The majority of planners responding the the March COVID-19 Business Events Recovery Dashboard survey said that they are planning in-person events in 2021.
Between February and March, a flurry of news articles predicted a huge surge in leisure travel — sometimes referred to as “revenge travel” — as people celebrate the end of the pandemic, make up for lost time, and splurge after the stress of living through COVID. Airlines have reported substantial jumps in air travel demand during March and the TSA has reported its highest number of passengers since March 2020, when the lockdowns began.
Even though health officials warn that the risk of COVID transmission remains a real concern, people are chomping at the bit to get out and see the world — or at least venture beyond their neighborhoods. We wondered: How much of that pent-up demand is spilling over to the events industry? So for the March COVID-19 Recovery Dashboard, we turned our attention to the prospect of in-person events to gauge whether or not our industry thinks we’re about to turn a corner.
There are some indications that events professionals are feeling more optimistic than last month. Of the nearly 500 respondents — 339 planners and 159 suppliers — who took the survey during the week of March 22, 57 percent of planners (versus 53 percent last month) and 52 percent of suppliers (versus 47 percent in February) said they are feeling hopeful. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, however. The same percentage of planners as last month — 30 percent — reported feeling anxious. The anxiety level among suppliers, on the other hand, went down nine points — from 29 percent last month to 20 percent in March.
Suppliers also seem to be shifting their reskilling efforts to designing in-person experiences in a post-COVID world — 46 percent compared to 39 percent last month. There also were corresponding decreases in their efforts when it came to rethinking new business models and business-continuity plans.
Get Ready for Q3
The majority of planners — 64 percent — said that they are planning in-person events in 2021. Of those, 17 percent is planning an event in what’s left of Q1 and in Q2; half is planning an event in Q3; and around one-third is working towards holding an event in the last quarter of 2021. Likewise, suppliers seem to have their eye on Q3 as a turning point, with 23 percent of respondents anticipating that the pent-up demand for travel in general will result in face-to-face attendance at regional and domestic events in Q3, compared to only 14 percent expecting that to happen in Q4.
And in the most sizable jump in the month-over-month results, 29 percent of suppliers — compared to 16 percent in February — said the most likely scenario for the recovery of the business events industry is/will be pent-up demand for all groups to meet face-to-face. Wrote one supplier: “The public health restrictions for our location were relaxed in March and we can now host larger gatherings for the first time since the start of the pandemic. March is the first month where some events on the books did not have to cancel. We are getting inquiries for space and events are starting to book!”
On this, planners were in agreement: 29 percent vs. 24 percent last month chose face-to-face as the most likely recovery scenario. Only 21 percent of suppliers, compared to 30 percent last month, foresee hybrid as the way forward, while a slightly higher percentage of planners this month (22 percent versus 18 percent last month) are focusing on hybrid solutions.
As for those hybrid solutions, there is no one-size-fits all approach. We asked planners to share how they see the mix of digital and in-person taking shape, providing four different scenarios. The largest percentage (35 percent) chose “other” and then explained their particular take on hybrid. Of the four options we spelled out, the most popular, chosen by 28 percent of planners, is a simultaneous, small in-person event with streaming video and a separate online program for a virtual audience — with the ability for both audiences to interact with each other.
That hybrid events aren’t the industry’s silver bullet also is reflected in the fact that hybrid continues to be the most difficult financial event-planning challenge for organizers, cited by 41 percent of planner respondents versus 38 percent last month.
Despite expressing greater optimism, this month’s respondents acknowledged the economic and other realities that may hamper in-person attendance this year. The greatest percentage of both planners (36 percent) and suppliers (38 percent) said that while there may be pent-up demand to gather in person, until there is herd immunity, organizations will avoid assuming business travel risk — a bigger factor, their responses indicate, than economic COVID-19-related challenges to attendance.
As for when planners are making a go/no go decision about in-person events, their answers might help explain why their anxiety level remains high: One quarter is making the decision within two months of the event date and nearly the same percentage took to the open-ended comments page to share their angst. Said one: “We are in the process for planning for a live event and will make the decision to go or cancel based on the situation on the ground at the time and the best science available. If safe to do so, we go and suffer the consequences. If unsafe, we cancel and suffer the consequences.”
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.
Please download a PDF of the full March Recovery Dashboard results by clicking the link below.