The Covid-19 pandemic has cost the meetings industry an estimated $211 billion over the past 18 months, according to data from Tourism Economics and the U.S. Travel Association. Sluggish recovery is expected to continue, with domestic travel not anticipated to return to prepandemic levels until 2024. Meanwhile, the agencies predict that international business is unlikely to rebound until 2025.
"There is a lot at stake right now," said Adam Sacks, president of Tourism Economics, noting that a prolonged recovery will cost the economy greatly. "Before we get fully whole in business travel and group meetings, we will have lost $522 billion in spending in the U.S. economy." According to Sacks, the delay in international travel's recovery will add another $77 billion to the economic fallout of the pandemic.
In a press conference on Sept. 15, industry leaders from the U.S. Travel Association, Let's Meet There Coalition and the Exhibitions & Conferences Alliance rallied behind the message that in-person meetings can resume safely and that doing so is critical to the country's economy.
"Every piece of evidence that we're seeing from the scientific and academic community tells us that, with the right practices in place, the traveling workforce and organizers of professional events can get back to the business of reconnecting with clients and colleagues," said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. "Ultimately, the business events community will drive the return to business travel, and in doing so, will shift the economy back to greater normalcy."
An Economic Imperative
Concerns over Covid-19 and the Delta variant have continued to cripple the business travel and events industries. A Global Business Travel Association survey showed that 68 percent of businesses that are not currently traveling were planning to start within the next three months, as of July. This number, however, dropped to 35 percent in August. Group demand at hotels remains about 55 percent of 2019 levels, according to lodging data provider STR.
The speakers stressed the importance of business travel and in-person meetings on the nation's economic recovery. They noted that the events sector not only supports thousands of tourism and hospitality jobs, but also that attending conferences and exhibitions has been proven to positively impact a business's bottom line.
"What we found over the last 26 years is a strong positive relationship between investments in business travel and corporate performance," said Sacks of Tourism Economics. "On a revenue basis, for every dollar that businesses invested in business travel, they returned $5.90 — that's a 590 percent return on business travel to the top line. If you look at the bottom line, it's an average return of $5 for every dollar invested."
The Science Behind Safe Travel and Events
According to Dow, vaccination is key to a safe return to in-person events. "Our enthusiasm for safely resuming business travel should not be mistaken for overlooking the seriousness of the virus and all of its variants," he said. "But lockdowns and restrictions are no longer protecting us from the disease. Vaccines are. We're 100 percent behind encouraging all that are eligible to get the vaccine. It's the fastest path to normalcy for all."
Dow pointed to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which shows that inoculation rates are higher among business travelers (78 percent) than with the general U.S. adult population (65 percent). In addition, research from the Mayo Clinic shows that the risk of contracting Covid-19 while traveling is very low. In fact, the risk of a person becoming infected with Covid-19 when boarding a flight from the U.K. to the U.S. is one in 10,000, and the risk of an infected passenger transmitting the virus to another passenger when flying from the U.K. to the U.S. is even lower, at one in one million.
Meetings, too, have proven to have a low risk of infection — particularly because they are a controlled environment where planners can implement layers of safety precautions, such as requiring face masks and only allowing entry to those who are fully vaccinated and/or have tested negative for the virus.
In fact, an August study from the global event producer Freeman and the computational modeling company Epistemix shows that people are much less likely to contract Covid-19 at a business event than during day-to-day activities such as grocery shopping. According to the report, the risk of contracting Covid-19 at a business event is as much as eight times less than in the surrounding area where the meeting is held.
"After 18 months of conducting business virtually, the time has come to refill the well of professional relationships, engage with clients and colleagues in as safe an environment as possible, make deals and bring success to businesses that cascades down to all of our communities," said Dow. "We need to restore the connections that can only happen when we get together face to face."