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2021 Meetings Outlook: It’s Complicated

A 400-planner survey finds the majority expect to host in-person events before mid-2021, but with fewer attendees and flat or smaller budgets—and while catering to an online audience at the same time.

In a recent survey of planners conducted by Global DMC Partners, 63 percent predicted that their companies or clients will host in-person meetings and incentives sometime in the first half of 2021, provided that destinations allow gatherings and health protocols are in place. At the same time, nearly three-quarters said they will convert some in-person events to either hybrid or fully virtual for 2021. And 82 percent believe that a vaccine for Covid-19 will be the biggest factor in getting in-person events to resume on a wide scale.

The survey by the network of independently owned destination management companies polled 447 people within the events industry. Ninety percent of the respondents were planners, working for firms in technology, pharmaceutical, finance, insurance, and law. Also, 41 percent of respondents were from the United States, 26 percent were from the United Kingdom, 16 percent were from Mexico, and the remainder were from other parts of the world.

Obstacles and Alterations for In-Person Meetings
The biggest hurdles for hosting in-person meetings in the near future are general fear and uncertainty by event hosts and potential attendees, said 32 percent of respondents, followed by organizational and governmental travel restrictions (25 percent). While most companies currently do not allow non-executive employees to freely travel for business, 55 percent of respondents believe that their companies will allow employee travel starting in Q1 or Q2 of 2021.

“In the meantime, there are a lot of health protocols that can be put into place to ensure a safe, successful events,” said Catherine Chaulet, president and CEO of Global DMC Partners. “Many planners we heard from will be incorporating attendance limits, larger spaces, hand-sanitizer stations, pre-plated and boxed meals instead of buffets, and temperature checks. These preventative measures will help as the industry gets back on its feet.”

Outside of pandemic-related concerns, 45 percent of responding planners said they were most concerned with financial and budget constraints for in-person events. Thirty-eight percent of planners reported a decrease in their budgets from 2020, while 32 percent reported no change and 30 percent are actually seeing a total-budget increase. For incentives, 32 percent said they will have smaller budgets for 2021 programs, while 36 percent reported no change in budget for next year and 32 percent are seeing an increase in budget. Sixty-four percent of participants report that 2021 incentive trips are still scheduled to take place, either as group programs or individual programs.

On a related note, 57 percent of respondents believe that in-person events will be downsized for the foreseeable future, with most planners saying the largest events will host 250 attendees and citing not just the need for more space to accommodate social-distancing requirements but also attendee-comfort levels with in-person events.

Given the travel restrictions, greater space needs, and lesser attendee comfort, the move towards virtual and hybrid for 2020’s remaining events increased from 69 percent to 86 percent of respondents between the previous survey in late June and this latest survey in late September. And looking ahead to 2021, 72 percent of respondents are moving at least some of those events to a virtual or hybrid format.

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