To survive a post-COVID 19 world, the MICE industry pivots to new models using social distance and accountability
As COVID-19’s “new normal” is emerging, states across the US are reopening and countries around the globe are coming out of isolation and feeling their way to a healthy alternative to lock-down. In the world of business, in-person meetings and what they’ll look like in the future are hot-button topics.
“Group meetings are a focus of every major Fortune 500 company,” says Teneo Hospitality’s CEO Mike Schugt. “That’s not going to change, although we are having to pivot to new ways to deal with new challenges.”
Schugt says that a strong desire to travel is part of American culture. “It’s almost seen as a birthright,” he says. “You can see it in the opening up of domestic leisure travel which is happening now. The people who are planning to travel for leisure over this summer are people who are meetings attendees during the work week.”
His vision of what that looks like entails smaller meetings, innovative social distancing and tiered meeting protocols where in-person conferences are held in hub cities close to personnel so travel is not required, with some members Zooming in and some VIPs flying in to participate.
“I have been in the travel industry through 9/11 and during the Great Recession and I have seen us rebound through all of that,” Schugt explains. “I see our industry working hand-in-hand with science to give us new assurances that let us get back to business.”
Bruce Rosenberg, president of HotelPlanner.com, says his company is currently fielding about 1,000 group requests a day. “We are seeing groups of 10 to 15 people where we are used to seeing business travel with groups of 20 to 30 guests,” he notes.
Rosenberg echoes Schugt’s emphasis on localized hubs, structured around bringing a company’s employees together where the bulk of the people are based, whereas in pre-pandemic times, participants would meet in more far-flung destinations.
“Pretty much everything is domestic, but people want to get back to work,” Rosenberg explains. Additionally, he says, where five-star hotels previously got the bookings, now more select-service properties are being considered for corporate travel because amenities like spas, wet areas, restaurants and bars would be closed. As a consequence, Best Western, Choice and Radisson are increasingly at the top of meeting planners’ lists.
Finally, Rosenberg says that “no risk, no commitment” bookings are a mandatory part of the recovery process for the meetings industry.Time for a Reset
Reducing risk in meetings in a Post-COVID 19 world is an issue that Alisa De Gaspe Beaubien, chief operating officer at Groupize, is making a centerpiece of the company’s unique selling proposition.
“Now is the time for companies to hit the reset button on how they track events and meetings,” says De Gaspe Beaubien. “With only a few outside meetings on the books for the end of this year but many more lining up in early 2021, companies need to start now to make sure all future meetings, large and small, go smoothly, and that they minimize risk and liability in the pre-, during and post-meeting process.”
De Gaspe Beaubien points out that Groupize’s end-to-end SaaS platform allows employees within an organization to manage events in a centralized system that comprises compliant venue shopping and booking, attendee management, travel and logistics, reporting, budgeting and collaboration.
The system allows employees to opt in or out of meetings based on their own choices regarding risk, and it also allows corporations the option of contact tracing in the event of a reported infection among meeting participants.
In a COVID-19 world, De Gaspe Beaubien stresses that duty of care, and carefully managed meetings and travel are going to be corporations’ watchwords for the near future. “When the risk is literally life or death, managed travel and meetings have gone from being a ‘nice-to-have’ to being a ‘must-have’,” she cautions. “We are de-risking meeting management.”
De Gaspe Beaubien also sees the rise of regional meetings as being a key marker of change post-COVID 19. “Omaha is going to become the new Vegas,” she says.Change is the Constant
Harold L Powell, Jr., regional vice president of sales and marketing at Benchmark Hospitality, sees meetings demand coming back “in phases” and agrees with the idea that smaller, regional meetings will be in demand for the near future. “We are still booking business for 2021 and 2022 at a steady clip,” he says. “We don’t see a long- term shift away from executive level or incentive meetings.”
Powell sees a shift to hybrid virtual/in-person meetings and to tiered regional meetings where some attendees are local, some are virtual and a few are flown in. “There is always change in the way meetings are held,” he says. “To think it will go back to exactly how it was before COVID-19 isn’t realistic. Even after a vaccine, I think some of the F&B innovation we are coming up with for instance, will stay. The modern meeting with its new technology and hybridization will be easier to use.”
Kevin Iwamoto, chief strategy officer of Bizly, also notes the pivot to smaller, more regional meetings as an important COVID-19 trend. Iwamoto cites Brian Chesky, the chief executive and founder of Airbnb who said recently, “Travel will never, ever go back to the way it was pre-COVID.”
“I agree with that,” Iwamoto says. “We’ve done a lot of internal research and we have seen that given that reality, smaller meetings are going to go from being a ‘nice-to-have’ to being a ‘must-have’.”
Iwamoto says Bizly’s enterprise technology is “the only event management platform designed for small, simple, self-service (SSS) meetings and events.” The solution uses “smart templates” designed around collaboration, meeting design, venue booking and attendee management.
“Given the recent shift to virtual, we wanted to make it easy for our current customers to continue to use Bizly’s planning features, while also preparing for the return to business planning via hybrid events.”
A recent survey from convention management association PCMA that showed 64 percent of event professionals believe small and local events will be the first to return. “When hybrid small events do return, travel and event teams will need to communicate how they are effectively following health and safety guidelines,” Iwamoto says.
“Bizly has added the CDC health and safety guidelines for events to its homepage. Customers will have the ability to edit this to match their own company guidelines and ensure meeting organizers have the company’s health and safety checklist at their fingertips when booking venues.”
Iwamoto believe that the post-COVID 19 “pivot” is something that is going to continue, pushing companies and legacy brands to rethink their business models which have broken or changed.
“Every business is going to have to rethink and reimagine their place in the world,” he says. “These new solutions coming out also bolster a sense of connection and collaboration in the world.”