The world of travel and meetings abruptly shut down in March 2020, leaving businesses scrambling to fill the void. Technology stepped in to bridge the gap, powered by Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other virtual platforms which for the last decade or more had been steadily building a following as sort of ‘better than a conference call’ substitutes for face to face interactions.

Suddenly these virtual technologies were the only option left for companies bereft of ILR (“in real life”) business opportunities. It seemed COVID-19 pushed in-person encounters off the table as these safer – and much less costly – options became the de facto mode for meetings throughout the business world.

However, as that world morphed out of the 100 percent virtual landscape to the partially open domain of mid-2020 to the now increasingly vaccinated, but meet-in-person-cautious environment of 2021, business people are coming to a greater appreciation of the importance of connecting person-to-person, in-person. In a recent survey from BCD Travel, the majority of business travelers question the effectiveness of screen-based virtual interactions as their primary meeting method.

According to the BCD Travel survey respondents, the main weaknesses of virtual meetings are:
• Lack of human contact (66 percent)
• Limited interaction (58 percent)
• Easy distraction (54 percent)
• Unsuitability for some meeting types (51 percent)
• “Zoom fatigue” and technology issues (49 percent)

Another survey, this one commissioned by Hilton and news site Morning Brew found almost nine out of 10 (87 percent) of respondents say they miss traveling for their work. The reasons, according to the survey of more than 7,000 of the news site’s readers, vary from the ability to see new places (66 percent), discover local culture (41 percent), discuss projects in person (37 percent), and attend in-person conferences (36 percent).

One of the key takeaways from the Hilton-Morning Brew survey: In-person connections matter. More than 54 percent of those surveyed mentioned that the importance of building “in real life” (IRL) relationships is more apparent than ever, according to Mark Weinstein, Hilton’s senior vice president and global head, marketing and loyalty.

That finding is mirrored in the BCD Travel research, in which nearly three quarters (74 percent) of respondents ranked face-to-face meetings as the most important reason for business travel, followed by team building, sales meetings and meetings with partners or suppliers.

Hybrid Takes Center Stage
Still, practical digital meetings technology is here to stay, although it’s already morphing into something more. 
A recent study from the Global Business Travel Association predicts the number of hybrid meetings held in the US is set to double in 2021. “As restrictions ease and business meetings resume, hybrid meetings could be on the rise to better accommodate both in person and virtual attendees and reach a broader audience,” according to the GBTA report.

The research, which was conducted with support from meetings technology provider Cvent, reveals that technology plays a central role in the new growth of hybrid meetings. The majority of meetings and event planners surveyed were “interested” or “very interested” in adding technology components to virtual meetings to “deliver a more engaging and immersive online event.” The respondents pointed to elements such as virtual conferencing, online registration, post-event surveys, live polling and mobile event apps.

Kevin Iwamoto, chief strategy officer at Bizly, a meetings content and planning platform, agrees that hybrid meetings are here to stay. At the onset of the pandemic, Iwamoto says, “We saw a bunch of technologies come to the forefront and the hands down winner was Zoom, which has a lot to do with how easy it was to use. However, now Microsoft Teams and Google are creating a more comprehensive, fluid platform.” Now, he says, technological advancement in hybrid meetings driven by consumer demand will center around “improved reliability and improving the quality of the meeting itself.”

Then there’s the matter of budgets. Corporate leadership is not likely to backtrack on the new-found cost savings virtual and hybrid solutions offer anytime soon, Iwamoto says. “When conferences first started live attendance again we saw 25 percent onsite versus 75 percent virtual. Now it is getting closer to 50/50 but the sad reality is that there are a lot of C-level executives who don’t want their budget to be back at $50 million.”

In the meantime, however, demand for a return to in-person opportunities among business travelers continues to rise. In the BCD survey, over three quarters (76 percent) of respondents said business travel helps them perform their work more efficiently. Once travel returns, the majority (60 percent) said they would prefer to return to pre-pandemic levels of business travel, while 26 percent prefer to travel less and 9 percent to travel more.

That tension – between cost and the return on the travel investment – has always been part of managing travel. Now the COVID-19 experience and the subsequent increasing reliance on digital alternatives has heightened the conversation. “The world has changed. You can’t go back. The immediate demand is still on virtual/hybrid meetings,” says Charles de Gaspe Beaubien, chief customer officer of Groupize, an enterprise meetings management platform.
Still, de Gaspe Beaubien asks, “The million dollar question is, how long will it be hybrid? Everyone is tired of Zoom cocktails – they want a better experience.” However, going forward the experience is most likely going to include a hybrid model, he notes. That means digital meetings are becoming their own built-for-purpose thing, not just an afterthought added onto live events. More and more we are finding the right hybrid mix can be a powerful tool to elevate the value of those face to face connections.

“A smart mix of virtual, in-person and hybrid events is the future,” says Cvent’s CMO Patrick Smith. “These three event delivery models will enable companies to reach and engage bigger audiences and gain deeper insight into attendees’ interest. The use of technology will help to lead the way in this new environment where we expect events to be more numerous and impactful than ever,” Smith predicts.

“Ultimately, I don’t see hybrid meetings going away any time soon, it has its place,” de Gaspe Beaubien concludes. “But real networking in person is where the business gets done.”