In-person events like PCMA’s EduCon began to return just before the Delta variant began causing COVID cases to surge around the U.S. Some events have since canceled in high-risk destinations. (Jacob Slaton Photography)
Who needs proof that the Delta variant has put a kink in the recovery of the business events industry? There may not be any hands in the air, but Convene’s latest Dashboard — which drew 451 planner and 173 supplier participants from Aug. 11-17 — offers just that.
In mid-June, nearly seven out of 10 planners said they were feeling hopeful. By mid-August, the percentage of planners and suppliers who checked off “hopeful” had dropped by more than half: down to 27 percent vs. 69 percent of planners and 31 percent compared to 64 percent of suppliers in June.
The spike in the number of new COVID-19 cases reported daily between the two months — 8,197 in the U.S. and 372,472 worldwide on June 15 vs. 181,433 in the U.S. and 535,797 around the world on Aug. 16 — not only dashed the industry’s hopes just as face-to-face events were starting up again, it caused anxiety levels to climb. According to responses to the survey’s question about how planners and suppliers were feeling, the most-popular option was “anxious about the future,” checked off by 47 percent of planners and 42 percent of suppliers. In June, only around one out of five planner and supplier respondents reported feeling anxious.
After nearly 18 months of riding the COVID rollercoaster, more than one-third of planners and suppliers were gritting their teeth, saying they were doing their best to get by. And nearly two planners and three suppliers out of 10 were showing grit, clicking on the “determined” option.
That determination may be channeled into designing physical events during a more challenging COVID environment: 59 percent of planners and 33 percent of suppliers said they were focusing their reskilling efforts on designing in-person experiences in August vs. 50 percent and 21 percent, respectively, in June. Meanwhile, more planners — 54 percent vs. 39 percent in June — were turning their attention to designing digital event experiences, perhaps recognizing it as their best option for engaging their stakeholders. And the percentage of planners honing their business continuity and scenario-planning skills rose from 38 percent in June to nearly half of all planner respondents.
Only around a quarter of planners said the Delta variant has not changed their plans for their events in the upcoming months: 12 percent are moving forward with their in-person — and 14 percent are proceeding with their hybrid — events. On the other hand, 14 percent have canceled their in-person events, with 11 percent moving them to digital-only versions. The highest percentage of planners — two out of five — said that they are taking a wait-and-see approach.
The rise in new COVID cases since our last Dashboard survey also prompted the CDC to reverse its earlier recommendation that only unvaccinated individuals wear masks indoors. We asked planners and suppliers if they thought the revised everyone-wear-a-mask-regardless-of-vaccination-status advice (which is now mandated in cities around the U.S.) would make participants less likely to attend events in person. Sixty percent of planners and 57 percent of suppliers said yes, they thought it would be a deterrent.
Despite the increased risk of transmission, only a slightly higher percentage of planners — 28 percent vs. 22 percent in June — will make proof of vaccination a requirement to attend in-person events. And, surprisingly, fewer suppliers (25 percent compared to 30 percent in June) indicated that they will require proof of vaccination.
After a-year-and-a-half of navigating the crisis, we asked respondents to take stock of their roles with a new question: How has the pandemic changed the nature of their work? Not surprisingly, 63 percent of planners and 54 percent of suppliers said it has changed almost everything about their jobs.
Recognizing that “hybrid” is a buzzword for events as well as the workplace, we asked another new question this time around: If you work in an office, are you back full-time, part-time, or not at all? The most common response among planners (37 percent) is that they are still fully remote but planning to go back to the office at least part of the week in the future. Forty-two percent of suppliers are either back in the office full- or part-time.
In their open-ended answers, respondents voiced everything from frustration “that we can’t get the pandemic under control” to feeling “resentful that some people won’t be vaccinated” to resilience during this latest bump in the road to recovery. One supplier questioned whether there may ever be a “post-COVID era,” saying we should instead “focus on a more sustainable approach, taking into account that viruses will remain a part of life.”
For this planner, COVID has created unsustainable expectations, sharing the need to get their organization out of working on “condensed timelines.” When COVID hit, this planner noted, “it was necessary to be nimble and flexible, knowing key decisions on go/no-go couldn’t be made until close to the event. However, it has now become an expectation that events can be put on with very little runway to plan. My team is burnt out from running at fire-drill pace trying to meet unrealistic expectations from senior leadership.”
Another planner had more of a positive take on the tumult of the past year, expecting the one to come to “again be another year of learning. Last year it was all virtual, now we add another layer of complexity: hybrid, which is new. This is exciting and scary at the same time!”
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.
Please download a PDF of the full August Recovery Dashboard results by clicking the link below.