USA - More planners are sourcing and booking meetings, and confidence in holding future events has improved, according to Northstar Meetings Group's latest Pulse Survey.
While just 31% of respondents were signing contracts for new business as of 19 May, nearly 40% are now doing so - reversing the downward trend and matching the level of activity last achieved in April.
While moving ahead with the planning process, 75% of respondents intend to offer a virtual component to their live events as an alternative for those who are not willing or able to travel. But whether or not these virtual offerings will achieve business objectives is an open question.
Improved planner confidence is in step with the gradually loosening restrictions around the U.S. and the world - indicating the industry might be moving from crisis toward recovery. What happens with respect to COVID cases and ongoing protests over the coming weeks will be crucial in how that progression continues.
Northstar's Pulse Survey, conducted every two weeks, assesses how the global pandemic has affected meeting planners, including their job status, business plans and projections for the future of their events. This week's findings are based on 790 planner respondents.
For a presentation and discussion about the Pulse Survey and trending planner sentiment, register for our free webcast on Tuesday, 9 June, at 2pm EDT.
Highlights from the 1 June Pulse Survey:
• Business activity is on the rise
Throughout the crisis, meeting planners have been doing business. A consistent 85% of respondents are still working full time, with a slight uptick, from 13 to 16%, in those returning to their business locations.
For the first time in nearly two months, more planners are booking business (39%) rather than just looking (35%). The number of planners who are not working and not even keeping in touch with suppliers declined from 9 to 5%.
Working with suppliers is still a challenge for planners, a consistent 65% of whom report difficulty in getting business done. This is likely influenced by the dramatic 51% unemployment rate in the travel industry.
A positive sign, however, is that a growing number of planners are reaching out to these partners. Just 9% of respondents report they have not attempted to contact suppliers, down from 13% two weeks ago.
• More planners look to 2021 and beyond
More new bookings are shifting out of this year and into 2022. While a consistent 64% expect to hold newly scheduled events in 2021 at the earliest, those planning live events for this year dropped by 4% points (to 25%), while the number of respondents who will push new meetings into 2022 rose by 4% points (to 11%).
For rescheduled events, however, 43% intend to meet during this calendar year, and another 29% will go forward with postponed meetings in Q1 2021 at the earliest.
• Planners want flexible contract terms
With the uncertainty of civil unrest compounding COVID-19 related concerns, many planners are hesitant to sign contracts with strict cancellation and attrition terms. In fact, the majority expect suppliers to be more forgiving on such clauses for future bookings. Nearly one in four think contracts will allow for cancellation with no penalties, while nearly half (46%) believe cancellation terms will be more flexible.
However, given the hardship suppliers are experiencing, and the possibility of reduced inventory and high demand, 21% of respondents anticipate even more stringent contract terms for new business.
• Outlook for future events is improving
Even when the threat of COVID-19 has passed, respondents expect to be planning fewer in-person events overall. However, results show a small uptick in those who expect to hold more events (from 5 to 7%).
Respondents are more decisive about future plans, as evidenced by a decline in those who say it's "too soon to know' (from 28 to 22%) and a an increase in planners who say the volume of meetings post-crisis will be "about the same" (from 31 to 35%).
This week marks a particularly positive shift for future regional and local events. While planners consistently foresee a significant decline in the number of international and national events they will plan, they now expect to hold more events close to home.
• Small meetings will see the largest growth
The largest events will see the greatest decline in numbers, but the extent of those declines has softened considerably, particularly for events of 1,000 and more attendees. Only the smallest events will see an overall rise in volume, with the greatest growth in gatherings of 15 or fewer participants, followed by meetings for 15 to 50.
• Virtual events will not meet all needs
Attendees are likely to find value in virtual events, but planners have a very low level of confidence in the ability of such meetings to satisfy sponsors. As for overall business objectives, expectations for success are moderate.
Even for attendees, just 38% of planners anticipate a high level of satisfaction with digital gatherings. "Our events are very social along with being informative," commented one respondent. "Losing the in-person experience reduces a big portion of why people attend."
For many, getting up to speed on digital alternatives is a significant source of stress. "I have 30 years of live event experience," commented one survey respondent. "I'm concerned about not being able to provide the same level of expertise with virtual events."
• With safety comes skepticism
For the strong majority of planners, a range of health-safety measures will be on the agenda for upcoming events. Results have shown a steady rise in those who plan to implement temperature checks or other health-screening protocols, now at 52%.
Comments reveal some skepticism about safety measures, however. "Much of what is being suggested by industry professionals is an overabundance of caution," said one respondent, adding: "In practice, most of the suggestions are impractical. I don't see people keeping six feet apart on the dance floor or sitting two people per 6-foot table. It's not gonna happen."
Of areas of great concern, 52% worry that business travel restrictions will prevent people from attending meetings. Worries have intensified in recent weeks regarding F&B safety, deemed highly concerning to 46% of respondents, and F&B pricing (42%).
• Changing rules present challenges
With each state in the US setting its own pace and establishing its own rules for group gatherings, it is difficult for meeting planners to know where and when meetings will be permitted. Asked one survey respondent: "Who is going to keep track so that we know if we are complying with all state regulations?"
Please share your experiences
Northstar Meetings Group's Pulse Survey is conducted every two weeks, capturing changes in sentiment and expectations as the meetings industry responds to new challenges and imperatives brought by the worldwide pandemic. Meeting planners are encouraged to participate in every Pulse Survey, so that we may share the most accurate and up-to-date perspective on your collective needs with industry stakeholders worldwide. Respondents may receive the results in advance of publication, if they so choose.
Please click here to participate in the next survey; it will close on Tuesday, 16 June 2020.
This is an abridged version of an original article that first appeared in Northstar Meetings Group.