The CDC’s new guidance about mask wearing — that vaccinated people don’t need masks in most cases, won’t necessarily translate to mask-free meetings. More than half of planners responding to the May COVID-19 Recovery Dashboard said that the guidance has not made it easier for them to plan in-person events. (Jacob Slaton Photography)
In a surprise move, just days before we invited the business events community to participate in our May COVID-19 Recovery Dashboard, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that fully vaccinated individuals no longer had to wear masks outdoors and indoors, except in hospitals, on public transit, and other specified places.
CDC’s latest guidance, according to Science News, caught scientists off guard. While it “offered a glimmer of hope that the pandemic’s end was inching closer,” said the article’s writers, “it has also caused confusion, anger, and worry,” leaving even experts to wonder “what it meant for individuals and society as a whole.”
Respondents to this month’s survey — 232 planners and 143 suppliers — seemed to take the CDC’s May 13 announcement as more of a positive than a cause for concern. Sixty-one percent of planners vs. 50 percent in the April Dashboard said they were feeling hopeful. That sense of optimism was even more pronounced among suppliers — 70 percent checked off the hopeful option compared to 51 percent last month, and 7 percent fewer supplier respondents said they were feeling anxious about the future (17 percent vs. 24 percent).
Respondents were not, however, of the mind that the CDC news would flip the “on” switch for large, in-person events. More than half of planners (55 percent) said that the new mask guidance has not made it easier for them to plan in-person events. Likely that’s because the CDC guidance is not a federal mask mandate — that’s determined by states and even by local businesses and private entities. Some states have lifted the mandate to wear masks on the heels of the CDC guidance and those changes are ongoing, so that adds more flux to the mix.
And while 28 percent of planners indicated that the new guidance would make attending physical events more appealing and result in higher attendance, far more respondents (62 percent) said that it wouldn’t necessarily translate to more on-site participants. Suppliers were more apt to believe that the new mask guidance would result in greater attendance with more than half (52 percent) choosing that option and only 40 percent expecting it wouldn’t generate an increase.
Part of the confusion over the new mask guidance is that it doesn’t take human behavior into account — it assumes that unvaccinated individuals will continue masking, even though people in the United States are not required to show proof of vaccination. As of May 20, only 38 percent of the total U.S. population was fully vaccinated. And our latest survey shows that planners and suppliers continue to be mostly against making proof of vaccination a requirement for attendance, with only a minority favoring that policy. By contrast, 67 percent of 184 event professionals doing business in the APAC region who participated in a recent PCMA survey said they would make vaccination a requirement.
“People,” wrote one supplier, “will hesitate to travel to meet face to face until 1) more countries vaccinate their people; 2) we have concrete data on the length of time the vaccine is effective and whether a booster shot will be required; and 3) there is a universal vaccination certificate for proof of being fully vaccinated.”
But despite the in-person event proposition remaining a gray area, the May Dashboard results found fewer planners focusing their reskilling efforts on designing digital event experiences (50 percent vs. 62 percent last month) and fewer planning digital-only events (54 percent vs. 67 percent last month). Nearly half (48 percent) are planning an in-person/hybrid event in the fourth quarter of this year, compared to only 38 percent last month.
How these hybrid events will play out has become an even bigger question, however. The percentage of planners who said they are unable to estimate overall registration numbers for their events until they get closer to the scheduled date increased month over month — 37 percent versus 28 percent for hybrid events, and 40 percent versus 32 percent for in-person events. One planner described being “cautiously optimistic but realistic. Also, so sick of uncertainty.”
Meanwhile, the percentage of suppliers who see hybrid events as the most likely recovery scenario has shrunk by half: Only 9 percent in May compared to 18 percent in April. This comment comes from a supplier who is likely among that 9 percent: “Organizers will have to think differently about events, beyond hybrid into multichannel. Huge opportunity for those who experiment and put their attendees — and how they want to engage — at the center.”
One human emotion that should not be discounted as we inch toward getting back to business is ambivalence. “As we move through the spring of The Great Vaccination,” according to a recent New York Times article, “many of us are feeling cautious optimism, and also its flip side: creeping dread.” For instance, if you used to work in an office, you may be eager to see people again, but worried about interactions at the same time. “There will be new forms of social anxiety” about gathering with others, Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology and the director of the Social Interaction Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Times.
This planner comment expressed some of that anxiety, but also captured how some changes forced by the pandemic have made for a better work/life balance and created a reluctance to go back to a hectic routine — a perspective that may be shared by event attendees as well. “[I’m] a little numb,” the planner wrote. “I love my work, however I got too used to being home, and do not want to go back to work five days a week in the office plus the travel demanded by my position. Something will need to give. … Life is too short.”
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.
Please download a PDF of the full May Recovery Dashboard results by clicking the link below.