The Impact of Coronavirus on Meetings and Events

COVID-19 has created an unprecedented disruption that requires a new look at the world of meetings and events. After physical distancing, people will be eager for authentic face-to-face interaction, but also more health-conscious than ever before. To shed more light on how corporate events will adjust, Brightspot has been holding a series of webinars to focus on:

Incentive Travel (May 7)
Meetings and Events (May 14)
Roadshows (May 21)

It is evident there is a desire in the industry to not only understand what the “next normal” will look like but how we can start preparing for it now so programs can resume as soon as possible and are executed safer than ever before.

The 12 points covered below come from the webinar focused on Meetings and Events; however, some of these points also crossover from the previously posted blog on the impact of coronavirus on incentive travel.

2020 View on Meetings

The first expectation we’ll look at is the view for the rest of 2020. The below graph from the Incentive Research Foundation shows a survey from April 2-16 that interviewed companies on their plans for incentive travel programs planned in 2020. We then compared the responses with what we’ve experienced with our meetings and events scheduling at Brightspot (marked with a Brightspot badge). After the survey closed, over the last two weeks of April more trips shifted from Q3/Q4 to 2021 (see changes on first two bars).

While this graph does reflect Incentive Travel, we feel the same could be said for meetings and events.

IRF Survey for Incentive Travel Outlook on COVID-19

IRF Study showing companies’ plans for programs compared to what we’ve seen at Brightspot

Brightspot has been working hard to accommodate changes in scheduling for our clients’ meetings, thus, having fewer programs cancel. Instead, we have seen a large number of meetings moved to 2021 and even a handful to 2022. Because of this, fewer programs are trying to relaunch in Q3 and Q4 of 2020, making our outlook for the rest of the year even more reserved than the IRF respondents.

Despite the setbacks to 2020 schedules, there is an emphasis on the safety of attendees and planners, as well as the fear of having to reschedule once again later in the year due to any possible return of travel bans or shelter-in-place laws. The biggest takeaway: 2020 may not see as big of a return of meetings as we’d prefer, but postponing is a better option than canceling. Meeting attendees will want to return when it becomes safer to travel, and canceling will mean a bigger blow to budgets in the long run.

Consumer Psyche

Health concerns, quarantines, and travel shutdowns have certainly damaged consumer confidence, but research is indicating an increase in traveler optimism. A consumer survey conducted by the online booking site Skyscanner suggests that 85% of Americans believe it will be safe to fly domestically by this fall and 74% think an international flight will be safe.

traveler perception covid-19

North American travelers response for “when will it be safe to travel again?”

global travel after coronavirus

Global travelers response for “when will it be safe to travel again?”

Another survey conducted by iVisa, an online travel visa processing website, first asked North Americans when they would consider traveling again, and 43% indicated they would be willing to travel July – September. When a global audience was asked the same question, 29% indicated they would be willing to travel July – September, with that number increasing in the fall months.

As lockdown restrictions begin to ease up, these numbers will be increasing weekly as people become more comfortable and willing to travel again. Our thoughts are that if extreme measures, such as temperature checks, are still being required in the fall, business travel will likely not pick up. Reasonable precautions, such as washing hands, using hand sanitizer, and maybe even masks (on flights only), should not deter traveling.

Preferred Destinations

One of the more common questions we have received is, “where will meetings return first?” We’ve seen that North America, Mexico, Canada, and Hawaii are perceived as safer destinations with returns for corporate events poised for Q3 and Q4 of 2020. Travelers will be more willing to stay domestic, as opposed to putting their passport to work. While there are a handful of riskier exclusions, such as Las Vegas, these destinations should be on schedule for a late 2020 return to form (barring any further setbacks.)

North America perceived to be safer for incentive travel after COVID-19

On the flip side, countries that were hit harder by COVID-19 like Italy, Spain, and China are going to suffer from the adverse press and will have to overcome a perception challenge well into 2021. Cruise ships all over the globe can also expect a more prolonged setback due to news of vessels stuck at sea with passengers that contracted coronavirus early-on in the outbreak.

Destinations with perception problems for travel after COVID-19

Please note that these perceptions are coming from a North American point-of-view. We have seen reports from countries across the Atlantic that North America, in their opinion, will not be prepared for a return to international meetings in 2020. It seems wherever you are, there is an emphasis on staying closer to home. The last thing attendees want to happen is to be stuck in another country if anything unfortunate were to occur either at home or abroad.

Sourcing/Screening

Most of us likely already have a Risk and Safety Assessment that we send to vendors prior to program operations to better understand their processes and procedures during an emergency. We suggest that you add COVID-19 specific questions and send this to your vendors in the sourcing phase so you can ensure the destinations and properties you are considering will provide a safe, healthy, and hygienic environment for your attendees.

Some questions to include:

• What are their sanitizing and cleaning practices in guest rooms and public spaces?
• Does the destination have quality healthcare to handle COVID-19 cases?
• What are the # of reported cases in that destination?
• Are they testing their employees before they can come back to work?
• How have their food handling practices been adjusted since COVID-19?

Another item to consider when sourcing is meeting room capacities. With the need for physical distancing, the maximum room capacity is going to shrink by approximately two thirds. We demonstrate this below in the next section. Hotels allocate the amount of meeting space they give you to the number of room nights you contract. This ratio is going to change drastically now as you will need more space for fewer people.

With regards to hotel contracts and Force Majeure, we are finding most hotel brands are offering more flexibility than just Force Majeure, in terms of moving dates and deposits with very small penalties. In general, most are going above and beyond the terms stated in the contracts to help our clients, and we feel this trend will continue.

Meet Smaller

Meeting planners are going to need to be creative and resourceful to accommodate physical distancing in room set-ups.

• Instead of one meeting of 300, shift to three groups of 100 or even smaller.
• Split the meeting out by regions or districts to make it possible for attendees to drive if they are still uncomfortable flying.
• Have meetings happen simultaneously, where you could have one General Session that is telecast to all locations., This allows attendees to experience your keynote speaker as well as provides your senior leadership the opportunity to address the company at one time. One drawback to this is that it will impact your budget significantly. A more cost-effective option would be to have the meeting in one location but to host waves of smaller groups of attendees.
• For breakout sessions, consider having the attendees stay in the room and have the speakers rotate. Brightspot did this for a conference earlier this year and it worked better than anticipated. Less movement meant less opportunity for contamination and much more control. While this is suitable for a corporate meeting, it’s not recommended for a user conference where individuals might have a different learning track and have signed up for the sessions that are more specific to their job.
• For user conferences, it might be beneficial to record your sessions and have them available for “pay-per-view” at a later date. While having a cameraman and audio tech in each room can be expensive, charging a fee to view the recorded sessions would help offset some of those costs.

meeting space before covid-19

From 528 people at 3 per 6’ table…

meeting space after covid-19

…to 176 people at 1 per 6’ table

So as you can see from the room diagrams above, the “meeting smaller” is going to be the norm for a while as room capacities are reduced to allow for physical distancing.

Meet New Ways

Before COVID-19, we were already talking about trends that can mix up the corporate meeting experience, such as using mixed seating or 2nd tier destinations. The current circumstances will likely expedite a few innovations. We have all heard of Bleisure (business mixed with leisure-type experiences), and this might be more relevant now than ever. We heard last year that 88% of millennial business travelers said that job-related travel affected their overall job satisfaction, showing that where we host our meetings matters a great deal. Meeting planners can lean on this by using their destination to act as the primary attraction and give attendees more time to explore instead of keeping them together for extended periods of time

We can make physical distancing feel a little more normal if we find creative ways to offer room setups with mixed seating setups and look at alternative ways to engage. Below are a few fun examples. Instead of packing people into a bar for a cocktail reception, look to set up more intimate areas for smaller groups to gather, which promotes more meaningful connections.

Food & Beverage

Food and beverage is an area that we will see a great change in events moving forward. Many of these changes occurred during the SARS outbreak as well, so we hope that eventually, we will get back to standard practices for F&B. However, for the foreseeable future, we will see some, if not all, of these changes:

Room service for breakfast is probably the safest idea to reduce the # of times you bring the group together. Depending on the size of your group, this could put a strain on the hotel, but with the right planning, could be done smoothly.

Box lunches are always an option, but creativity would be necessary to keep them from getting boring!

Buffets are still possible but will look very different. They will be single-sided with hotel staff serving to keep fewer people touching utensils. However, this will cause lines to back up, especially if we must keep physical distancing. So, an alternative could be to have more stations available and to section-off the tables, while assigning attendees to specific stations.

Also, keeping less food on display and replenishing often would help limit the amount of food touched and possible contamination.

No more butler passed hors d’ oeuvres or self-serve stations for receptions.

Having more bars in the space will help prevent congestion.

Offering plated dinners is likely the easiest solution for service but not the most ideal for the attendees as it limits their options.

Typical items such as salt and pepper shakers, sugar holders, condiments, salad dressing, etc. will no longer be part of the table set up. Instead, attendees will have to ask the waiter for those items. The waiter will bring and remove the items immediately and sanitize in between guests.

Coffee breaks will need to be prepackaged items such as chips, nuts, candy bars, yogurt, granola bars. Fruit and cookies will all need to be individually wrapped. Hotel servers will need to be at the break to assist with service of beverages and snacks.

Less-Social Events

If your evening events typically include a Welcome Reception and Awards Dinner, consider combining those events into one to limit the number of times you are bringing the entire group together.

As we mentioned above, you will need more space for your meetings and the same applies to your social events as well. You will need to allow for more spacing at cocktail receptions and seat fewer people at rounds for meals.

Space out every other table to avoid overcrowding and maintain separation

Take advantage of outdoor space when it is available (weather permitting) and be certain that the back-up space is larger and allows guests to still maintain the space for physical distancing. While “intimate cozy-gatherings” may be a thing of the past, that feeling can still be created with the right layout and furnishings in a larger space.

Exhibits Spread Out

While many of our meetings have had to pivot to an online format, a lot of our events include an exhibit or trade show element that has different needs. Most of these exhibits and demos are very hands-on or tactile and include elements that are difficult to reproduce virtually, even in the best virtual reality settings. Many of the next normal exhibit setups will be the same as what we previously discussed with meeting room setups, but with traffic flow being a major focus.

We will see everything from one-way aisles and increased space between booths or demos, to scheduling 1:1 appointments with a no physical contact policy. Handshaking has been replaced with the elbow bump (temporarily!). Floor distance markers can be done creatively by branding and theming. In the short term, conference swag may be more hygiene related!

Virtual (But Not Bad Virtual)

There are those that are predicting the “death” of face-to-face meetings, and virtual will be the new standard. However, it seems like we’ve heard this every year since virtual meetings started taking place before COVID-19, and more and more, we see that humans can’t seem to get away from one another. Attendees crave personal interaction, and a virtual meeting doesn’t quite hold up to the real thing.

That doesn’t mean that virtual meetings are a bad thing! Utilizing virtual meetings to fill in the gaps in the interim is a cost-effective and safe way to get connected. Major caution here: good virtual meetings are effective, bad virtual meetings are a nuisance.

Virtual meetings are great for short meetings that have few attendees. We’ve all seen the Zoom calls with over 25 webcams active at the same time and wind up just staring at the presentation and presenter. Keep virtual meetings reserved for fewer participants to make more of a connection.

Avoid lengthy presentations for virtual as well. As difficult as it is capturing someone’s attention with a presentation in person, imagine someone at a computer with infinite distractions a click away. Brevity and direct messaging will be key in the virtual meeting world. Invest in better graphic design, videos, and a little production value to make attendees think twice about looking at the other tab on their browser.

There’s an App for That

Meeting apps have only recently started to catch on as a best practice for programs but will start becoming a near necessity in the post-COVID environment. Not having printed materials handed out and touched by staff and attendees is a major health-conscious decision. Having an app that contains conference agendas, handouts for all sessions, maps of meeting space, safety instructions, and information on the destination will be more valuable than ever.

COVID-19 incentive travel app

Besides the prevention of contamination, apps also offer a significant benefit to safety in the way of acting as an emergency notification system. Push notifications from the app can alert attendees of critical safety updates immediately and give specific direction to program participants in a uniform manner.

Attendees can also use the program’s app to communicate with other attendees via an in-app chat feature and message board. While cutting back on face-to-face time is not a popular decision, for the foreseeable future, finding safe alternatives for authentic interaction will be a crucial point of interest for meetings.

Budget Impact

Safety is going to come at a cost, and expenses will increase:

• Transportation costs will increase due to fewer people per vehicle
• Larger meeting space is going to be needed to accommodate for physical distancing
• Larger banquet space is going to be needed to allow for fewer people at tables
• More tables mean more linens and décor, which means more budget
• More staff is going to be required to ensure that the vendors and hotels are following appropriate standards for cleaning and sanitation
• More hotel staff will be required for events, and the hotel will need to offset these expenses with increased menu prices, room, rentals, and labor costs

While expenses will undoubtedly increase, attendance will inversely decrease, creating a problematic scenario for meeting planners and the companies they serve. In a few cases, we have seen almost 50% of proposed attendance and room block for meetings returning in Q4 2020.

With fewer attendees and higher costs comes a difficult budget conversation. Public companies may have to go through two or three budget cycles to replenish a program budget, so we expect those large organizations to take longer to bounce back. In most cases, however, we are hopeful for a return to form by Q1 2021 without a significant setback.

Be sure to tune-in for the upcoming webinar in the “Next Normal” series for what to expect after COVID-19 for roadshows. You can also catch up on the “next normal” for incentive travel in last week’s blog post

Special thanks to the webinar panelists Mike May, Kim Fox, Julie Blank, and Michael Butler plus the Re-Imagine Meetings Task Force of Nicole Chattin, Holly Swanzy, Christie Holland, Phoebe Wright, Courtney Neunaber, Allie Scott, Carson Fitzgerald, Sydni Winston, Julie Blank, and Heather Garcia.

Kim Fox

Author Kim Fox

Director, Meetings & Incentive Travel | Providing an exceptional experience for attendees that result in them feeling valued by their company, empowered with knowledge and inspired and motivated to excel.

More posts by Kim Fox

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