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How Bad Was 2021 for Independent Planning Companies?

The just-released CMI 25 2022 reveals the depth of the challenges seen by third parties over the past year.

It’s remarkable that so many independent meeting planning companies have ridden out the pandemic intact.

Consider this: The companies on this year’s CMI 25 list—North America’s largest third-party firms doing business with the corporate market—in aggregate, booked just 478 incentive travel programs in 2021. That’s only 5 percent of the more than 8,700 incentive travel programs that CMI 25 companies executed in 2019—and well under the number that some of the larger firms typically ran in a year pre-pandemic. (View the 2022 CMI 25 in the digital magazine or on

Another somber comparison between our CMI 25 list in 2020 (reporting 2019 business volume) and this year’s report, which has data from 2021, is in the number of corporate meetings planned.  While not all the independents are the same between the two reports, in aggregate, the number of corporate meetings dropped from 172,382 to 56,450. (These are in-person, non-incentive travel groups of at least 10 people that include an overnight stay for attendees.)

Of course, the low numbers are not unexpected. Covid-19 had its grip on the world in 2021. Vaccines weren’t widely available until early in the year, and then the Delta variant came barreling in during the summer. Nevertheless, they help us to remember just how bad business conditions were for third parties over the past two years.

New This Year
Prior to the pandemic, we didn’t ask CMI 25 applicants for information on the hybrid and stand-alone virtual meetings they planned—it wouldn’t have been significant. But we did this year, and it became a factor as we decided who would be on the list.

In total, this year’s CMI 25 planned 17,647 stand-alone virtual meetings, and the median was 93. These numbers don’t include hybrid events—virtual elements planned in conjunction with an in-person event—though we asked about those, too. What we found was that all but two companies did some hybrid events last year and, looking at the median, typically 10 percent of in-person events had a hybrid element.

Without a doubt, this year’s CMI 25 companies have a smaller footprint, but many offer new skills in the virtual arena, and you can be sure that all are fighters and innovators to have managed through these difficult years. Congrats to all the independents on the list as well as to the smaller companies that applied but weren’t selected. All are important as our economy comes back to life. Organizations need their creativity, professionalism, and event expertise to help motivate and train their people, connect with clients, and generate new ideas.

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