Cautious Optimism Ahead for Fall 2021

cautious optimism

The catch-phrase for meetings and events in fall 2021? Cautious optimism.

As the Delta variant continues to inject uncertainty into the event planning and sourcing process, increases in vaccination requirements by locales, venues and employers, and the Biden administration’s announcement that it was reopening air travel from 33 countries to the U.S. starting in early November, are having some mitigating effects. To find out what planners are experiencing now, Prevue found a mood of cautious optimism among members of its Editorial Advisory Board.

Along with a sense of cautious optimism as we round the corner into 2022, here are a few of the trends they noted:

Postponement, Cancellation Still on the Rise

Near-term corporate events are still being cancelled due to delta-related setbacks in COVID infections, the board members agreed. “For my company, all clients had cancelled for the rest of 2021 after the delta setback,” said Steffi Kordy, Owner, Cocoon Incentives LLC. “In fact, many extended their work-from-home [policies] until at least November, which also means that they are not yet ready to plan in person meetings,” she added.

Those that aren’t being cancelled outright often are being postponed, with many being pushed back to at least Q2 of 2022. “All are still very cautious and worried about perception from attendees and other stakeholders,” noted Doug Wheeler, Principal, Summit Performance Group.

Hesitancy Reigns for Early 2022 Bookings

In terms of new events, many remain hesitant to book in Q1 2022. “Clients are monitoring several indicators that may influence their decisions,” said Josh Adams, CMP, Industry Relations Strategist, streamlinevents. Among the factors that influence their decisions, he said, are:

  • The general level of infection and hospitalizations in the destinations they have chosen for their meetings
  • Vaccination and masking mandates, which they see as an indicator of being able to create a safe, healthy and welcoming environment for attendees
  • The easing of travel restrictions. The recent news that the U.S. will be relaxing entry for vaccinated travelers has been a welcome development for planning for international attendance
  • The level of liability that may be associated with holding a face-to-face meeting. Planners are seeking legal advice on the matter, and are eager to know what action they can take to limit liability to satisfy internal stakeholders

Staffing and service levels at event venues also are a continuing concern, as are inconsistencies related to health and safety protocols, said Leslie Zeck, CMP, CMM, HMCC, Director of Meetings, International Association for Dental Research, American Association for Dental, Oral, and Craniofacial Research. “We are now implementing our own food safety requirements and will not meet in destinations that do not comply with CDC guidelines.”

Hybrid and Fully Virtual Options

“Our industry got extremely excited a few months ago due to the influx of requests for in-person meetings from our clients, which made us feel that we were getting back to somewhat normal,” said Carlos Sandoval, Senior Event Experience Manager, Meetings & Incentives Worldwide. Unfortunately, the increase of cases in various states and other countries as well as the delta variant took again a toll in the in-person meetings, he added.

For those who aren’t postponing or cancelling near-term events outright, the hybrid solution is still a good option. “We continue to see our member companies, hospitals and universities exercise extreme caution due to the ongoing spread of COVID-19 cases and continue their bans on non-essential travel,” said Zeck. “This is impacting attendance at meetings and events into the coming year, so we are currently planning a hybrid format for our Annual Meeting next March.”

Others are sticking with fully virtual events, at least for now. “While we certainly miss the many benefits that in-person events bring, our business is embracing the benefits of virtual and continues to take a conservative approach when it comes to bringing groups together,” said Sherri Lindenberg, Senior Vice President, Marketing Communications with Crump Life Insurance Services. “We have chosen not to book or hold in-person events in 2021, other than some small teammate business meetings in our offices or outdoors. Aside from a handful of ‘rollover’ events in 2022, we are not booking new in-person programs (outside of small internal team meetings in our facilities) until there is more stability nationally in managing the spread and higher vaccination rates. Our first planned in-person events for 2022 are in May.”

Sandoval also is seeing a continued trend toward going virtual for the near term. Clients who weren’t cancelling outright “immediately pivoted to virtual meetings and we were ready for it!” he said. “Over the next few months, we are still seeing most of our meetings being virtual.”

Experts acknowledge that holding off on booking new events may come with a price, literally. As Lindenberg said, “We do realize that there is significant space compression in the marketplace and that our preferred options could be limited, or we may need to consider different places than we have traditionally sourced.” However, she added, given the changes in her company’s business strategy — a smaller office footprint, more remote employees, more business units, and growth initiatives — “it is the perfect time to rethink our event strategy to align the types of events we hold, the groups involved, and the best times and locations to have them in.”

Health and Safety Policies Still Key to In-Person Events

Dave Stevens, PMED, Director, Events, Alation, said that it will be tricky to navigate Q4 2021as people begin to move indoors and the extent of the spread of COVID in the U.S. remains up in the air for the winter. One thing is certain: “Several precautions still need to be taken.” And it’s not enough to just “suggest” people adhere to health and safety protocols, he added. “It’s critical to follow through and ensure they are acted on.” He said his company is full-steam-ahead with planning a company-wide in-person event early next year, and protocols and safety measures are of paramount concern.

While many of Sandoval’s clients opted to flip to virtual for the near future, he said, “Clients who are moving ahead with in-person meetings have specific restrictions as to the limit number of people that can attend the in-person meeting as well as mandates across the board to be vaccinated.” Zeck said her organization also will require vaccine verification for all attendees and vendors working its meeting in March 2022.

Stevens said the increase in proof-of-vaccination requirements at shows such as AWS re:Invent and IMEX “has definitely fueled confidence in requesting the same at smaller shows. Alation is exhibiting at three trade shows in Q4 and two of the three are requiring proof of vaccinations in order to attend.”

Several other Prevue Editorial Advisory Board members noted that the need to stay up to date on local, regional, state and venue-specific COVID restrictions and guidelines — and share updates with attendees and vendors — will be a fact of life for planners through at least early 2022. 

International Travel Trends

Incentive programs are going international — but not too far, said Prevue’s Editorial Advisory Board members. Most incentive clients who want an international destination are looking at Mexico and the Caribbean, but not at other international destinations at this point, said Wheeler.

They also are greeting the recent announcement by the Biden administration to reopen the borders to international air travelers with cautious optimism.The announcement to open the borders in November is great news,” said Kordy. “However, I think corporate is still cautious and has not started confirming new business, or maybe the news is still too fresh.” While she has several events pending for Q1 2022, they have not yet confirmed. “I feel that many feel, ‘once bitten, twice shy,” she said.

Cautious, but Still Optimistic

While there are still a lot of factors keeping the planning process in flux, the news isn’t all bad. As Adams said, “All in all, the trend to source and book meetings has remained relatively strong, and my guess is that it will continue to strengthen as businesses continue to return to a more normal state of operation.”

Some Prevue Advisory Board members also reported that their portfolios are in fact starting to look pretty healthy these days. “I think next year is going to be a very busy year for trade shows and conferences on the rebound,” said Stevens. However, he added, “Organizers must have a backup plan and or a hybrid option in place or they will set themselves up for failure.”

While she acknowledges the hardships of the past 18 months, Kimberly Bean, Event Specialist, KBT Creative Support Services, said that she is moving forward in a determined and goal-oriented way. “And it has paid off — my client list has exploded and, while things cooled off a bit in late summer, my executive retreats, symposia and meetings are in full swing for Q3 and Q4 of 2021,” she said.

While COVID variants are likely to linger, her clients tend to be well-informed and take precautions seriously. “Education, flexibility and comfort level are key to the decision-making process,” she said. “I am in full planning mode for Q1 2022 and beyond, feeling confident it will be a robust year.”

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