Meeting planners in the West adjust their expectations

The latest Pulse Survey by Northstar Meetings Group reveals sentiments of 736 planner respondents, with the majority in the US, followed by Canada and Europe

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USA - Meeting planners have adjusted their expectations for when live events will resume, revealed Northstar Meeting Group's latest Pulse Survey. The majority (58%) still expect to hold meetings in this calendar year, but this is down significantly from 71% two weeks ago. While most are still working full-time, they have grown a bit more hesitant to put new business on the books.

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 latest finding is based on 736 planner respondents, with the majority headquartered in the US, followed by Canada and Europe. Survey participants represent a wide range of industry segments, including association and convention planners (41%), third parties (24%) and corporate planners (21%).

Looking, not booking
While unemployment has risen in the US, job losses for meeting planners did not increase in recent weeks: 83% of meeting planner respondents report they are working full-time, consistent with the previous survey. However, the nature of their business has shifted somewhat from booking to just looking.

Last month, 40% of respondents were still sourcing and booking business, according to our previous survey, conducted from 14-21 April. That number declined to 31% in the subsequent 14 days, while the percentage of those doing the legwork toward future events but not making decisions rose from 31 to 43%.

It has been difficult to reach suppliers, which is likely due to layoffs and furloughs. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of respondents have had difficulty doing business, up from 59% last month.

Next year
Many who were bullish on holding their rescheduled meetings this year have tempered their expectations. Those who intended to go ahead in 2020 with the meetings they had put on hold dropped to 58%, down from 71%. More of that business will roll into 2021, as 39% foresee holding those delayed events next year at the earliest; another 3% will wait until 2022 or beyond.

In setting dates for new (not rescheduled) events, 50% of respondents will wait for the first half of 2021, and 10% will opt for the second half of next year at the earliest, representing a 10-point shift in sentiment from the previous survey toward holding new events in 2021 rather than 2020. Another 9% will not book until 2022 or later.

Shift in size and type of meetings
Almost half of respondents planned more than 12 meetings per year in 2019. Will they plan fewer events in 2021? That is the expectation for 30% of respondents, up from 27% previously. Many who said it was "too soon to know" in the previous survey now expect to plan fewer meetings post-crisis.

Findings show a shift in the size and type of meetings to be held next year. Small and local meetings will become more prevalent, while the largest and farthest meetings decrease in number.

26% of planners will hold more local events, and 22% expect a rise in regional events after the threat of COVID-19 has passed. Meanwhile, fully 50% anticipate planning fewer international events, and 38% are bracing for a decline in trade shows and exhibitions.

The best-performing property types based on the difference between planners who expect to use them more frequently versus less frequently were suburban hotels, followed by boutique hotels, resorts, downtown hotels and golf resorts. Some three-quarters of the respondents who book each of these venue types expect no change in the number of meetings they hold at these venue types.

Cruise ships, however, stand to lose the most future meetings business, with just 30 percent of respondents saying they would select this venue type at about the same frequency after the pandemic.

Top planner concerns
Planners' biggest concerns are about factors that could make it impossible or not feasible to hold face-to-face meetings at all. At the top of the list is the worry that corporate policies will restrict or prohibit business travel, followed by reduced demand and insufficient budgets. In terms of logistics for meetings that do go forward, a growing majority are anxious about implementing new best practices for gatherings, and about the ability of hotels and venues to meet more stringent health and safety standards.

As they look toward future events, the need for new products, services and expertise is apparent to the strong majority of planners. The greatest needs, cited by 84%, are for virtual event platforms.

Another 77% will depend on virtual site visits and 66% cited a need for virtual hosted-buyer events and FAMS as they make their destination and venue decisions.

In addition to reliance on virtual tools, planners recognise the need to educate themselves on health and safety requirements (84%) and engage medical advisory services (74%). Nearly as pressing, more than two-thirds say they will need to understand and address new legal concerns, and 55% expect to retain professional legal advisory services.

These findings indicate that a growing number of planners realise the post-COVID world will require completely new protocols for the foreseeable future.

Feedback from planners
"It would be nice to have all hotel companies share what they are doing across the brands for both guest and staff safety. We need to create benchmarks that all will have to have in place, and provide one message to all so we get it right."

"We are worried about the psychological effects this will have on travellers. It will take them some time to want to meet as a group again. Costs will also increase due to safety and health measures instituted by air and hotel partners."
"My biggest concern is...when will it end? I have done a ton of research on virtual platforms and have attended many online events; however, they just are not the same!"

Very eager to meet again
A large-scale study released by Enigma Research, supported by the Northstar Meetings Group and its SportsTravel brand underscores the need to implement new safety measures, while also painting a very favourable picture that should allay any fears about demand. The survey of 2,000 event-goers concluded that 94% of respondents "very much" or "somewhat" miss attending live events.

90% are likely to return to large trade shows and conferences when they resume. In fact, 36% will do so immediately, and another 23% will wait just one to four weeks. Just 18% will wait until a vaccine is available before attending large events.

New protocols will up the odds of getting them there. For example, simply providing hand-washing stations and sanitisers throughout a venue would make 75% of those surveyed more likely to attend a live event. Only 36% of those surveyed would prefer that all attendees wear masks.

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 the next Pulse Survey, so that we may share the most accurate and up-to-date perspective on your collective needs with industry stakeholders worldwide.