Even in the middle of the seemingly overwhelming task of helping clients transform their 2020 in-person events to the virtual medium, two major players in the association-meetings market took time in early August to answer questions from MeetingsNet in order to help associations make sense of the present and future landscape. They are Mike McCool, portfolio director, event services for SmithBucklin; and David Peckinpaugh, president of Maritz Global Events.
MeetingsNet: Will the restart of in-person association events come in the form of small drive-to meetings, or in some other form?
David Peckinpaugh: It seems that small regional meetings will make a lot of sense because of the fluid nature of travel restrictions as well as the space requirements for social distancing. But besides the drive-to markets, it could also be the direct-flight markets that see interest—the nonstop element is something we are hearing from a lot of our customers because they don’t want to go through multiple airports. On the other hand, we are seeing some focus on destinations that are actually more remote, and the airlines are responding by adding more seats into places like Jackson, Wyoming; Aspen, Colorado; and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Places with lower population density are seen by some organizations as possibly safer than other destinations.
The airlines themselves have done a very good job of creating a safe environment as much as possible in this situation. But Global Business Travel Association just released a survey from Concur that shows a mixed bag of traveler sentiments, and that will probably continue for the next few months at least. For planners, things are just so fluid because of all the travel restrictions that can change by the day. New York just instituted a quarantine on people traveling from a lot of states, and we don’t know how long things like that will last.
Mike McCool: When in-person meetings do resume, they will be smaller and probably more regional. They can happen over time as a series of events, or they can take place simultaneously and be connected via technology. I think it is incumbent on us to quickly become the experts in the new design process for virtual and hybrid experiences.
There probably is a certain segment of the audience that will opt out for a while, and maybe permanently. But on the flip side, we are seeing through our digital efforts the increased reach that associations can achieve by eliminating the geographic barriers and some expense. There are some great stories about associations that typically attracted 20 percent of their members to their live events now expanding their reach with virtual to more than 50 percent of members, as well as bringing in people who were casually interested but who then converted to being members because of the online offerings. All of this is going to have long-term impact on how we convene in the future.
MeetingsNet: How effective will upcoming in-person meetings be if participants must wear masks and maintain social distance?
Peckinpaugh: That is definitely a challenge, especially in a room with a lot of people trying to talk at once. With that kind of noise and sitting somewhat distant from each other, there’s a question of whether people can effectively communicate and hear each other. I think, however, we will see a lot of innovation around the masks. Also, at many of our shows we are providing broadcast headsets for participants, and that is a realistic and relatively affordable solution. You’ll probably see more of that solution at in-person events—each attendee gets a headset for the day, and afterwards the staff takes them back and cleans them properly for the next day.
MeetingsNet: As we move towards the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, how should associations rethink the mission, scope, and frequency of their in-person events?
McCool: After we are done with scrambling to pivot to virtual events and getting 2020 nailed down, we should all take time to contemplate what is now possible with events. Start with a blank piece of paper and design experiences based on the mission of your organization and the value proposition you offer. Get outside of your comfort zone and don’t automatically use the traditional starting point of a multiple-day live event as the centerpiece of the strategy. Look more to year-round connectivity through an omni-channel presence, and how you can meet members’ needs by making that happen. The new thinking we have internally is this: Let’s design virtual experiences first that can then pivot to live experiences, small or large. That’s the mindset we need for what the new normal will be. We will come out better from this; we will be smarter and better prepared by adding more science to the art of designing experiences.
Peckinpaugh: There was a Meetings Mean Business coalition meeting in Washington, D.C., in late July; about 35 people attended in person and about 60 more attended virtually, including me. That meeting is probably a good example of how things are going to happen for a while—hybrid events are going to be the main concept that will be used over the next 6 to 12 months.
The host hotel for that meeting did a great job with cleaning protocols, and everyone who was there said they felt safe in that environment. As for us virtual attendees, we took in the content of the meeting but the experience paled in comparison to being there in person with the others.
Maritz is doing some behavioral research right now where the premise is that while an association might be getting solid attendance numbers with virtual, what is the level of engagement and the absorption of content? A phrase we’ve started using with clients is this: Virtual fills the gap but not the void. So a lot has to be figured out about what the right mix is when it comes to events.
Face-to-face meetings will eventually come back, I am sure of it. Things change after every crisis, and with this particular crisis the face-to-face medium has been changed forever. But you have to adapt and move on. Innovation is key, and you must work with other departments in your organization as well as outside partners who can look at things differently and help you adapt and survive.
We are in the process of launching our PlanWell MeetWell system, which is Maritz’ vision of the future of face to face that’s driven by research data and then using our design methodology to revise the future of a given event. Our internal studio team has been working on it since March, and we’re now in the process of bringing it to our customers. It will go across all markets: association, trade show, and corporate. So we are using our internal resources to come up with what we see as the future vision for face-to-face events.