The enthusiasm of thousands at IMEX America demonstrated that we, as meeting professionals, needed to reconnect. That was a universal sentiment during the three-day event, which took place Nov. 9-11 at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. After nearly two years of upheaval, however, we can’t just get “back to business,” sources expressed. This should be a time for thoughtful reflection — and gradual reinvention.
We should be asking ourselves, “How has our collective experience changed us?” suggested Sherrif Karamat, president and CEO of the Professional Convention Management Association. “We will be evolving over the next few years. What does the next chapter look like? The story is still being told.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint “trends” at a time like this, said Karamat, because significant change is slow-moving. “We’ve shifted from talk of climate change to climate crisis, and from resisting digitization to hyper-digitization because we couldn’t meet any other way.” Effects of the pandemic experience, likewise, will unfold gradually.
More automated services
That sentiment was echoed by Steve Enselein, senior vice president of events for Hyatt Hotels Corp.: “If anyone thinks that we're going back to 2019 — it's not going to happen.” Supply-chain issues will linger, causing rising costs, which in turn affect choices for our meetings, such as food and beverage. But perhaps the biggest shift at hotels, he said, will result from staffing shortages. “We're going to rely more on technology to help simplify and make things more automated,” said Enselein, “like the check-in process, how you order services, how you ask for things.”
Competition for audience
“I think people are going to be very selective about the events they go to,” noted Enselein. “I used to travel every single week; I would be on the road all the time. And maybe I forgot how much I enjoy being with my family. Now I'm more selective about where I'm going to travel, and when I'm there I’m really engaged, and I really want to connect and understand other people’s perspectives.”
Will compression lead to a seller’s market? “I've been doing this long enough that I've seen enough ebbs and flows to say I really don't care,” said Michael Massari, chief sales officer for Caesars Entertainment. “If we are entering the biggest seller's market of all time, I'm going to be around when we exit it, as well.”
Regardless of business conditions, the goal in any negotiation is the same, Massari added. Caesars had more than 4,000 events cancel due to Covid. “We dealt with them the way we deal with everything else: Here's the problem we have, here's the problem you have, let's figure it out. Let's come to a solution that we can both live with and that doesn't put any either of us out of business.”
A strong 2022
In terms of meetings business, “I think 2022 could be one of our better years ever,” Massari said. Even if something unforeseen happens in the realm of Covid, “we’ve figured a lot of this stuff out.” Vaccinations are highly effective and broadly available, and new treatment protocols are coming to market. All signs point to a very strong 2022, not just for Caesars, said Massari, but for the industry at large.
Outlook for incentive programs
On the incentive front, international incentive business is picking up for 2022 and 2023, according to the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence. Suppliers including South African Tourism and London & Partners agree. Both reported brisk business from the show.
Overall, companies have a desire to resume incentive travel, though some industry segments — in particular, financial and insurance — are slower to start programs again due to lingering concerns about health and safety. Another trend noted by incentive planners and suppliers is a move away from large group incentive programs; some firms are now breaking trips into a series of smaller group trips.
Incentive planners are concerned about rising costs for travel programs. During a Smart Monday incentive travel panel, a planner from an insurance company said, “Our expectation is that for the latter part of 2022 and into 2023 we're going to have to increase budgets by probably 25 percent across the board, because it's not just that food and beverage and airline tickets are more expensive…Everything, including hotel room rates, is more expensive.”
Incentive merchandise and gift sales are way up. According to Bill Martocci, president of the Incentive Marketing Association, the only thing preventing the industry from having a record year is the supply-chain issues plaguing most retailers now. In other news, wellness-based gifts and luxury items are top-selling items now and into 2022. Home-themed gifts like cookware and televisions are waning in popularity as winners don’t want to be reminded of the pandemic, according to Kate Renk, events sales representative at Incentive Concepts. Renk said her firm had their best leads and sales ever from IMEX America at this year’s show.