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With a surge in COVID-19 cases in the United States, meeting planner confidence is waning, confirmed Northstar Meetings Group's latest Pulse Survey, which drew 1,160 meeting planner responses from around the world. Fewer are actively booking business; in fact, cancelling or rescheduling has become the primary job function of 60 percent of respondents. And, as more turn toward virtual-meeting platforms, they question whether such events can meet business needs.
These findings are "closely tracking with the situation on the ground," commented industry consultant John Nawn, co-founder of the Event Strategy Network and a Northstar columnist. He recently conducted research for a client on attendees' willingness to travel and meet in-person. "Interest waned as the virus spread, so they cancelled their event for Q3 2020," he noted.
"Everyone is struggling with how to get shows and business events back up and running," said Cathy Breden, CMP, CAE, CEM, the chief executive officer for the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. "And I think we're all learning together."
David Dubois, CMP, CAE, president and CEO of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, pointed out that business stagnation and industry frustration won't change as long as the virus numbers continue to rise. "We've got to see this COVID curve drop down to a very low, less scary level over a 14-day period of time," to begin rallying public support for the return of events, he noted.
"The falling optimism makes sense," agreed Kevin Iwamoto, chief strategy officer for meetings-tech platform Bizly, "and this is no doubt causing a lot of change management. People are processing the stages of loss and acceptance. The bottom line is that everyone and every company has to reimagine and reposition as a result of the pandemic, and things are not going to ever get back to where they were pre-COVID-19 — at least not for years to come."
While nearly 80 percent of respondents cite a growing need for digital-event platforms, they're unconvinced of their overall value proposition. "I'm sure the virtual-event payoff remains elusive," said Nawn, "but folks need to be taking virtual much more seriously. It is here to stay, but we're still in the 'learning to crawl' stage. There's so much more that can be done to make virtual events more viable — and a genuine complement/extension of in-person events. Now's the time to immerse ourselves in this new world and master it."
NMG’s Pulse Survey, launched in March 2020, tracks how the global pandemic has affected meeting planners, including their job status, business plans and projections for the future of their events.
Download the latest results here or see results from previous surveys here. Check back here for the next survey soon.
Following are key findings from the July 15 Northstar Meetings Group Pulse Survey.
Job #1: Postponing Meetings
Sixty percent of planners now say their primary job function is to reschedule or rebook meetings and events. Another 27 percent are spending most of their time researching for possible future events, but not booking any business. Just 5 percent are focused on contracting for new meetings.
Elsewhere in the world, there’s a bit less emphasis on rebooking, with a higher percentage of planners actively researching and sourcing for new business. However, a consistent 5 percent of respondents from the U.S., U.K. and Europe, and 4 percent from Asia, cite booking new business as their primary responsibility right now.
Prospects Dim for 2020
Just four weeks ago, 40 percent of meeting planners expected to hold rescheduled events during this calendar year, according to the Pulse Survey’s June 17 findings. With increasing uncertainty and rapidly rising COVID-19 cases in the U.S., that number has declined to 25 percent, per the latest results. More than half (56 percent) are now eyeing the first half of 2021 as the earliest time frame for rescheduled meetings, while 17 percent are pushing dates into the latter half of 2021 or beyond.
The falling numbers for this year are in line with what other industry organizations are finding, according to Breden of the Center for Exhibition Industry research. "About 73 percent of our survey respondents will now not hold their events this year," she said. "And the remainder are looking for some type of contingency plan, either a hybrid or purely virtual event."
For new events, too, dates are shifting to later in 2021. Seventeen percent of respondents don’t expect to hold new events until the fourth quarter of 2021 or later, up from 14 percent in June. There’s a notable contrast by region, however, with significantly lower confidence among U.S. respondents. Fifty-eight percent of planners in the U.K., for example, plan to hold live events this year or in the first quarter of 2021.
Uncertainty Is the Biggest Obstacle
The variability of COVID-19 cases by state and country is the most significant factor affecting planners’ ability to schedule in-person meetings. A close second is inconsistent guidelines and/or protocol enforcements by state/country, followed by concern over business conditions and budget cuts, which had long been the top worry among planners.
"The back-and-forth dance of open, close, open, close makes it impossible to plan for in-person events," lamented one respondent. "Opinions and perceptions change daily."
"The agony just continues," said another planner. "I have cancelled August conferences now, and cancellations will likely spread into September, October, November and December."
Flexible Contracts Will Help
With increasing uncertainty, planners are hesitant to commit to typical contract terms. Nearly one-third (29 percent) of meeting planners now expect that contracts will allow for cancellation without penalty, up from 25 percent in June, and another 51 percent believe those terms will be more forgiving.
"Pricing and contracting must change — in buyers’ favor — to get meetings back," noted one planner.
The Future Holds Fewer Meetings
Confidence in the frequency of future events has dipped month over month. Thirty-seven percent of planners now expect to plan fewer meetings, even 12 to 18 months after the threat of COVID-19 has passed, up from 34 percent in June.
The greatest declines are expected in international events, followed by national and regional gatherings. Confidence in local events has waned, too. About one in four planners (27 percent) believe they’ll hold more local events post-COVID, down from 36 percent in June.
With the increase in cases cited as a key factor impacting meeting and event planning in the U.S., expectations for the current year have sunk significantly. More planners are currently looking a year out (or later) to book their new events. In the meantime, if and when they can meet, they'll require (and supply) face masks.
Sports Will Lead the Recovery
Month over month, confidence in the future frequency of nearly all event types has declined, with the biggest drops in government, corporate meetings and trade shows, respectively. But planners are particularly optimistic about sports and esports recovering after the pandemic. While 37 percent still predict a decline in frequency, 20 percent now believe we'll see more live sporting and esports events post-COVID, up from 13 percent just four weeks ago.
Face Masks Will Be Meetings Attire
Safety protocols remain high on the agenda for future events, with more than 80 percent of respondents planning to implement physical distancing, signage, hand sanitizer and other best practices. Seventy percent will mandate the use of face masks as a condition of attendance, and 72 percent will provide masks on-site. More than half (56 percent) will require participants to sign liability waivers to acknowledge possible health risks.
Nawn questioned why one-third of respondents don't intend to require masks. "Why are only 70 percent mandating and supplying face masks? Why isn't this 100 percent? What's the reluctance about?"
Virtual Meetings Will Evolve
As more respondents are likely to have experienced digital events in recent weeks, confidence in their value for participants has improved, while they’re less certain of the value proposition for suppliers. Planners are evenly split on whether such gatherings will fulfill overall business objectives.
One sentiment is universal: Nothing can replace the face-to-face experience. "Virtual events have been added to our portfolio, but in-person events will remain key," commented a planner.
Many realize, however, that they'll need to get comfortable planning and producing digital events. Nearly 80 percent expect an increased need for virtual event platforms. "Virtual/hybrid meetings are here to stay," said a respondent. "We need to become/get experts on the technology and methodology to have successful meetings."
We're Craving In-Person Connections
Many verbatim comments underscored the business need, and personal craving, for face-to-face gatherings. "Relationships are key to business success, and they can't be made and cultivated virtually. Meetings and events are essential to business development," a planner told us. "There’s both a direct and indirect relationship between meetings and economic growth. We won't have a healthy travel industry or overall economy without being able to gather again."
"Meeting in-person will not depend so much on what we do now, but how comfortable people will be conducting business in-person in the future," Nawn added. "And unfortunately, we have little control over that. That's not an argument for doing nothing. It's an argument for focusing on what we can control, like how to meet safely, and letting go of what we can't control, like when we meet. In this time of crisis lies a real opportunity, if we're bold enough to seize it, to reimagine what business we're really in and what value we bring to our stakeholders. It's more than just events."
Don't Expect a Return to 'Normal'
"With the resurgence in COVID cases around the country, I feel less confident that anything resembling 'normal' will happen in the short term," commented a survey respondent.
"Regardless of what we do, the prognosis of the virus is going to dictate the progress of the industry and the return to 'business as unusual,'" said Nawn, "because when we do meet in-person again, there will be little that's 'usual' about it."
Iwamoto agreed: "Business needs to get done, and everyone has to figure out the new world, where the definitions of 'essential,' 'nice-to-have,' 'must-have,' and 'critical' are being redefined. That also extends to our personal lives, as well, which is adding more angst and stress."
Find this week's full results here.