Feeling Your Pain

Author: Barbara Palmer       

illustration of survey responses

In a recent survey, 700 meeting planners told us about their biggest challenges since the start of the COVID-19 crisis.

When Convene surveyed meeting professionals early this month about their experience and expectations during the pandemic, we included this open-ended question: What has been your biggest challenge professionally and at your organization during the pandemic?

More than 700 people wrote in their responses — here is some of what you told us:

For planners, uncertainty is the hardest part. This was the most often cited challenge —more than one in six respondents listed “uncertainty,” or “not knowing what the future will bring” as the most challenging aspect of the pandemic:

Uncertainty… we don’t know what the next day is going to be like so it’s hard to even try to plan ahead

Not knowing the best course of action and not having any idea what’s going to happen next. How can I plan for a pandemic we’ve never seen before, we have no idea when it will end, if our venue partners and suppliers will still even be in business when this all is over?

Professionally, where do we go, what do we do with events? What are the recommendations?

The uncertainty of when this will end. We’ve been through rough times before, but you could always see the light at the end of the tunnel, this one is different.

We host over 160 meetings a year, so there’s has been so much change in such a quick time, it’s crazy. I think the biggest thing was getting the decisions made to cancel or postpone when we didn’t have a lot of information yet, and the uncertainty of how long things will continue, or if there will be another flare up later in the fall is what’s the hardest challenge.

Almost as many mentioned lost income and revenue. Among the next most-common response was the financial toll on organizations, as well as on individuals:

For my organization, the biggest challenge is that our main source of funding is in-person events. With those curtailed for the next 12 to 18 months (I don’t care what the federal government predicts — that’s how long this is going to last without a vaccine), we have to figure out how to replace that revenue in an economy that might be facing 30-plus-percent unemployment.

What can a small company that is reliant on events for revenue do in the meantime? How does an unemployed event manager with 20-plus years of experience get a new job in this market?

Losing the revenue from registrations, sponsorships, and exhibitor fees has been devastating. We did not have the online webinar/training capabilities, so trying to get these up and running with the millions of others who are doing so while dealing with all of the unknown, is a definite challenge.

For our organization, it’s unknown if the revenue of the virtual will compare to our in-person event revenue and how that lowered liquidity affects us as a small business.

Understanding and producing digital events is a challenge. Many respondents said the sudden shift to digital events has been difficult, for many reasons:

The rapidness of converting to a virtual platform.

Switching from all in-person events to researching, and selecting, and implementing virtual events for potentially almost 200 conferences, all with varying needs.

Difficulty convincing leadership of the need to pivot to digital …

We are planning for the F2F event while simultaneously planning the virtual version of the same meeting. While others are teleworking and bored, we are working nonstop, which is a challenge from a sustainability perspective. I am thinking really hard at how we might offer furloughed industry colleagues a chance to step in and “intern” with us to round out their experience at a time when they have time to learn something new since no one is really hiring.

Learning about virtual platforms has been slow as all companies are incredibly busy due to high demand.

Changing to a completely virtual event for a global community of attendees is presenting some very complicated issues around time zones, collaboration, and inclusion.

Technology and the technology comfort of our attendees. Getting a grasp on the nuances between different virtual meeting platforms and understanding security issues around confidential meeting content and attendance.

Negotiating contracts and cancellations. Nearly 81 percent of survey respondents said they would do contracts and insurance differently in the future as a result of the pandemic.  Working with existing contracts and those in the near-term was challenging many:

Uncharted  territory — figuring out how to go about canceling with vendors, notifying attendees, etc. We’ve never canceled an event before.

We are a nonprofit — right now we feel safe but there is tremendous pressure as we move ahead in the planning of an event that may not happen. How many will attend? How do we recoup our revenue if we move to virtual? Hotel contracts and the attrition we may face, that’s what keeps me up at night.

The uncertainty and huge amount of financial liability we carry with these hotel blocks. Force majeure has only been a factor once we are very close to the event, which isn’t acceptable from a communication-with-attendees standpoint.

Navigating the postponement/cancellation as related to venue and hotel contracts. Difficult enough to manage day-to-day business related to customer retention in times of crisis, but to carefully make decisions to minimize liquidated damages was a “political” challenge.

My focus is canceling and postponing meetings that are affected between now and May. Negotiating terms with the hotels in these times is very difficult. Our concern is attendance at our summer and fall meetings will be impacted as we move out of the pandemic and falling short of room and F&B revenue projections in our contracts this year.

We purchased communicable disease coverage, yet it doesn’t cover fear or threat and the insurance industry is being difficult to deal with, even if you do have this coverage. We have consulted our lawyers and right now, we are between a rock and a hard place.

All of it, all at once. A majority of respondents couldn’t pinpoint just one challenge:

Everything, It’s a total paradigm shift from the events industry just six months ago.

The magnitude of all the logistical considerations of the cancellation, trying to maintain customer service and expectations while also trying to maintain revenue and minimize cancellation penalties, supporting staff while we are all remote

Increased work volume due to cancellations/postponements/monitoring COVID-19 information. Regular planning and other tasks (budgets, etc.) are also still expected. In addition, the large number of layoffs within the hospitality industry is, at times, delaying responses. Our members are also impacted by the COVID-19 situation so there is an increase in membership looking for guidance. Also juggling homeschooling of children in the midst of everything else.

For most, the experience isn’t just physically and financially taxing, but emotionally grueling for many reasons:

Working on through the turmoil and disappointment.

Managing the emotional toll of my team’s job security, coupled with the emotional toll of watching our industry peers lose jobs and our contacts being furloughed.

Ability to keep the team working with the cancellation of multiple events and not losing team morale or importance that they bring to the team. Continuing to find my value to our organization and professionally.

It’s overwhelming professionally and personally. I feel exhausted from the constant mental strain. Hard to be “grounded” in such turbulent times.

Stress! We are trying to make decisions quickly but not compromise the quality we are known for. Plus, we work with biotech researchers and government agencies who are scrambling to find a vaccine.

Feeling useless in an organization when events can’t happen and you’re the event planner. I have moved past this feeling, as they have reassured me of my value, but it was an uncertain few days. Keeping up confidence in my value of skills.

Making the Best of a Really Bad Situation

Yet, despite all of these challenges, a number of respondents shared how they are focusing on the future and being innovative:

Reimagining our brand and service offerings to meet current market needs.

Visualizing, understanding the uncertainty of the new world

Determining what to do during this “pit stop.”

Staying flexible as responsibilities change

Managing the unknown, trying to determine scenarios and projections for the future.

And, for at least one planner, the pandemic was revealing her strengths in new ways:

As the only CMP on my team and in the entire organization, I’ve always been challenged with continually having my voice heard as a meeting professional. This whole experience actually helped give me the business and professional credibility at my organization, especially in working with our contracts and legal teams, and affirmed that what I’ve been doing for so many years has value as a profession, and as a valued member of my organization. It’ll be interesting to see how our team and my role improve as a result.

 Thank you to everyone for contributing your responses.

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.

Download the full results from the survey, How is COVID-19 changing the business events industry?

What Events Professionals Need to Know About COVID-19

PCMA has created a COVID-19 resources page to help event professionals find reliable information about the pandemic and to share events industry-related resources to ensure they are prepared now and in the future.

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