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
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
"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.