In our February Recovery Dashboard survey, 37 percent of planner respondents said they will not be requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination at their events, while 61 percent said they would. (Jacob Slaton Photography)
When we surveyed planners and suppliers in mid-December, the Omicron variant was just starting to cause COVID-19 cases — and therefore the business events industry’s concerns — to rise. As we’ve learned during COVID times, the space of a few months can bring fresh challenges and new realities, so what changed between December and mid-February, when nearly 500 respondents — 300 planners and 192 suppliers — participated in our latest Dashboard survey?
For one, we’re a more hopeful group: 56 percent of planners described themselves as hopeful in February compared to 49 percent in our December Dashboard; and 58 percent of suppliers expressed optimism in this survey, up 15 percentage points from December. As many parts of the world are seeing COVID cases decline after a spike caused by Omicron, planners and suppliers are making more deliberate plans and have firmer expectations about upcoming in-person and hybrid events.
On the mood scale, fewer planners reported feeling anxious about the future — 18 percent compared to 32 percent in December, and 14 percent of suppliers expressed anxiety vs. 20 percent in December. But nearly one-third of planners, up a few points from December, report feeling exhausted and burned out. That is likely due to the continued strain of another two months spent planning events in a constantly shifting environment.
Although we seem to be on the downside of Omicron, it still remains a major concern, causing 11 percent of planners to cancel their in-person events, more than double the percentage of planners who said the same in December. Nonetheless, 31 percent are moving forward with their physical event vs. 24 percent in the previous survey, and 27 percent vs. 24 percent in the previous survey are holding hybrid events. Around one out of 10 is polling potential registrants to get a sense of their willingness to travel, up from 5 percent in December. Most telling is that only 14 percent are taking a wait-and-see approach — in December, three out of 10 said they were unable to make a decision until closer to the event date.
All told, nearly half will be holding an in-person-only event in 2022; 35 percent digital only; and 41 percent hybrid, down from 46 percent who selected hybrid in December. While organizers said planning a hybrid event remains a major financial challenge, it came in second in this survey in terms of budgeting hurdles for the first time. A more pressing challenge now is how to budget for their face-to-face events, a sign that attendee and exhibitor willingness to travel remains difficult to gauge. Thirty-six percent of planners expect an up-to-50-percent decline in registration numbers at their 2022 events compared to their pre-COVID events and more than one-third said they are unable to estimate registration numbers. One planner said the challenge is ensuring hard-cost expenses like F&B minimums and AV “without really knowing what attendance turnout will be.”
Since many are facing the prospect of lower attendance, we asked whether planners are considering co-locating an upcoming in-person event with another group. Only 14 percent are weighing that option. One of those is a planner at a national association that is looking to partner with state associations and other partners.
And if you were to presume that planners and suppliers are more comfortable moving forward with in-person events because they have more fully embraced requiring proof of vaccination at their events, you would be wrong. There’s not much movement there, with 61 percent of planners requiring proof of vaccination vs. 59 percent in December, and a larger percentage — 65 percent vs. 59 percent — not requiring proof of a booster.
In fact, a greater percentage of planners this month — 37 percent, up from 30 percent in December — said they are not requiring proof of vaccination. They cited several reasons, including objections over personal freedoms, following local mandates in the host destination rather than setting their own policy, politics, and a preference for testing rather than proof of vaccination. Proof of vaccination, wrote one planner, “doesn’t prove anything. Omicron has proved that even the vaccinated can get it and spread it. Consequently, we should be testing everyone, vaccinated or not.”
“The best way to control the contagion is protocols,” wrote one planner, saying the vaccination just helps to avoid complications. The events that require vaccination, this planner reasoned “are the most dangerous, because people relax their [behaviors] and many times don’t respect protocols and social distancing.”
We asked about requiring proof of a negative COVID test result for the first time in this Dashboard, and more than a quarter of planners said proof of a negative test result will be required in lieu of proof of vaccination; 12 percent are requiring it along with vaccination; and roughly half are not requiring negative test results at all. If asking for proof of a negative test, the majority — 56 percent — said they would require either PCR or rapid test results, but PCR was the more popular choice — 28 percent PCR vs. 16 percent rapid.
Some planners expressed concern that we may be thinking we can put COVID in the rear-view mirror and resume holding events like in 2019. Said this planner: “Confused by the belief that we are returning to a time of ‘see the pretty birdie’ — what my grandmother said when things were unpleasant — as if COVID, Vegas massacre, 9/11, etc., never happened.”
Others were more resolute that the show must go on. “While I absolutely respect every person’s right to set their own boundaries,” this planner said, “the valid option of getting back to normal needs to be, well, normalized. So let’s get back out there!” Echoing that sentiment, a supplier wrote: “I believe it is ‘Game on.’ This fall will be crazy busy.”
As my grandmother used to say, “From your mouth to God’s ears.”
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.
Please download a PDF of the full February Recovery Dashboard results by clicking the link below.