Cautious optimism was on the agenda at the State of the Industry panel at Meeting Professionals International's Global Meetings Industry Day: Virtual. The panel, a centerpiece of the 12-hour program of virtual events hosted by MPI on April 8 as a celebration of the value of the events industry, featured speakers representing destinations, trade shows, associations and other sectors. The panelists discussed current priorities and how the past year is likely to affect events over the long term.
The pandemic had not simply disrupted the industry, they agreed, but also forced organizations to reevaluate their structure and that of their partners.
Julie Coker, president and CEO of San Diego Tourism Authority, explained how her organization had to adopt a much more agile business model and also tapped into community partnerships at a deeper level than they ever had previously. For example, they began appealing more to locals and encouraging staycations, broadening their customary focus on the out-of-state market.
"It helped us create relationships," said Coker. "And it helped our members see that there is much more value to DMOs than hotel leads."
The transition underscored the importance to all stakeholders of diversifying the revenue stream and ensuring the presence of reserve of funds in case of emergency, Coker added.
MPI CEO Paul Van Deventer emphasized that many associations, including his own, have reconsidered their revenue models — a necessary evolution when so much business is traditionally dependent on annual conferences and trade shows.
"I think we're going to see a whole shift in the association landscape — how they engage, what their true missions are, which is really around professional development, and then looking at the right partnerships to advance themselves," said Van Deventer.
He described how MPI, whose industry members experienced up to 70 percent unemployment at the height of the pandemic, reshaped its membership model and organizational structure.
"But we didn't lose our two core values," he added, "the professional education for those in this industry and advocating for that industry."
Focusing on Value
IMEX Group CEO Carina Bauer echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the overhaul her organization had to make in moving its signature show online yet remaining focused on its essential offerings to the industry.
"The key really for all of us is to look at the value of what we're doing and the strategic purpose of what we're trying to provide," said Bauer. She added that for IMEX, that meant prioritizing the in-person trade shows they have planned in Las Vegas this November and Frankfurt, Germany next April, but at the same time, taking "the learnings of the past year and saying, 'how can we drive those human connections on a year-round basis?'"
Bauer said that these conversations had already been taking place before the pandemic, but the restrictions on in-person gatherings "accelerated the trends that were already happening."
A number of speakers noted that the struggles of the past year have led to stronger partnerships and collaboration. Michael Massari, Caesars Entertainment chief sales officer, said that working collaboratively has been critical for Las Vegas in particular and will continue to be key to the industry's comeback.
"The Sands, MGM, Caesars and LVCVA met every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the entire pandemic and moved to once a week three or four months ago," he said. "We talk about the protocols that we're doing, we're sharing information and making sure customers like you and MPI and others all have the best information that we have and that your experience across the city is safe and comfortable."
As the industry now prepares to bounce back, Massari said that any decisions to relax elevated safety protocols would be determined by a combination of government regulation and duty-of-care considerations for employees and customers.
"I think you're going to see that health and safety protocols, more so than restrictions, are going to stay around for an extended period of time — some of these likely permanently," said Massari. "You're going to see the direct impediments go away, but protocols like masks — which don't necessarily prohibit a gathering from happening and continue to provide an additional level of comfort for the attendees — will stick around for a while."
Preparing for Recovery
Panelists also discussed how they are preparing for what could be a bright future later this year, as in-person meetings return and business potentially comes back with a bang.
Coker described the need for properties and organizations to rehire many of those they laid off, and the challenges they have navigated in their efforts to hold on to core staff. For example, she said, the general manager at the Grand Hyatt San Diego has been sending weekly updates not only to staff but also to those who were let go due to the pandemic, maintaining those connections.
"We've talked about whether we need to do a job fair where all the hotels are present and reach out to the neighborhood, or reeducate folks when they come back after not having worked for six to eight months," said Coker. "We may need to go into some non-traditional areas where we haven't necessarily before," she added, to maintain adequate staffing.
Massari agreed, adding: "We're scared to death of that problem. And yet, we can't wait to have that problem."