By Katey Hubbard, CMP, regional sales director, Groups360
At varying points since the pandemic first engulfed the U.S., industry organizations and publications have been checking in with meeting professionals to gauge their level of confidence in planning and producing live events.
In late spring and early summer, most survey respondents remained optimistic about holding in-person meetings in the fourth quarter of 2020, but as the months wear on and COVID-19 remains an ongoing fixture, the optimism about when face-to-face meetings will recover gets pushed further into the future.
As meeting planners have adapted to the current circumstances, virtual or hybrid events have become a mainstay, but whether the event format will continue to play a central role post-pandemic remains to be seen.
According to Groups360’s most recent research into the shopping and buying experiences of part-time meeting planners, however, these administrative professionals stated that nearly all of their meeting types will return to the face-to-face format as soon as it’s safe to do so. They can’t wait for virtual meetings to be a thing of the past, which is good news to hotels who can accommodate their needs.
Part-time planners arrange a variety of meetings
“I arrange all our board meetings. I’m tasked with planning a two-day speaking and brainstorming session with 20 people. Our board of directors come from all over the U.S., so we also have to schedule flights and hotel rooms.” —Association planner
“There’s often a need to bring people together for trainings. You can only do so much by phone, and sometimes you just want that face-to-face experience, especially if you’re explaining certain things to them. I’m very big on seeing people’s reactions and being able to give feedback right there.” —Corporate planner
“I do a road show each year with about 12 meetings across the U.S., and they range from 10 to 30 people. And I also do the board meetings. I work very closely with the executives.” —Corporate planner
The administrative professionals interviewed in the Groups360 study included executive assistants, office managers and human resource professionals from associations, small businesses and large corporations. Meeting planning is only one of their responsibilities, and though planning is the least favorite part of their job, the meetings they produce are essential business activities.
The many types of meetings these admin planners put together include board meetings, executive team meetings, training classes, team-building events, committee meetings, and road shows. Others include customer meetings, quarterly vendor meetings and smaller events that complement a larger conference, all of which provide numerous opportunities for your hotel.
Canceling meetings due to COVID
After the pandemic put a halt to meetings and events, the professionals in this cohort either canceled meetings or moved them online. When asked how they decided what events to cancel, their responses depended on either the meeting’s intended audience or the nature of content delivery.
Attendees weren’t tech savvy: “We have canceled some of our smaller events because some of our donor members are not as tech savvy. It’s harder for them to get onto these various platforms. Not everybody is as comfortable in this medium.” —Association planner
Certain types of training needed to happen in person: “The training workshops are all canceled, and I don’t have any immediate plans to reset them because they tend to be the wellness types that are better in person. We also do biometric screenings — it’s one of those things where you have to have access, and I have to book some space with particular needs.” —Corporate planner
Team-building meetings just don’t work online: “Fifty people on a Zoom meeting, you’re talking over each other or just one person is talking. And it’s important for us as a department to have that team interaction. So that meeting is completely off the books until we go back.” —Corporate planner
For similar reasons as listed above, these planners also canceled strategic planning meetings and partner council meetings instead of moving them online.
The (temporary) pivot to virtual
“We plan our annual conference over a year in advance because it is so big, and within the last two months we’ve made that completely virtual. So we’re doing a virtual symposium and retreat. It will be eight to five for four days on Zoom.” —Association planner
“We’ve had a few happy-hour Zoom calls that replace our office happy hours. We just had an associate leave, so we had a send-off for them on Zoom.” —Corporate planner
“The executive team was going to get together to talk about strategy, goals and initiatives for the third quarter, and that is now on Zoom. Ideally, they’d be together in person. They always have much more productive meetings when they’re all together. It’s not that the Zoom isn’t productive, it’s just not the same.” —Corporate planner
The meetings that went virtual included board meetings, executive team meetings, investor meetings, staff meetings, annual conferences, social events and new-hire orientations.
The administrative professionals indicated that almost all of their meetings and events will return to the live format as soon as attendees and hosts feel safe doing so. The exceptions are certain sales meetings and staff meetings, which are easy to host online with few logistical issues or hinderances to productivity.
Ready to return to face-to-face meetings
“There’s something about being on a screen — people are busy looking at themselves on the camera and not reacting to what others are saying. When you’re sitting in a meeting room, you can better read people’s expressions or feel the authenticity.” —Association planner
“My colleagues and I are hating the online meetings, just hating it. I mean, it’s easier in terms of scheduling, but if I’m attending a meeting, I prefer to get away from my desk. My coworkers are the same way. As a meeting attendee, I’ll be looking forward to going back to that.” —Corporate planner
According to Jan Freitag, senior vice president at STR, those who predict that Zoom meetings will replace in-person meetings are “suffering from ‘recency bias.’” The part-time meeting planners in our study seem to agree. One sentiment these professionals shared is that Zoom fatigue has set in and their corporate teams are over “the online thing.”
What to do in the meantime
Hotels have been devising creative ways to bring in new business. Some hotels have started promoting suites and meeting space as coworking environments for remote workers. The Marina Bay Sands in Singapore launched the first new hybrid event studio to hold up to 50 people and broadcast events to an online audience. And some hotels are live-streaming their views to keep would-be travelers engaged with their destinations.
But that’s not to say large events aren’t happening at all. In fact, the Georgia Motor Trucking Association successfully hosted 300 people for their annual meeting in Florida in mid-June without any reported COVID cases. And the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association gathered 450 people live in Colorado at the end of July, reminding their attendees to “keep one cow apart” for the safety of “the herd.”
For these part-time planners, when in-person meetings do resume, they’re likely to start small and stay within driving distance of most of their anticipated attendees. As smaller groups arrive at your hotels, a little creativity and attention to detail will help them feel safe at your property.
These part-time planners may not be your usual clients or the ones soliciting space for the largest events, but they will seek you out according to your brand reputation. They are relying on vetted venues because they don’t shop extensively or use much sourcing technology. This group definitely exemplifies meeting planning as a relationship business that relies on trust and transparency for successful transactions.