The meetings and events industry is a key aspect of business travel, but ongoing travel restrictions and second wave precautions mean it is going to be a slow take-off to recovery

22 July, 2020

Whether it conferences, conventions, incentive travel, exhibitions, festivals, the meetings and events industry is a major component of the corporate travel sector. Business events are estimated to be a USD1.5 trillion business alone and that doesn’t even include the full spectrum consumer events that bring people together.

The problem is we can no longer bring people together in the same way due to Covid-19 health restrictions and although in many countries the doors are being opened to the return of physical events, these are still restricted to small scale events with physical distancing an essential ingredient. The traditional handshake networking or speed dating concepts that are at the heart of most events are certainly not on the agenda for the foreseeable future.

The industry has adapted to technology and virtual events have become the norm throughout lockdown; a move to a hybrid concept has also been developed by some of the more innovative event providers but remains a struggle as concerns over second waves of Covid-19 infections increase, especially evident right now across parts of Europe and Australia.

The Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) has now released Business Events Compass – an actionable framework of insights and strategies for business event professionals and their business partners to guide their careers and businesses during the pandemic and beyond.

The report provides explicit research-based insights on geographic and industry sector business events recovery opportunities as well as recommendations for the evolution of participant engagement, business models and expected reskilling needs.

Its findings are collated from thousands of meeting and event planners, chief human resources officers, and event participants who participated in six PCMA think-tank events plus several business sentiment surveys.

It is described as “arguably the business events industry’s most comprehensive research undertaking since the 2009 economic significance studies,” by PCMA chair Valerie Sumner and provides some key insights for the future of the sector.

Most significantly it highlights that business event professionals, chief human resource officers and event participants all agree that face-to-face events cannot be fully replaced by digital alternatives, but their best case economic recovery scenario (with the virus contained) for business events is currently estimated to be 3Q 2021.

That would mean around a year-and-a-half without traditional face-to-face events, but the speed of business events recovery varies significantly by global region, industry economic sector and event experience type and it is anticipated that smaller locally focused business events will thrive in the initial recovery, driven by organisational business meetings and smaller scale conventions, conferences or congresses. Incentive experiences and exhibitions will recover much more slowly.

In terms of geography, the report highlights some key differences. Some large meeting destinations, including Boston and Chicago, currently require the development of a treatment or a vaccine before they will allow large in-person events. Philadelphia won’t allow large events until Feb-2021, while Los Angeles, New York, Canada, and Italy have indefinite bans on large gatherings.

We have seen many mixed messages on general travel sentiment and the same could be said of event attendance, based on the PCMA research. This found that over a third (39%) of business event participants 25-49 years age bracket expect to attend the same or more business events in 2021 than they did in 2019, but this level more than shrinks to just 17% for participants in the 50+ years category.

With the pandemic continuing to impact economies, travel demand and health and safety regulations around the world, PCMA and its research partners aim to continue to collect data to identify changing trends. But the doors are opening and businesses are adjusting to the ‘new normal’.

In the United Kingdom the government has given the green light for conferences and exhibitions to return in England from 01-Oct-2020, but these must be delivered in a “Covid secure way, subject to the successful outcome of pilots," the UK prime minister Boris Johnson explained.

“There’s a balance. We have learnt a lot of lessons during this crisis, about the potential of technology, but I think there are also limits to this technology and is no substitute for face-to-face meetings and interactions,” he said.

Businesses across the entire meeting and event space are already repositioning themselves for the return as perfectly highlighted by Hilton’s EventReady with CleanStay, the next phase of the company’s recently launched Hilton CleanStay programme and designed to deliver industry-leading cleanliness and customer service specific to the needs of meetings and events. This includes specific cleanliness protocols, book-to-billing flexibility and safe and socially responsible solutions.

There are clear forward steps being taken within and to support the meetings and events industry but there is no golden ticket to recovery and there remains a huge number of factors that will influence the renewal and rebuilding of the embattled industry.