The pandemic forced every meeting to get at least smaller – but hardly simpler. Capacity limits, F&B minimums, streaming in and out – the question for planners and travel buyers is how to maintain protocols, juggle facilities and still deliver an effective meeting experience, both remotely and in-person. One thing is for sure – it’s not business as it once was.

Event planners, meeting organizers, tech experts and others in the meetings management arena have been remarkably successfully in their “pivot” during 2020 and 2021. To take meetings into the virtual stratosphere without any prior “training,” all in the name of business continuity, was no small feat. And for many companies, despite the hardships, business still blossomed.

However, as with everything in life, it came with a cost. Virtual meeting technology wasn’t cheap. Planning staff was cut. Working from home had its ups and downs. In fact, many went through something of a crisis.

According to JT Long, editorial director at California-based Smart Meetings, a meetings industry media company, “Many spent the pandemic pause doing some existential thinking about what they actually deliver, learning new digital content delivery tricks and dreaming about how wonderful it will feel to be around people again. And things may look a little different when we return to the ballroom. From sanitation theater and sanctuary seating to ‘simulive’ learning, meeting professionals who earnestly embrace the digital producer role and take their cues from Superbowl and Academy Award broadcasts will undoubtedly succeed in a hybrid future.

Cautious Optimism 
What exactly is a hybrid future and are meeting professionals ready to take that on? There are enough challenges as it stands – rates are sky-high, space and availability are super-tight, and vaccine/testing questions insert another layer of complexity to various cleanliness, mask and social distancing requirements.

Now add to this mix the stretching of the traditional meeting planner role into an “experience designer role.” According to Shauna Whitehead, vice president of customer solutions at BCD Meetings & Events in Minneapolis, MN, “When planning events with a true hybrid component, it can be between 40 and 60 percent more labor and time intensive as a live event. It’s not one dimensional anymore; the design process includes input from creative and artistic producers, technology and communications experts, as well as experience and content creators who are looking at the attendee journey in multiple forms and analyzing every touch point in order to drive optimal attendee engagement and maximize impact of the event.”

On top of that, logistics requirements drives the cost of venues up. “It’s a supply and demand marketplace,” comments Kevin Iwamoto, chief strategy officer of Bizly, a meeting management platform. “It’s easy to monetize live events, through entertainment, dining, ground transport, etc. But how do you monetize the virtual audience? In addition, you now must produce an archival digital library for virtual attendees, so they can have access to content.”

So what are meeting planners to do? Simplify, simplify, simplify, Iwamoto says. “During COVID, the daily meeting space facilitated business in the sense it forced everyone to become a pseudo meeting planner,” he says. “The more difficult the technology, the less people want to use it, so our user profiles changed. The user now wants easy to use, self-service technology that allows them to maintain cohesive daily meetings whether virtual or hybrid, that gives them a playbook to follow,” Iwamoto adds.

“The hybrid model is expensive, and in the end, it all comes down to numbers,” notes Charles De Gaspe Beaubien, founder and chief customer officer at Groupize, an enterprise meeting management platform. “We want to democratize event technology, so that’s its accessible and affordable to all. Our technology has reduced the need for in-house planners. It’s more about using decentralized management, with the occasional professional travel planner stepping in for more complex situations. Today, executing TMM (total meetings management) must have enough visibility, functionality and flexibility so that anybody can plan meetings.”

When Can I See You Again? 
Technology is definitely influencing the decision to remain hybrid – or not. “Tech is actually a step behind in affecting how virtual attendees can interact,” according to Bruce Kopkin, VP of sales and marketing at DVI, which was recently acquired by Atlanta-based expense management solution provider Emburse. “When you’re face to face there’s an undeniably strong human element. You forget about the virtual audience, so engaging them takes more thought and planning.”

In a nutshell, live meetings simply aren’t as easy to plan as they used to be. Today, organizers experience multiple challenges, such as:
•enforcing social distancing and mask requirements, even with lower capacity seating
•providing sanitizers and masks (even for those who are vaccinated)
•providing quarantine space for someone who shows up with a fever
•verifying venue availability since many private dining rooms and restaurants have closed
•finding medical professionals or “health officers” with COVID safety training certifications to administer daily COVID tests
•vetting AV companies, sanitation companies and F&B providers as well.
•dealing with rising hotel and ancillary rates
•managing onsite “health” or “audit” roles to ensure outlined protocols are followed and that attendee health and safety is effectively managed

While technology and cost are mainly driving the decisions for hybrid events, two other factors – safety and inclusivity – lie beneath the return of face-to-face meetings.

”In terms of safety, the need for new onsite protocols for events such as cleaning specifications, increased signage and spacing for social distancing requirements are a must,” explains BCD M&E’s Whitehead. “While cautious companies (or location specifications) may require on-site or pre-event testing and managed health checks daily, others will put that ownership on the attendee to show up only if in good health.”

But what about feeling safe internally, as an attendee? Some companies are toying with the idea of using wristbands with different colors as identifiers to designate preferences. For example, a wristband of one color may indicate you’re comfortable with being hugged, while another color lets people know you’d rather maintain a 6-foot distance.
Inclusivity is altogether another story. Vaccination policies will vary and likely take the lead from the organization’s key decision makers. However, what is policy like for those who are not vaccinated? “Each company will make their own standard. But will need to keep inclusivity in mind, especially towards those who may not be able to receive the vaccine due to medical, religious or other reasons,” Whitehead says.

Creatures of Habit 
During the COVID-19 crisis, many companies incorporated stringent health and safety requirements for essential travel under the almighty Duty of Care banner. However, as in-person meetings return, will people go back to their old habits?
Enter wellness protocols. Most travelers don’t seem to want to go back to the old days of taking a red-eye flight, only to go straight to one meeting after another, with a hectic networking lunch and late dinner, and no down time. While eager to travel, they want a distinct change in how meetings are managed, including wellness-inspired breaks, mindfulness, healthy eating and safe places for walking.

Will companies also go back to their old travel and meeting habits? “From a financial standpoint, the convergence point between meeting and travel is expense; in fact, up to 60 percent of cost of meetings is attributed to travel,” states DVI’s Kopkin. “What about efficacy? For example, is travel really necessary to have a sales kickoff meeting? Data is showing us that although we have not done that for 15 months, most non-travel and entertainment companies are doing OK. Travel spend is at 10 percent, so why go back?” he asks.

“The key here is to obtain more survey info from travelers and meeting attendees to track ROI,” Kopkin advises. “How many people DO want hybrid events? Where? What size? The big positive here is the rise of the employee voice to influence company culture. Humanizing the process is vital. For example, let’s get rid of the mundane tasks (i.e., no more PowerPoint slides!) and save face-to-face meetings for cultural sharing, brainstorming, and the developing of high-quality networks. Plus, of course, customer interactions.”

Forging Ahead 
Creativity and innovative thinking are the key to sustaining the new world of meetings in 2021 and 2022. Whether it’s meeting technology or wellness, the role of new “event digital producers” will be vital, as will discussions about mental health and work-life balance, contract clauses, hygiene, data security, inclusivity and advocacy.

“We learned the hard way that when we don’t speak with one voice as an industry, we could be on the wrong side of a closed door,” Long warns. “I believe strongly that as we are all going through this awkward, uncertain transition phase, it is important to give ourselves and others grace. It is safe to assume that everyone is grieving something. A relative lost too soon, a job, a sense of security in how the world works. Our hotel friends are understaffed and overworked, and we are still getting our IRL legs under us. Let’s take the time to breath, give thanks for the opportunity to do the work we do and create transformational experiences wherever we go.”