By Kaitlin Dunn, Writer, Hospitality Sales & Marketing International (HSMAI)
HSMAI Middle East recently hosted ROC Middle East, a one-day hybrid event that included both in-person and virtual attendees. One of the sessions focused on the future of in-person versus virtual or hybrid events, with Dubai Tourism’s Steen Jakobsen, Knowland’s Kristi White, WiT’s Siew Hoon Yeoh, Accor’s Matthew Roberts, Cvent’s Chris Avery, and Reed Travel Exhibitions’ Danielle Curtis participating in a panel moderated by GVV Barcelo Hotel Group’s Raquel Lopez. Here are key takeaways from their discussion:
The association market will return … eventually. “The association market will be the last to return because it is all based on discretionary funds,” said White, Knowland’s vice president of product management. “I think you’ll see hybrid meetings last longer there than other segments, but people need to come back.
“Most meetings are 100 attendees or fewer,” White said. “Large meetings — 2,000 or more — make up only a small of meetings in the U.S., Asia, and the Middle East. Our industry needs to understand the vast majority of meetings fall into numbers that people already feel comfortable meeting in. There is reason for optimism if we to respond differently. It won’t just fall into our laps. In the hospitality industry, we have seen the death of the sales hunter. We’re used to business falling into our laps. I’m hoping this will reset that. That’s the way we’re going to recover.”
A recent Accor survey showed mixed results. Roberts, Accor’s vice president for sales in the Middle East and Africa, presented takeaways from the company’s MICE (Managing Innovative and Creative Events) survey of 1,800 respondents around the world conducted this summer. Results showed respondents expect a 50-percent reduction across most meeting types (conferences, tradeshows, meetings, etc.) in 2021. In addition, 57 percent of respondents expect spend to decrease in 2021, while 25 percent expect to see no change in spend.
The survey also found that 78 percent of companies are investing in virtual meeting technology, with 49 percent of respondents expecting face-to-face meetings to decline significantly. Two-thirds of respondents said that flexible contracts and financial terms are something that they consider important when making decisions.
Face-to-face events can’t be replaced. “Hybrid events aren’t bad, they can reach a larger audience, and it is cost-effective,” said Jakobsen, associate vice president of Dubai Business Events and City Operations for Dubai Tourism. “But you can’t accidentally bump into someone and start a new business relationship like you can in person. That’s why face-to-face events will remain.
“Technology will continue to develop and be better 12 months from now, but you can’t replicate an in-person event,” Jakobsen said. “Once the vaccine is out, it’s about articulating the value of face-to-face events. People will attend only if it provides value, there is high-quality education, and we can instill confidence. If we can demonstrate that events can take place safely, I’m confident they will come back.”
We’ve been forced to think differently. “It has been quite challenging,” said Curtis, Reed Travel Exhibitions’ exhibition director for the Middle East. “It’s been a valuable learning curve. We’ve been coasting along and trying to give the best value to the industries we run events for, but it’s made us think about what the value is that were trying to create.
“Teaching our teams to sell virtually is a whole different ballgame, but it enabled us to continue the conversations to connect the communities we’re running events for.” Curtis said. “The virtual events enabled us to allow business conversations to continue virtually. Virtual events are not going away, but the education you get from a live event can’t be recreated from a virtual world. We need to embrace hybrid events and understand what our customers are looking for.”
We have to convince attendees to come to in-person events. “Right now, everyone is ready to try something new, so it’s the perfect opportunity for creativity,” said Yeoh, WiT’s founder and CEO. “I think that all physical events will have a virtual component, but not all virtual events will have a physical component.
“The minute restrictions are lifted, people will be back,” Yeoh said. “People want to come back to live events. The key question people will ask is not ‘Will physical events come back?’ but ‘Could I have attended this virtually?’ or ‘What will this do for me physically that I couldn’t get virtually?’. It’s about building networks, knowledge exchange, and the destination experience. We have to ask, ‘What do we have to do to make people want to be there physically?’ One of the lessons I have learned is to put yourself in the customer’s shoes. This is an opportunity to do something new.”
Virtual events are great opportunities — but only if you design them right. “To be successful, we have to look at our people,” said Avery, Cvent’s regional vice president of sales, hospitality cloud. “Cvent Connect usually gets 5,000 attendees, but this year when we hosted it virtually, we had 40,000 attendees. It represents a huge opportunity for people to reach a greater audience.
“But we can’t just take the regular meeting and put cameras on it,” Avery said. “As hoteliers, our biggest fear should be a meeting planner taking a regular meeting, putting it on Zoom, and calling it a hybrid event. Our responsibility is working with event organizers and showing them the greater way they have to run meetings. We have to show the greater value, because if we don’t, hotel ballrooms can be replaced by warehouses. We need to make sure the event is truly hybrid to get the attendance.”