Will We Ever Meet Again?

Author: 
Paul Nolan

Are companies less likely to embrace meetings and events or is there a pent-up demand for getting together?

When will you feel comfortable flying again? When will you not hesitate to attend a conference where you will file into a room with hundreds of other people? It’s a question without an answer at this point. And when there is an answer, it will likely be different for different people.

Anyone who works for a hospitality provider, conference center, food service company, entertainment venue or other business that serves the meetings and events industry is anxious to determine when people will be willing to gather after the COVID-19 lockdown ends.

Will the meetings and events industry rebound?

It’s surreal to even pose the question. Yet just as companies have gained new insights about their work-from-home capabilities, they may also have a vastly different concept of what business travel makes sense and which meetings and conferences are too important to miss.

In April, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the company is canceling all of its planned physical events with 50 or more people through June 2021 due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

Business travel and the events that companies put on their calendars will look drastically different, at least for the rest of this year and probably beyond.

A Slow Road Back

“Things are going to be permanently changed coming out of this until we get to a vaccine and we can fully vanquish this,” said Scott Gottlieb, a physician and former commissioner of the Food and Drug Association, in an April 5 interview on “Face the Nation.” Gottlieb joins a number of economists who do not expect a classic V-shaped recovery. “There are things that are not coming back. People are not going to crowd into conferences; they’re not going to crowd into arenas. The marginal customer is not going to go back to movie theaters and cruises and Disneyland. We need to accept that.”

Others feel the isolation we have endured will make people more eager to meet in person — or at least they hope that’s the case. When the lockdown was first initiated, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni said he thought people would realize how much can be accomplished “without the muss and fuss of actually meeting in person” and embrace it as a new normal. Within weeks, he was thinking the opposite.

“I know of exactly no one who’s satisfied with this way of doing things. Friends who have scores of faithful email and text-message correspondents tell me that they nonetheless feel out of touch and out of sorts,” Bruni writes. “Colleagues who regarded the occasional opportunity to work from home as a gift concede that the office is looking better and better all the time. It has virtues beyond free pens and paper clips. It has, well, other people.”

We’re More Effective In Person

Carina Bauer, CEO of IMEX Group, also expects the pent-up demand for business that is conducted in person to eventually return. Bauer’s company brings meetings and events suppliers together with buyers who are planning incentive travel programs, corporate events and other large gatherings.

“The business events sector will regain its strength, but it will take time,” she stated in an email exchange with Sales & Marketing Management. “Above and beyond the basic human need to connect is the proven fact that innovation and productivity are better achieved face-to-face. At the end of the day, this is why companies will come back to meeting face-to-face; it is simply more effective, more productive and more innovative when human beings work together in a room and not remotely.”

Changes Afoot

Included in the changes that many expect is an increase in hybrid events that allow for in-person or virtual attendance. “We possibly need venues to look at reducing the maximum number of guests allowed to attend events so that social distancing can be observed in these initial months post coronavirus,” one event planner told Conference & Incentive Travel, a UK-based meetings and events publisher.

In a guest column for the online publication BizBash, event producer Austin Johnston argues that event marketing sponsors should have been creating what he calls “analog experiential” experiences all along. “Quite frankly, experiences should be designed for both” in-person and virtual attendees, he says. “Focus on analog environments that inspire participants to create digital content that is shareable.”

Another event planner told C&IT, “Virtual events are a good stop-gap, but events are about sharing an experience with people — it has been since the first Neanderthals gathered around the campfire — they are an essential part of human society so will come back, but will be changed.”

David Stark, a New York-based event designer, told BizBash, the silver lining to the coronavirus capsizing his industry is the creativity it can spawn. “It’s going to be a new world, and we’re going to have to evolve into what that new world means. It’s not going to be as simple as picking up where we left off. Rather than mourn that, I actually see that as a potentially exciting place for us to invent and create new opportunities within, and thinking a lot about the guest experience. How do we now make people feel comfortable? How do we now deal with content? How do we plan to band together?”

BizBash CEO David Adler suggests creating intimacy by breaking large events into smaller ones that are held simultane-ously, or in Adler’s words, a not-so-new organizational paradigm called the hub-and-spoke method. “Imagine an event for 5,000 people that uses 500 small venues throughout the nation, all connected and interacting as part of the entire spectacle.”

Adler’s model would feature “virtual bridges” that connect venues and individuals. A main hub venue serves as the primary stage with no more than 100 attendees. It will be home base to the presenters and leaders of the sponsoring company. Satellite venues will host groups of 10 to 50. Home participants can also gather in smaller group spokes or individually to connect by the virtual digital bridge.

It’s not ideal, but perhaps it’s a model that can serve as a bridge itself until enough people feel safe to gather in larger groups. Bruni is hopeful that day will arrive as soon as it makes sense.

“I keep thinking of those famous studies about the importance of touch to infants and how those deprived of it suffer greatly. We adults also suffer without it, if not quite as much,” he states. “When we connect only via laptop and smartphone screens, there are no handshakes, no hugs. And when we clink glasses virtually, they don’t make a sound.”