Not?

The primary reason for holding hybrid meetings, cited by 40 percent of respondents, is to accommodate those who can't (or won't) attend a live event. Other top reasons are to expand overall participation (18 percent) and to offer participants a choice of attending in person or online (13 percent).

It’s important to note that very few planners are planning hybrid to discover and engage new participants (2.51 percent) or to increase revenue overall (2.51 percent) as a primary motivating factor. Only 6 percent are planning hybrid primarily “to reinvent and repackage” their event programming. This suggests the primary rationale for hybrid now is expediency, to serve stakeholders affected by the current crisis, and not as a new business model.

Most who haven't gone hybrid are taking a "wait-and-see" approach for now (27 percent). For another 17 percent, "no budget" is the key reason, and another 17 percent say it's in-person or nothing for their meeting plan.

"Our events are extremely interactive," noted one respondent. "We will run virtual or in person, but not hybrid. We hope to be mostly in person as the recovery proceeds, bur virtual will remain a small part of our yearly lineup."

Said another: "I love the idea of hybrid, but it's challenging for financial, experiential and staff capacity reasons. The idea of non-concurrent engagement is interesting, but it's not fleshed out enough for the virtual experience when using recordings from a live event. Moreover, many of us have been providing prerecorded programming for free to our members and registrants for years."

Hybrid's Value Proposition

Is hybrid worth the expense? Just 37 percent say their organizations or clients have forecasted the performance and cost efficiencies of hybrid vs. in-person events, although another 28 percent intend to do so.

Whether or not they've crunched the numbers, 41 percent expect that hybrid events will perform worse financially than live-only events. Among other cons: 35 percent say the experience/engagement will be worse for remote attendees.

On the plus side, planners appreciate that the audience reach is broader for hybrid (43 percent), which is particularly important for associations, which represent 45 percent of respondents. (For more on how associations need to adapt, register for the free webinar, "What's New in Association Meetings," featuring Gregg Talley of Talley Management Group, on July 14.)

"Even when Covid is no longer a concern (hopefully that day will come), we will probably continue with hybrid events going forward to allow those to participate who cannot come in person," said a respondent.

Another noted: "Hybrid and virtual are here to stay. Hotels and locations will need to adapt to the needs of the meeting architects in order to remain viable business partners."

Staffing Is the Biggest Concern

Lack of adequate staff at hotels and venues — cited as a challenge by nearly half of respondents — has surpassed all other worries addressed in the PULSE Survey, including fear of contagion, budgets and government mandates. "We recently held an in-person meeting and staffing was a real issue. No daily housekeeping, restaurants in the hotel were not open, and the early closure of the hotel bar with a big drinking group made the experience less satisfactory for our attendees," said one planner.

Among other standout concerns: One-third are finding that rates are higher than expected, and their supplier contacts are gone. Nearly as many (31 percent) report that contract terms have become inflexible — which is raising worries about virtual options cannibalizing in-person attendance. "We are concerned about doing a hybrid event because we don't want people attending virtually and then being short with our room block and F&B minimum," a respondent noted. "Hotels do not seem to be very flexible anymore to release us from our liabilities since things are opening up." 

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May 27, 2021

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

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.