ELBOW BUMP: Meeting attendees are finding new ways to connect these days. For the time being and probably ever after, hotel staff and meeting planners need to accommodate a hybrid of in-person and remote gatherings, experts say.

Hotel Meetings Redefine Face-Time in COVID-19 age

Health and safety concerns amid coronavirus pandemic and mass adoption of communication technology will impact the revival of group business, say experts

The Professional Convention Management Association in March began to ask its members to gauge the state of meetings and group events in the COVID-19 age.

The association had originally thought a one-off survey would suffice in taking the temperature of the meetings and events industry during the crisis, but quickly realized that was not a realistic view. It shifted to surveying members every two weeks. The bi-monthly surveys are called the COVID-19 Recovery Dashboard.

“The business events landscape used to take months and months to change,” the survey authors wrote in the “final” survey taken April 20 through 23. “With the pandemic, it changed overnight and continues to evolve — but even ‘evolve’ doesn’t do our current environment justice because it implies a gradual rather than rapid shift.”

PCMA’s magazine is Convene, which wrote the surveys and analyzed their responses. The association membership includes meeting planners and vendors. Nearly three quarters of the 750 survey respondents are planners.

In a telling statistic, 43 percent of the planners surveyed said they believe the rise of the use of communication technology will “cannibalize” face-to-face attendance at events over the next few months. A few believe the shift will last through 2021.

HYBRID MEETINGS: The Professional Conventions Management Association surveyed more than 500 meeting planners from April 20 to 23. Nearly half (43 percent) believe meetings audience will transition from all face-to-face to a mix of remote and in-person.  PCMA now offers members online certification as a digital event strategist.

In a June 2 webinar on sponsored by the Medical Group Management Association, organizations that were most successful with a virtual-only conference spent one to two months planning and designing the online event before announcing the change to their target audience.

And, webinar presenters noted, “Just because it’s virtual doesn’t mean it’s cheap and easy.”

Altered Landscape

Jeff Loether is founder and president of Electro-Media Design Ltd. He began his career in audiovisual design 40 years ago with Marriott International and has seen technology evolve and improve to provide meeting organizers with the tools to produce successful events in which information is clearly communicated and participants can fully engage.

His work has taken a new angle in the age of COVID-19, and he joins the few planners who think the meetings landscape has changed for the long-term, maybe even forever.

LISTEN: DIGITAL DIVIDES: Listen to Episode 273 of Lodging Leaders podcast which explores the altered state of meetings and events in the hotel industry.

Though the hotel industry expects meetings to slowly resume as the crisis eases, Loether and other experts say group business will not look like it did before the pandemic. Rather, technology and people’s reticence to meet face-to-face will drive the creation of a hybrid form of gathering in person and remotely. Hotels that respond to the emerging trend will come out the winners.

“As a species, we love to be with each other, and we love to communicate with each other,” Loether said. During nationwide quarantines, we have turned to technology to satisfy the need to meet. People have grown accustomed to using what Loether calls “unified collaborative platforms” such as Zoom, Skype and Google Meets to connect remotely with work teams, students, friends and family

This style of screen-based communication has become quite normal for most of us. COVID-19 is still with us and, though the world wants to get back to some semblance of normal, the meetings industry can expect to design a new kind of gathering – a mix of remote and in-person attendance and participation.

Designing effective and successful meetings is going to be a challenge, Loether said.

“It’s fairly new territory. You can’t just take a laptop and sit it in front of the room and expect everyone to have an immersive experience. So we’re studying: How does that work? How do we create an immersive experience for the remote participants, and how do the in-person participants connect with the remote participants in a way that they feel that they’re included, they’re also in the room?”

Until there’s a vaccine for the virus and people truly feel safe again, Loether expects the meetings and event industry to adopt a hybrid of in-person and remote meetings.

REVENUE GENERATION: The Professional Convention Management Association from April 20 to 23 surveyed 750 members – planners and suppliers – to gauge their sentiments on expected the financial return will be meetings and events in the second quarter of this year, the rest of this year and in 2021.

‘It’s Personal’

Whatever shape the event landscape takes, it’s probably here to stay.

Event planners and managers of meeting venues will be feeling their way through the altered reality – all the while being mindful of the event attendees.

“The return is so personal,” Loether said. People’s sense of personal safety differs from one another. A young healthy person may feel less threatened by the virus than an older person or someone with chronic health conditions. “The world doesn’t look safe to everyone in the same way.”

While technology will allow people to “attend” an event by watching and listening, a challenge is finding the solution that allows remote attendees to actually participate in the conversations.

For presenters, it can be even trickier, Loether said. Though conference keynotes and presentations have been recorded or performed remotely for a couple decades now, making it happen seamlessly on modern audiovisual platforms will be a challenge, he said.

It’s a problem that’s in need of a solution fast.

“I’m predicting that half of the audience over the next two years, half the audience for events, significant events, are not going to be physically present,” Loether said. “Half of them will be physically there and half of them are going to be remote.

“I’m also drawing the distinction between a remote attendee and a remote participant. You could stream the visual and audio for someone who just does nothing but sits and listens. But because of this past couple of months of being involved with the unified collaboration platforms, we’re much more comfortable now participating. And a lot of people like to participate and will now want to participate even when they’re not attending in person. It’s going to be hard to bridge that gap.”

Loether is confident the gap can be bridged and audiovisual teams that solve the problem. Also key are planners that think in more hybrid terms when designing an event and hoteliers who take a look at their properties’ infrastructure to determine what needs to change to accommodate the new technology and attract group business.

“That’s where the opportunity lies to help facilities to stand out and say we got the technology and the techniques. We know how to put together a meeting,” Loether said.

WATCH: WHAT IS TECHORATING? Jeff Loether, founder and president of Electro-Media Design Ltd., explains on this TopHotelsProjects video how audiovisual and other meeting-related technology are now being thoughtfully included in the design of hotels and event spaces.

Revival Is Local

While hybrid events are on the minds of those in the meetings sector, PCMA members also shared their view of just when group business will begin to return to a level of normalcy.

In the association’s latest dashboard survey, a significant number of planners said the comeback will start with local and regional events as people will be hesitant to travel to meet people face to face.

In agreement with that outlook is Kristi White, vice president of product management at Knowland, a tech company that watches and analyzes the meetings sector to help hotels connect with planners and attract new business.

White has help hotels navigate through other economic downturns and, while every crisis is unique, the lodging industry typically sees meetings and groups revive in small increments, starting first with local business.

“This is my fifth economic downturn in the hospitality industry,” White said. “What we’ve seen after each economic downturn is the recovery begins in smaller markets first.”

Besides being reticent to put employees on a plane these days for health and safety reasons, companies also are conserving money. Holding meetings in regional drive-to markets is a lot less expensive than flying to destination markets, White said.

Hotel sales and marketing managers that want to attract meeting business probably should have been schmoozing with local companies long before the pandemic struck, White said. “Those are the hotels that typically recover first because they have the local relationship.”

But it’s not too late to start connecting with companies and organizations in your local area to let them know your hotel is clean and safe and ready to handle meetings and events.

WE’RE MEETING, DARN IT: Connect 2020 is an annual event organized by Connect Association, publisher of event and meeting magazines. Connect announced in May it planned to hold its conference in August in New Orleans as planned, stating someone has to be first to gather in the COVID-19 age. In its news release, Connect posted this graphic that outlines the steps it’s taking to ensure health and safety of event attendees. Besides the expected sanitation steps, conference organizers have banned large-audience general sessions.

In many cases, organizations will hold series of meetings throughout the country, eschewing large markets for smaller ones.

White worked at a hotel in Louisiana on 9-11. She saw how quickly corporate meetings shifted to drive-to markets and away from large cities. Hotels in secondary and tertiary markets began to benefit from the shift. Even smaller, limited-service properties reaped the benefits because the meetings were smaller in size. Corporations also split one large event into several smaller regional gatherings.

“Rather than it being a 200-person meeting in Orlando, it can suddenly became five 30-person events. It is the exact same meeting, done as kind of a roadshow across five different regions,” White said. “That’s what we’ve seen happen in every downturn.”

Meetings are taking place in hotels now, White said. These are companies and organizations doing pandemic-related business, such as pharmaceutical companies and health care organizations. Also spotted are regional meetings held by the likes of Amazon and Google.

Most the meetings do not include room nights for now, but White expects bookings to begin to increase in the middle of the third quarter and continue through the rest of the year as Corporate America starts to get back to business in 2021.

White anticipates 15 to 20 rooms at time to start. The smaller the meeting, the shorter the booking window, said White. So it is smart business to begin to market your hotel’s rooms and event accommodations now.

“Hotels are going to have to redefine success,” White said. “Those meetings of 400 to 500 people? We’re a good two years away from that, and we may never get back to that one hundred percent.”

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