Face masks will be meetings attire for the foreseeable future: Pulse Survey

Uncertainty remains the biggest obstacle for event planners globally, while confidence in international meetings wanes, according to Northstar's latest Pulse Survey results.

With a surge in COVID-19 cases in the United States and the return of tighter restrictions in Europe, meeting planner confidence is waning, confirmed Northstar Meetings Group's latest Pulse Survey, which drew 1,160 meeting planner responses from around the world.

Fewer planners are actively booking business; in fact, cancelling or rescheduling has become the primary job function of 60 per cent of respondents. And, as more turn toward virtual-meeting platforms, they question whether such events can meet business needs.

These findings are "closely tracking with the situation on the ground," commented industry consultant John Nawn, co-founder of the Event Strategy Network. He recently conducted research for a client on attendees' willingness to travel and meet in-person. "Interest waned as the virus spread, so they cancelled their event for Q3 2020," he noted.

NMG’s Pulse Survey, launched in March 2020, tracks how the global pandemic has affected meeting planners, including their job status, business plans and projections for the future of their events.

Click here to take the current August survey.

Following are key findings from the most recent Northstar Meetings Group Pulse Survey.

Job #1: Postponing Meetings

Sixty per cent of planners now say their primary job function is to reschedule or rebook meetings and events. Another 27 per cent are spending most of their time researching for possible future events, but not booking any business. Just five per cent are focused on contracting for new meetings.

Elsewhere in the world, there’s a bit less emphasis on rebooking, with a higher percentage of planners actively researching and sourcing for new business. However, a consistent five per cent of respondents from the U.S., U.K. and Europe, and four per cent from Asia, cite booking new business as their primary responsibility right now.

Prospects Dim for 2020

Just four weeks ago, 40 per cent of meeting planners expected to hold rescheduled events during this calendar year, according to the Pulse Survey’s June 17 findings. With increasing uncertainty and rapidly rising COVID-19 cases in the U.S., that number has declined to 25 per cent, per the latest results. More than half (56 per cent) are now eyeing the first half of 2021 as the earliest time frame for rescheduled meetings, while 17 per cent are pushing dates into the latter half of 2021 or beyond.

The falling numbers for this year are in line with what other industry organisations are finding, according to Breden of the Center for Exhibition Industry research. "About 73 per cent of our survey respondents will now not hold their events this year," she said. "And the remainder are looking for some type of contingency plan, either a hybrid or purely virtual event."

For new events, too, dates are shifting to later in 2021. Seventeen percent of respondents don’t expect to hold new events until the fourth quarter of 2021 or later, up from 14 per cent in June. There’s a notable contrast by region, however, with significantly lower confidence among U.S. respondents. Fifty-eight per cent of planners in the U.K., for example, plan to hold live events this year or in the first quarter of 2021.

Uncertainty Is the Biggest Obstacle

The variability of COVID-19 cases by state and country is the most significant factor affecting planners’ ability to schedule in-person meetings. A close second is inconsistent guidelines and/or protocol enforcements by state/country, followed by concern over business conditions and budget cuts, which had long been the top worry among planners.

"The back-and-forth dance of open, close, open, close makes it impossible to plan for in-person events," lamented one respondent. "Opinions and perceptions change daily."

"The agony just continues," said another planner. "I have cancelled August conferences now, and cancellations will likely spread into September, October, November and December."

Flexible Contracts Will Help

With increasing uncertainty, planners are hesitant to commit to typical contract terms. Nearly one-third (29 per cent) of meeting planners now expect that contracts will allow for cancellation without penalty, up from 25 per cent in June, and another 51 per cent believe those terms will be more forgiving.

"Pricing and contracting must change — in buyers’ favour — to get meetings back," noted one planner.

The Future Holds Fewer Meetings

Confidence in the frequency of future events has dipped month over month. Thirty-seven per cent of planners now expect to plan fewer meetings, even 12 to 18 months after the threat of COVID-19 has passed, up from 34 percent in June.

The greatest declines are expected in international events, followed by national and regional gatherings. Confidence in local events has waned, too. About one in four planners (27 per cent) believe they’ll hold more local events post-COVID, down from 36 per cent in June.

With the increase in cases cited as a key factor impacting meeting and event planning in the U.S., expectations for the current year have sunk significantly. More planners are currently looking a year out (or later) to book their new events. In the meantime, if and when they can meet, they'll require (and supply) face masks.

Face Masks Will Be Meetings Attire

Safety protocols remain high on the agenda for future events, with more than 80 per cent of respondents planning to implement physical distancing, signage, hand sanitiser and other best practices. Seventy per cent will mandate the use of face masks as a condition of attendance, and 72 per cent will provide masks on-site. More than half (56 per cent) will require participants to sign liability waivers to acknowledge possible health risks.

Nawn questioned why one-third of respondents don't intend to require masks. "Why are only 70 percent mandating and supplying face masks? Why isn't this 100 percent? What's the reluctance about?"

Virtual Meetings Will Evolve

As more respondents are likely to have experienced digital events in recent weeks, confidence in their value for participants has improved, while they’re less certain of the value proposition for suppliers. Planners are evenly split on whether such gatherings will fulfill overall business objectives.

One sentiment is universal: Nothing can replace the face-to-face experience. "Virtual events have been added to our portfolio, but in-person events will remain key," commented a planner.

Many realise, however, that they'll need to get comfortable planning and producing digital events. Nearly 80 per cent expect an increased need for virtual event platforms. "Virtual/hybrid meetings are here to stay," said a respondent. "We need to become/get experts on the technology and methodology to have successful meetings."

We're Craving In-Person Connections

Many verbatim comments underscored the business need, and personal craving, for face-to-face gatherings. "Relationships are key to business success, and they can't be made and cultivated virtually. Meetings and events are essential to business development," a planner told us. "There’s both a direct and indirect relationship between meetings and economic growth. We won't have a healthy travel industry or overall economy without being able to gather again."

"Meeting in-person will not depend so much on what we do now, but how comfortable people will be conducting business in-person in the future," Nawn added. "And unfortunately, we have little control over that. That's not an argument for doing nothing. It's an argument for focusing on what we can control, like how to meet safely, and letting go of what we can't control, like when we meet. In this time of crisis lies a real opportunity, if we're bold enough to seize it, to reimagine what business we're really in and what value we bring to our stakeholders. It's more than just events."

Don't Expect a Return to 'Normal'

"With the resurgence in COVID cases around the country, I feel less confident that anything resembling 'normal' will happen in the short term," commented a survey respondent.

"Regardless of what we do, the prognosis of the virus is going to dictate the progress of the industry and the return to 'business as unusual,'" said Nawn, "because when we do meet in-person again, there will be little that's 'usual' about it."

Please click here to participate in the next survey; it will close on Tuesday, 25 August 2020.

This is an abridged version of an original article that first appeared in Northstar Meetings Group.