With the year barely at the halfway mark, 2020 already has stretched meeting professionals to their limits. Earlier in the year, in the midst of a growing pandemic, they navigated the complexities of canceling or postponing thousands of face-to-face meetings, and then — in some cases literally overnight — shifted to transforming face-to-face events to digital ones. Now meeting professionals work in an environment in which, with no vaccine or effective treatment for COVID-19 yet available, the pandemic is contained in some parts of the world, but not in others — and that is subject to change.
It’s no surprise that when PCMA recently asked meeting planners about what they hoped to encounter at PCMA’s annual meeting, Convening Leaders, in January 2021, one response was that the meetings industry needs to create an entirely new blueprint for the future of events. The majority of respondents were meeting professionals, including planners and suppliers, who had previously attended Convening Leaders.
Help with planning and executing digital events was high on many wish lists, the survey showed, with meeting professionals looking not only to elevate the experience of online education and networking for participants, but to provide value for exhibitors and sponsors at digital events. Meeting professionals also are looking for guidance from their peers and industry leaders in rethinking everything from contracts to F&B to registration costs and business models.
They also were planning for a future where face-to-face was safe and possible, but where digital events will still play a large role in meeting strategy. This mirrors the findings of Convene’s most-recent Recovery Dashboard survey in which a majority of both planners and suppliers — 64 percent and 65 percent, respectively — said that they expect the most likely scenario for the events industry recovery is smaller, regional face-to-face and hybrid meetings.
“Tactically,” asked one meeting professional, “what are the experience design changes that will be required to make people comfortable attending? And strategically, what is the integration of digital and live? How do we personalize the experiences so that they are more compelling for attendees? How do you design a successful digital experience? How do you monetize a virtual experience? How do you integrate digital, virtual, and live to create a great experience?”
A clear majority were interested in gathering with peers and leaders to strategize about the future: “What changes do we think will happen now as a result of COVID-19,” asked one, “and what changes will stay for the long term and not disappear when COVID disappears?” For many respondents, the issues that Convening Leaders should address transcend the meetings industry, including the meaningful inclusion of diverse voices. One respondent was hoping for a “deep dive into climate change and how our industry can lead this, and a deep dive into human rights and how our industry can play its part, not just during an event, but influence this in destinations we host events in — and to show how our industry can play its part in economic recovery in various sectors post-COVID.”
Other responses to the question: “As part of Convening Leaders, I’d like to learn how to …” included:
- What peers are doing to navigate the new normal and [their] success, failures, and lessons.
- Show value beyond financial value of events to our stakeholders
- What other professionals are experiencing in the ‘COVID world.’ How business events have changed and how we can adapt with those changes.
- More about diversity in meetings and contracting for a post-pandemic world
- Keep my services relevant in the changing events industry
- Strategize and manage events in an unknown environment, including real participant engagement in a virtual environment. (Not just social chit-chat which is primarily what happens now.)
- Create real value for sponsors, exhibitors, attendees, and speakers in a mostly virtual environment. I’d also like to understand how best to establish a pricing model for a fully virtual event.
And given that the respondents represent a huge reservoir of experience and expertise, the survey also asked respondents what — if they were planning Convening Leaders themselves — they would be sure to do. Among those responses:
- Communicate, communicate, communicate about the destination, the hotels, the changes to the event.
- Add opportunities for quiet, for small group connections, for creative thinking, for fun and
- spontaneity, for collaboration, for music, for art, for down time.
- Amp up a Convening Leaders Live experience; produce for the virtual audience first, the f2f audience second.
- Have case studies/scenario planning sessions with facilitators to discuss how to “move” a meeting and have the hoteliers in the rooms with the planners.
- Job retraining — many of us will lose our jobs and have already. What can we do when no one is hiring?
- Make masks required; have multiple hand-sanitizing stations; encourage people to not attend and offer flexible refunds if they’re not feeling well; live-stream general sessions should people wish to watch from their hotel room and not mass gather.
- Throw out a lot of old systems — make sure every element is purposeful.
- Practice safety and sanitation. Consider emotional, mental, spiritual resources to offer attendees who have been impacted.
- Really listen to the constituents, including students who may be concerned about their future, and African Americans who are unsure of how they grow and develop in an industry where associations and boards don’t necessarily represent true diversity. 2021 needs to be a year to have hard conversations but build community.
- Continue to expand on digital and/or hybrid content (including interactive offerings) in order to be able to include a wider national and/or international audience unable to travel.
- Plan for everyone. Not just those that are overly “positive and optimistic.” I think we have to be real about the future of events and the industry and things may never be the same. We need to help our industry adapt and plan for our personal professional growth and what needs to be done. Events may never be the same face to face events they were. What do we as professionals do now?