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What It Will Take to Start Having Meetings Again?

Five things that need to change for travelers to get back on the road.

Understanding why meetings and events are on hold informs our understanding of when they will come back, and what they will look like once they do. While COVID-19 is the underlying cause of the disruption, there are five sub-causes for the halt in live events. All five will need to be resolved before meetings return:
1. Pandemic Status: The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic.
2. Meeting Bans: National and local governments around the world currently recommend not gathering in groups larger than 50 attendees, and in some places, the number is as low as 10 attendees.
3. Travel Bans: Most companies currently prohibit all but absolutely essential travel.
4. Safe Travel: Travel and meetings suppliers are not able to provide COVID-19-free environments.
5. Fear of Exposure: Without effective treatments or a vaccine for COVID-19, people don’t want to risk infection.

For live meetings and events to return, these five conditions must be addressed to the satisfaction of health organizations, governments, companies, travel suppliers, and meeting attendees.

While mitigating the first two conditions above is relatively straightforward—at the appropriate time, WHO needs to declare the pandemic over and governments must lift public gathering bans—the other conditions will require thoughtful work from company executives, meetings and travel planners, and their suppliers.

Companies Lift Travel Restrictions
Companies are likely to institute a phased lifting of their travel bans, so before employees can start traveling again, meeting and travel managers should work with their leaders and other key stakeholders to determine priorities. Almost all companies will want senior leaders and sales teams to start traveling as soon as possible, but who is next? Is your company in the process of acquiring another company? If yes, your attorneys will probably be high on the priority list. You will also need to determine whether allowing employees to travel or attend live-events again should follow the same decision rules. In other words, is there a difference between being in a plane or a meeting room?  And finally, your company will need to develop policies for employees not willing or able to start traveling again because they are in a high-risk category themselves or have a high-risk family member living with them. This is an opportunity to work closely with your human resources department to create rules to be applied uniformly across your organization. 

Safe Travel Conditions
Suppliers must be able to guarantee that conditions in their airplanes, hotel rooms, buses, etc. are safe, and that people will not be exposed to COVID-19 during travel or while attending an event. To do so, suppliers will have to invest in new technologies (such as ultraviolet robots) and cleaning procedures that eliminate all traces of COVID-19, develop training and certification protocols, and conduct training sessions to educate cleaning staff. Their public-facing facilities will need to pass third-party certification, and some companies, like Accor, are setting this up

Overcoming Fear
Fear is one of the most significant obstacles to the resumption of meetings. The race to a COVID-19 vaccine has recently seen some positive developments, but it is at least eight months away under the best of circumstances. To overcome the fears associated with traveling to and attending live meetings and events, employees must have confidence that they will not become infected on the road. Employees will also need assurances they can decline travel without penalty if they are in a high-risk category or have a high-risk family member living with them. Although with record unemployment, there are no guarantees this will happen.

Preparing for the Return of Meetings
Companies without a Meetings Program: This is the time to create a meetings management program that will enable your organization to identify when and where live events are taking place, and who is attending them. It will serve your organization well during the next unforeseen situation, whether it’s a health crisis, climate catastrophe, natural disaster, or terrorist attack.

Companies with a Meetings Program: For companies with a meetings management program, this is the time to conduct a current-state gap assessment to explore and close gaps identified during the early stages of the COVID-19 crises. The evaluation should focus on gaps in identifying, tracking, and repatriating employees in the field, and evaluating current supplier relationships to determine if your suppliers are working with you in partnership during emergencies.

This is also the time to focus on creating the protocols for returning to travel and meetings, including working with executive leadership and key stakeholders, such as business units, human resources, security, finance, and communications, to prioritize return-to-work processes. This is also the time to determine which suppliers to use in the future, based on COVID-19 cleanliness certification programs.

In addition, work with corporate communications to update employees on your department’s activities. These updates can inform employees that proper steps are being taken to ensure their safety and security and who your post-COVID-19-preferred suppliers will be.

Shimon Avish is vice president, consulting at DigiTravel Consulting.

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