Like many of you, I am still trying to process the magnitude of what is taking place, not just across the planet but in our corner of the business world too.
To think that on March 1, things seemed all right for the meetings industry—there were only 90 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States. My thought at the time: I guess we won’t be seeing attendees from China for a month or two, but things will be fine otherwise. I was still excited to attend my next meetings-industry event, IACC’s Americas Connect conference that was set for Dallas at the end of March.
Fast forward to today, and my thoughts have swung far in the other direction: Meetings and events have a long road to travel, one that will be harder than what most other industries will face. First, I’m assuming that many of the people who have not gotten coronavirus—in the U.S., that’s more than 328 million out of 330 million people—will try hard not to get it before a vaccine is developed, which experts say could come perhaps by early 2021. And given the estimates of corporate and association meeting planners who responded to an April 20 survey by i-Meet.com, most event organizers will have their foot on the brakes for months. About 31 percent of more than 900 responding planners said August or September would be the time when face-to-face events will resume, while 26 percent said it would not be until October and another 11 percent said not until 2021.
With events on hold, what is going to become of the meetings industry and the thousands of venues and other suppliers that serve the group market? For example, many convention centers fund their operations through hotel-occupancy taxes, which have been devastated and show no sign of coming back anytime soon. Furthermore, how many hotels are going to be able to survive this prolonged slump in travel? And what about event-production companies, teambuilding firms, caterers, and restaurants and bars in so many cities? How effective will the government’s response be to keep these suppliers on their feet? I worry that the variety of offerings available to meetings will shrink in many destinations at least for a couple of years.
Another question: How much are virtual meetings going to stay in the mainstream even when people are willing to travel again? Online meeting platforms are feverishly ramping up quality and capabilities that deliver at least some of the interpersonal benefits that used to be the sole domain of face-to-face events. As our latest cover story addresses in detail, this might be the moment when a worldwide circumstance and technological advancement intersect to permanently alter the universe of business meetings and events.
Lastly, in the new business environment we’ll have, every expense related to face-to-face events will likely be scrutinized for necessity and return on investment. The question is, how will planners develop ways to measure the value of in-person meetings? Until that is fully worked out, the stress factor for planners is going to remain elevated.
Even with all this uncertainty, I’ve seen an astonishing degree of innovation and perseverance coming from all corners of the meetings industry. Planners are salvaging event contracts, pivoting to virtual, opening new lines of communication with attendees, supporting their colleagues, pitching in for charity, and finding ways to stay positive. They have their chins up and their minds stirring, opting to plan for better times ahead rather than be overwhelmed by the present moment. And their optimism, creativity, and flexibility are the qualities we all need to endure these unusual times, and to be ready for the landscape we’ll find on the other side.