How will the Coronavirus impact the future of the meetings and events industry?

Events everywhere are postponing, cancelling or going virtual. Agencies are closing down. Some of the world’s best venues lay empty. Amazing folks are losing their jobs or being placed on furlough. Truth is, it’s a bit of a shit show right now. 

But as Michelle Obama once said – “You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it’s important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages”. And we’re all certainly having to overcome a challenge or two at the moment, aren’t we? 

We recently asked marketing, events and travel professionals from around the world to predict how the Coronavirus will impact the future of the meetings and events industry and you’re not going to believe some of the responses! 

Aleksandra Panyukhina

Business Event Strategist, Event Madness

Apart from major and obvious change: increased share of online and hybrid events, I believe there will be a few others that will greatly affect the industry.

Unlike before the crisis, in-person events will focus on what online conferences can’t replace. Peer-to-peer interaction, magic of group brainstorming, real connections will be the core of offline events. Rather than 10 hours of sessions in 3 parallel tracks. Keynote style presentations and 1-to-many content will mainly stay for virtual events.

Reversed formula for offline events: all the audience will physically be in the same place, but the speaker can be broadcasted. It’s a shift in mindset from “speakers are to be physically present onsite” to “it can be broadcasted as long as people still can connect”. 

More local, smaller scale intimate events will be on the rise. “Go big or go boutique” will be the motto. Events of mid-range that are neither mass nor provide a feeling of well-connected community will slowly disappear / transition to online formats.

Ana Bistagne

Director of Sales Groups, Hotel Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, Abu Dhabi

Now, as you know I am now based in Abu Dhabi and the situation in UAE is a little bit better than in Europe. But we are missing our high season in terms of business as Ramadan is approaching and then summer is coming. 

Also, the UAE depends a lot on the European, Asian and US markets which have been hit heavily. In terms of conferences and meetings, these days, many webinars are talking about virtual events. 

However, I do not consider that these virtual events will replace the traditional meetings and conferences. Virtual events can be an added tool for the meetings. But this industry is All About Relationships.  You and me and many of our colleagues in the MICE field truly believe in relationships. And we know that after attending a plenary session, the networking is really important. 

The importance of organising a dinner after a long journey of panel sessions and brainstorms in breakout rooms, is something that we cannot miss. Or when pharmaceutical companies organise a conference, salespeople have to deal with the doctors during the coffee breaks or lunch.

Most of the time, business is done during these informal encounters. We build relationships with the human touch, when you feel a connection with another person, and you want to do business with him or her.

So, maybe, now we do not know if people will be willing to travel again, to spend a day in a ballroom full of people, to attend a citywide Congress. But what we are missing now, locked down at home? 

We are missing the human contact. We are missing talking personally with our colleagues and our clients. 

Yes, we’re having many video calls through WhatsApp, Skype and Zoom…. but we are all hoping to get back to the normal life very soon.

Our Mice industry has been hit massively. But I am sure that as we are all doing now, hotels, DMCs, agencies, CVB, meeting planners…we will work as a Great Team to support each of us to raise again our industry and show that We Are All MICE.

Anne Reidy

Founder, Black Tulip Events

I have raised concerns that our industry will change after we get back to normal and we will see a lot of virtual meetings taking place.

Reason for this was that the agency I used to work for have had their two top clients post on LinkedIn about their successful virtual meetings over the last few weeks! These are pharmaceutical companies and I can see having worked with them just how it would be more cost effective and also the logistics of trying to get keynote speakers & clinicians together. Also, the pharma code, whereby we cannot have other pharma’s in house at the same time due to confidentiality, I really can see this as a way forward for the Pharma industry.

Incentives are huge and a great way for celebrating success and boosting moral of which I think we are going to need to see, but are companies going to be able to afford them for the foreseeable future.

F2F MICE is a must, I believe that the best results are gained from face to face meetings and will carry, and we will see Congresses make a comeback as well, suppliers & buyers doing business globally. We will come back; travel is very important we just need to be very patient whilst we get back to near normal.

Chris Walls

Director, Events2 and Alliance of Independent Event Agents

We are in unprecedented times. 

Already the Coronavirus Pandemic has identified a number of weak spots in the relationships that exist between Agencies and Suppliers (specifically Venues). 

Contracts have been found to be incomplete in their coverage and occasionally have exposed one or other of the participating parties to great financial burden.

Memories in these situations are not always short- lived. 

As a Board member of the Alliance of Independent Event Agents,  we have spent much of the last few weeks assisting members with navigation through contracts that have left agents staring down the barrel of  100 % cancellation fees, even though the venue can’t actually deliver the event following the restrictions put in place by the Government. 

Attitudes seem to differ across the supply chain with some venues reacting positively and proactively, to assist clients and agencies by developing solutions that do not penalise either side in this ‘no one is to blame ‘ scenario, whereas a smaller number are using ill- designed, fortuitous, one sided contracts to deliver profits whilst not having to actually open their doors. 

We have already started to help our members produce purchase contracts rather than using traditional supply contracts, hiring on terms that suit the agencies rather than those that suit the venues. 

Additionally, the spotlight has fallen on how the various parties earn revenue from contractual arrangements. Again, we have been helping members to develop clauses that deliver recompense in the case of cancellations. This is another issue that has been thrown up in these unusual circumstances.

Going forward, and in order for the economic and commercial equilibrium to return, a new sense of collaboration is required and the development of a true sense of partnership, where each element of the supply chain is working cohesively towards a common, beneficial goal. 

The ‘take it or leave it’ attitude will hopefully become a thing of the past so that, should, God forbid, another unexpected, unprecedented set of circumstances come along, then the supply chain will work for each other rather than retreating into the current self-preservation silos.

I believe that ‘partnership’ and ‘collaboration’ will very much come to the front of relationships which in itself will probably mean that agents across the country will be reaching for the ‘Teach yourself Contract Law’ handbook. 

This current crisis has probably provided many a sleepless night for the less experienced and less knowledgeable, ‘fair weather’, agents – potential financial exposure to punitive contract arrangements coupled with reduced incomes.The Industry will recover but the suspicion is that the value of equitable partnerships and relationships will become very much more important.

Chris Xenophontos

Director of Global Sales UK & Ireland, Warwick Hotels and Resorts

Thanks for inviting me to comment – I would say that these are my views only and not of Warwick’s or Hotel Republics – and I do not have that crystal ball – otherwise I would be in self isolation on my yacht in the Bahamas writing this right now with all the lottery numbers I predicted over the years!! 

I will try and break it down a little to keep it short…

Technology – There is this mantra that the physical / live meeting will never be replaced by the virtual- well this is now being tested as society and businesses turn to the technological tools available to them right now to replace the physical interaction. 

This is now the catalyst that will bring virtual meetings into our homes and to the mainstream –the longer the crisis continues the more normal this becomes. Hence, we will also see more technological innovation and the desire for more creative content – this is played out every day now and set only to increase.

Going forward event agencies are most likely to offer far more virtual experiences for their clients as part of their overall strategy and as the tools more advance the more immersive they can become. 

This will be trickle down the chain to the venues and hotels who would also have to rethink their approach to the agencies and corporates and what they can offer in this arena. 

Economically – What is also clear is how fragile the hospitality industry is. The global travel eco system has come to a crashing halt and few organisations have the cash reserves to the keep their employee’s and business going hence are turning to the govts programme for assistance – but the reality is no-one will have access to those monies until June and beyond as the UK govt has to deal with the thousands of claims and with little resources to do so it could take months.   

So cashflow will continue to be an issue way beyond the return –so it is inevitable some agencies / venues / airlines / travel agencies etc will not survive and this will only increase consolidation as a buyout will be the ‘only’ way out for some. 

The corporate world constantly re-evaluates its business travel – the need to travel anywhere where business can be done in a virtual context will be further re-enforced, reducing the need to get on plane or any form of transport as a way of mitigating costs  – this will be tied to the organisations sustainability programme and employee corporate responsibility programme – for example why put your employees at risk of further infections. 

Also becoming apparent to organisations is how successful home working can be – so it no doubt some would release their office space and others downsize – creating an whole new army working from home – so the need to physically meet would be reduced substantially with the tools available – moving to maybe more once a week / once month in a live environment. 

Political and Social Mobility – The govt is exploring it exit strategy right now –but it very likely that whatever happens free movement will be restricted for a number of months – and it could be like China whereby some countries may re-close it borders completely to avoid a secondary infection.

Also, the number of meetings/ conferences will also be restricted by the each respective govt guidelines on gathering. 

So, the focus will be on the domestic market. An increase in Q4 is predicted but where will the business be placed is a concern as this is already is full demand and full capacity for many. 

It is likely what was scheduled during this current period of Q2 / Q3 will simply not take place. 

Only until a proper vaccine is produced and introduced will see the anything like previous levels or gathering and events. Some are predicting 18 months. This is without the impact of fully leaving the EU by the end of year (which I guess seems increasingly unlikely and leave or not leave has economic implications) – remember the good old days of Brexit?

Further Innovation – In crisis like these there are always those who look for the opportunities and of course there will be benefactors. 

A few years ago, who would have thought of getting into taxi as frequently as do when we use UBER or stay in someone else’s house or apartment as we do with AIRBNB? These are just 2 companies that started life at the time of the financial crash of 2008/2009. 

There is a race on now to bring new ideas/new technology to life – that in less than 10 years from now will be the norm such is the speed of innovation – holograms anyone?? 5G / 6G? So given the above – in summary – it will invariably be very tough in the short term as everything we once considered the norm will be brought into question and life will be restricted ,  but humans’ natural instinct to connect, survive and adapt will not prevent live meetings / trade show and live experiences from continuing –there is a thirst for travel and the experiential and organisations still need to function – However the lines between the virtual and physical will become more blurred and for our trade more crucially its ability to monetize this will determine how its participants survive and more importantly to thrive. 

Daniel Curtis 

Managing Director, emc3 

By nature, I am an optimistic person but, after the initial shock when the pandemic hit and the realisation of the scale of its impact on our industry, it took me some time to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And there is a light. 

The events industry will not go back to exactly where it was before this, but we will emerge from hibernation, re-define ourselves and move on. 

Virtual conferences and meetings have really come to the fore to fill the void but, once social distancing is relaxed, there will still be the need to congregate to do business; companies will still require meetings, large and small, brands will want to promote themselves face to face with their clients, prospects and partners and Expos will return to support the industries and economies they serve.

Company All-Hands will be essential to re-connect teams and for internal alignment moving forward. I know that after many weeks apart, as a business owner the first thing I will do is to bring our team together to take stock and start the drive into the post-Corona era. 

Traditionally, companies set their all-hand meetings for the start of their financial or the calendar year, but the simultaneous re-opening of offices around the world will be a collective global reset to pipelines and some urgency to get started. 

Whether companies with offices in multiple locations choose to fly everyone to one location is unclear, as it may take some time for travel bans to be lifted, but I can see a high demand for local meetings with video links. If you’d like to discuss your next internal event, get in touch today!

Gina Vavra

Marketing Events Manager, Higher Logic 

Although I believe that a digital event will never replace the impact of an in-person event, moving forward all events will need to have more integrated and built-out digital components. I am already adjusting my conference plan for the remainder of the year, because all I hear is uncertainty about this virus. Will there be an effective vaccine? Will it just be another seasonal flu that we will learn to live with. I can’t afford to find myself unprepared again. Although who predicted this was coming?

From now on, I am going to make sure that I have multiple contingency plans and budgets per conference. Learning to live with more uncertainty and last-minute changes is the lesson we all have to adapt to.

Ken Findlay 

Managing Director, Perceptions Associates Limited

One aspect that I’ve not really seen covered in comments, be it in the press or on social media is the overall impact on costs. Yes, comments have been made along the lines of:

“It’ll be so busy, hotels and suppliers will be at a premium in terms of availability, therefore they’ll be able to hike prices”. 

Or,

“Hotels and suppliers will be so desperate to get business that they’ll be discounting and chasing like crazy to get the limited number of corporate clients who are still in the market”.

Personally, I think that conferencing, corporate hospitality and attending all but the most crucial trade shows will be the last thing on many a corporate ‘number cruncher’s’ mind as they drive to bring their business, in whatever field, back online. 

So, in answer to the two initial example comments referred to above, it will probably end up being somewhere in the middle with neither buyers nor suppliers benefitting massively one way or another.

On a wider scale however, there are three areas that could really significantly affect the events industry.

The first is the ability of the airlines to come out of this whole coronavirus scenario relatively unscathed and in particular their ability to offer pricing like they’ve done in the past. For years the availability of relatively cheap air fares has allowed many corporates, small and large to look at conferencing and incentives on a global scale. 

It is likely that this affordability will be significantly lessened as airline prices become too high. Although this will radically affect, albeit in the short term hopefully, the ability of corporates to fund events on as international level as has been previously enjoyed, it could at the same time be a massive boost for home-based venues, hotels and suppliers. 

It doesn’t matter where your home country is, the indigenous event suppliers could well benefit and so event organiser/managers/buyers etc may well have to look a lot closer to their respective homes to develop their business.

The second major change I could potentially see, is the impact that employees of corporates have on their employers in determining where particular events are held. There may  be pressure from employees to look to have events held on a more localised level, not necessarily in a home country, but in countries and destinations that are not quite so far away from their particular home country. The emotion behind this type of reaction could come from partners and families at home, who may be less inclined to encourage their loved ones to travel far distances and in enclosed spaces like planes and cruise liners. 

The knock-on effect of such employee influence, if it does indeed happen, will again push corporate clients to look more closely at their own home country or nearby countries for providing event solutions as opposed to further afield destinations.

So again, home oriented hotels, venues and suppliers may well benefit with overall international business being reduced. 

A third factor which I think could well impact is that of climate change, many will have seen the image of photos and scientific models of the clearer atmosphere above the manufacturing heartlands of some countries such as China which have shown the impact of the reduction in the output of pollutants into the atmosphere. There have also been images of the reduced ‘clogged skies’ as air travel has dramatically reduced during the COVID-19 crisis. Following this crisis, I think there will be increased pressure on governments across the world to address this and to see what can be done, even taking on board what is already being done to affect climate change.

One part of the pressure may well be on reducing international air travel. From an events perspective and with corporate clients increasingly looking at their ‘carbon footprint’ and ‘sustainability’ then this could easily have a bearing on their willingness to hold events involving significant international travel away from their home country.

So, to summarise the primary change that could well occur, although I have a feeling that it may only be a relative short-term effect (say two or three years) is the impact on international travel, particularly long haul.

The effect on particular sections of the events industry, mainly airlines and associated sectors will be significant and potentially cause radical re-drawing of the lines! However, on a optimistic note these lines can be drawn to benefit localised events business in home countries by directing clients towards relatively localised event solutions.

It’s worth stating that if these results were to occur, they would be only relatively short term and only over a couple or three years after which the market would settle down more in line with how it was, only a few weeks or a month or so ago.

Overall, there will be undoubtedly be new opportunities and options for the events industry to take advantage of, but to some degree and for us all to male best advantage of these, then there will need to be an element of rethink in how we do business.

Peter Jackson

Director, Red e2

From within the industry there will be more focus on contracts with much more attention to cancellation, curtailment and deposit conditions. Expect greater pushback from agencies of all shapes and sizes at the negotiation stage. Venues and hotels will need to be more flexible, which may cause the groups some angst.

The meetings market will segment with more functional/transactional meetings going increasingly online. What extensive use of video conferencing tools will demonstrate are the limitations of the medium with regards to the soft benefits of physical meetings, specifically how people interact outside of formal sessions and the benefits that accrue from tactile interaction.

This is going to accelerate the move to less structured formats, more informal environments, greater use of social spaces which in term will eventually impact venue design. 

The key to our future success will our ability to pivot to this new reality.

Susan Brogan 

Sales Director, Venue Seekers

Well, who could have predicted the current situation we find ourselves in today within the events industry? Even a month ago I could never in my wildest dreams have imagined that I’d be in a situation where all the events I’d worked hard on for months, or in some cases a year – would have be cancelled/postponed in a matter of days. In summary, the amazing year that lay ahead was literally gone in a puff of smoke.

I now know that the impossible is possible!

But what lies ahead? What about the future? 

Initially, my events were mostly postponed or moved to later in 2020 i.e. September/October. However, this week has seen more changes, the timelines seem to have shifted again. Now that the virus has hit the US with such huge impact, many of my clients with a US head office or significant presence there are shifting their events out into 2021. The result is that the final quarter of my 2020 has been decimated. So, while initially I thought there was a chance of recovering after the summer, I now realise this is going to be a more long-term challenge.

However, this is where true long-standing client and supplier relationships are becoming key! I’m constantly blown away by the stream of lovely email messages and calls from suppliers just wanting a chat or to see if we are ok.

This has reminded me that this is still one of the best industries to be in! We are all one big family; all suffering in our own way and I know at the end of all of this, we’ll be better and stronger!

I know my loyal clients will still be there, but it will be a slow return…way longer than the 3-4-month blip I initially thought.

Many corporate companies will be at differing stages of lifting travel bans initially, and I think many will be looking at their contracts closely in a lot of cases rewriting them completely.

Different countries will have been on different lockdown stages throughout the crisis; hence some will be slower to respond or get back to some form of normality, especially with regards to hotels reopening that have been closed for months with furloughed staff.

Grounded airlines will take time to get back on their feet or to being able to operate some form of a normal schedule and others will no doubt cease to exist. This will inevitably determine where events can be held and have a massive impact on flight costs. There will be less airlines and less routes, meaning a likelihood of inflated prices for years to come.

So, I think it’s likely that events will initially return on a smaller, local level and it will probably be mid 2021 before confidence returns and we’re back to where we were at the start of 2020. This virus knows no boundaries and has affected every sector of our industry, but we are resilient, and I do believe this industry will return stronger than ever. 

One lesson it has taught me, is the power of proper face to face events. Proper human contact can never be replaced by virtual events – so we have hope! We just need to ride this emotional rollercoaster together as the strong family we are! Keep safe everyone!