The COVID-19 pandemic may have severely restricted global travel over most of the past year, but business travelers remain convinced of the need for face-to-face meetings. A recent survey conducted by Business Traveler magazine in partnership with forecasting agency Globetrender and American Express Global Business Travel found that more than three quarters of business travelers said they prefer face-to-face meetings for sales and pitching  to remote work (although 78 percent also said that the handshake was a thing of the past).

As the COVID-19 pandemic moved through various stages of lockdown from March 2020 to a summer which saw phased recovery efforts underway across the US, meeting planners and meeting participants alike saw an uptick of interest in discovering what the “brave new world” of meetings in a post-COVID-19 world would be. “There are only so many Zoom meetings that we can do,” says Eric Gavin, chief sales officer for Benchmark Hospitality. “The Zoom fatigue factor is a real thing. We are ready to get back to business.”

But what does “back to business” in a pandemic world mean?

Meetings and SMM

“I think it’s a great question and I would address it a couple of ways,” Gavin explains. “Regional meetings are happening more and more. Whether it is in the Florida Keys or in Wisconsin or at our newest resort in Texas, smaller regional meetings are happening now.” Gavin says that at a recent Sea Island Georgia meeting 40 clients plus hoteliers met safely and walked through protocols with everyone wearing masks in indoor events.

“What participants are most concerned about right now is that they see the implementation of all the protocols,” he cautions. These include assigned seating to control space and gathering in micropods. The protocols also include putting tracing plans into place so if someone does become ill, the proper steps can be taken to notify everyone who came in contact with that person.

Gavin also says that testing is being seen more and more as a viable option for meeting planners, noting that major airlines around the world are already launching pre-flight testing to lessen the risk of passing the virus along. “So yes, I do think it is possible that the meetings industry could use testing in groups of 500 to 1000 people,” Gavin says. “It could be a game changer.”

The Return of Confidence
However consumer confidence in testing “is not there yet,” according to Katie Bohrer, vice president of meeting design and experience for Associated Luxury Hotels International. “It would almost give a false sense of security,” she argues.

What Bohrer says does lend real security is planning. “Have you thought of everything? Have you thought of safety first?” Bohrer asks. She explains that hybrid meetings are increasingly taking center stage – meetings where participants who are able and wish to attend in person can, while others have the ability to participate over virtual channels.

As a result, meeting planners are spending more on production costs as these types of meetings are “evolving” in a post-COVID-19 world, Bohrer says, adding that partnerships with airlines are also key. “Delta is our partner,” she says. “They are the only airline we are working with right now. They say, ‘people over profits’ and are living that out. They are saying ‘we are putting safety first.’”

Kevin Iwamoto, chief strategy officer for Bizly, sees “several divergent points right now” in meetings recovery. “People are in denial, waiting for a vaccine and wanting to go back to pre-COVID days. But there are also others who understand that the meetings industry is forever changed. Until people have peace of mind that they are not going to die, they will be extremely cautious as to whether or not they will go out and be with a large group of people.”

A key factor in creating a sense of security around meetings, Iwamoto explains, would be an industry standard for cleanliness and hygiene in airlines and in hotels. “Who is policing the different hotels to make sure they are keeping to those standards? It really falls back on the planner,” he says. “Until people feel a sense of confidence that they are not going to get or die from COVID, they are going to make different decisions.”

Different decisions are, more and more, taking the form of hybrid meetings, Iwamoto says. “You have to give people that option. Even with in-person meetings in a smaller format – you have to have a virtual component now,” he concludes.

“There is a need. People are anxious to get together but in the meetings world we are limping towards something and we don’t really know what that is,” he warns. “I do think the meetings industry will survive this, but it will look very different. There are those who are making pivots and thinking ahead to accommodate the new reality. There are others who are hoping to wait it out, and they won’t survive.”

Warming Up to Meetings 
One intriguing pivot in the meetings industry is the new unique selling point that the city of Montgomery, AL, is developing: Reimaging itself as the corporate mecca for diversity training. Dawn Hatchcock, senior vice president of the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce/Convention and Visitor’s Bureau says that the unique history of Montgomery in civil rights “is something we’ve used and it has spurred us to think differently, post-COVID-19.”

“We realized the market was looking for diversity and social justice training,” Hatchcock says. “We’re working together to pull together packaging to sell to Fortune 500 companies. Everyone needs this right now.”

The city is using outdoor venues like the Memorial to Peace and Justice, The Rosa Parks Museum and the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church as training sites. “Civil rights is part of the history of this city,” Hatchcock says. “You walk through Montgomery and you can see it, feel it, touch it.” The city is also using some of its large venues, like its Convention Center and Union Train Station (which can accommodate up to 5,000 people) to allow for greater social distancing in smaller meetings.  

Hatchcock says cities like Montgomery that have both a combination of intriguing outdoor spaces along with large meeting venues have an advantage as the meetings industry copes with COVID-19. “The great thing about Montgomery as a destination for meeting planners is that all our history is very walkable and much of it is outdoors,” she says.

The CVB is also working to develop programs for hybrid meetings, something Hatchcock says is increasingly in demand. “We understand the need for that component,” she says. “But there’s nothing like being in a place – tasting its food, walking its historic streets and meeting its people, even from six feet away, that is always going to be irreplaceable.”

Tammy Routh, senior vice president of Marriott International’s global sales organization, agrees. “I really admire what Montgomery is doing,” she says.

Alabama is one of the states that is poised to net meetings from cities in colder climes that have limited outdoor access in winter months. Routh says that for Marriott and its meetings business, the South, including Florida and Texas, has been seeing the most encouraging signs of recovery. “We are seeing a lot of pent up demand,” she says. “Customers are saying ‘I need you to show me how meetings are being done successfully.’”

Routh notes that most of the meetings she has seen “have been hybrid, because some people can’t travel and they don’t want to have to quarantine when they get home.” She also sees recovery faster in areas where resorts have lots of outdoor space: the Ritz Carlton in Amelia Island or the Gaylord Palms in Florida, for instance.

Although hybrid meetings “will be around for some time to come,” Routh thinks that virtual meetings will eventually run their course. The technology, she says, “was great for a short period of time and it served its purpose, but it’s not sustainable.” The desire to meet in person is growing, says Routh, so much so that Marriott is bringing some of its meeting sales force back from furlough to meet that demand.

“People want to connect with others in person,” she says. “It’s a human need and that is never going to go away.”