Leading up to press time, event organizer confidence that face-to-face meetings would resume in 2020 had dimmed significantly over the previous months. As Covid-19 surged in the South and Western U.S., i-Meet's weekly Planner Confidence Index survey took a turn for the worse.
The percentage of respondents who expected to restart face-to-face meetings during the fourth quarter fell from 38 percent on May 18 to 25 percent for the week ending June 21. The percentage of surveyed organizers who predicted events wouldn't return until 2021 jumped from 38 percent to 61 percent during this period.
Despite the current standstill and the gloomy outlook, strategic meetings management remains as important as ever for corporations—if not more so, since ensuring business continuity within the confines of increased cost concerns amid the pandemic has become a paramount goal for many organizations.
Here's some good news: Advances in virtual meetings technology—and increasing user familiarity with such tech—have made it possible to achieve the bedrock goals of SMM, despite the fact that many meetings and events will happen on computer screens for the near term, and beyond that a hybrid approach may prevail.
To fulfill the surge in demand for virtual events, a number of meetings management providers, including Cvent, Bizly and others, have ramped up their virtual hosting capabilities. But conducting successful virtual meetings or events requires careful planning that takes into account the inherent strengths and weaknesses of a virtual platform versus a live face-to-face environment.
First movers in this space have identified preferred technology suppliers to address different aspects of virtual meetings as a way to guide meeting organizers—who will often be unfamiliar with these platforms—through approved technology channels that have been vetted for quality and security.
Meanwhile, virtual events hold a few key advantages over in-person meetings and conferences, and meeting management leaders should position programs to take advantage of them.
When compared to the planning, booking and travel necessary to produce live events, organizers can leverage the comparative ease of virtual attendance to reduce costs and to boost registration numbers, the number and quality of presenters, and keynote speakers. Participant activity data also becomes easier to track, as each attendee leaves a digital trail throughout his or her attendance at a virtual event—whether that's the number of times they engaged with an exhibitor, the length of time they spent in a session, the number and choice of networking meetings, or their feedback on surveys, etc.
Meeting organizers should be cautioned, however, that not everything that hits a high note for an in-person event will offer the same impact at a virtual gathering. Companies should plan from the outset to track the success of different programming, and pay close attention to session duration as well as to the efficacy of running intensive sessions back to back. That may not play well in a virtual environment.
To that end, one company BTN spoke with reformatted an annual conference, which had been scheduled to take place over four days in Las Vegas, to run instead as a series of events between May and August. The show featured live keynote speakers, customer and analyst sessions, downloadable content, technical demos and tools for setting up one-on-one meetings. In the first days of the virtual conference, the company had more than double the attendance expected for the live event.
Companies conducting virtual events aren't likely to be able to charge registration fees anywhere near what a live event could command. While the costs of hosting a virtual event are generally much lower as well, they aren't necessarily low cost. Understanding where the company can strike the return on investment will continue to be important.
But all-virtual events aren't the only option, especially as the Covid-19 crisis begins to abate. Hybrid meetings and events—which combine in-person and virtual components—are expected to proliferate as social distancing protocols relax and corporate travel returns in a limited capacity. The industry will need to adapt.
Suppliers are stepping up to meet the demand for hybrid events, with event management specialists rolling out hybrid-specific planning and hosting capabilities. To serve the in-person component of such events, major hotel companies are implementing cleanliness and hygiene protocols designed specifically for group gatherings, such as sealed meeting rooms, additional sanitization stations and a meeting-room cleanliness checklist.
Meanwhile, some hoteliers also have begun offering more flexible terms in contract agreements for meetings and events amid the lingering uncertainty around planning live events—embodying a principle of cooperation that will be key for all meetings and events stakeholders to adopt as the industry navigates its way through the unprecedented upheaval.