What Will Become of Business Meetings and Conferences in the Post-Covid World?

Is a “new normal” emerging that will permanently alter how the world’s leading businesses and industry groups plan and execute conferences, conventions, and face-to-face regional, national, and international gatherings? Will the army of corporate and lodging industry meeting planners soon be flooding LinkedIn and executive recruiters with their resumes as their jobs and their profession morph into a smaller, technology-dominated world of virtual e-conferences and conventions? And what about the meeting industry supply chain? Where will manufacturers of those little paper umbrellas served in countless tropical drinks at thousands of poolside conference cocktail receptions find a market for these unique but rather ineffective rain-deterrent devices?  

According to behavioral scientists and HR professionals, don’t bet on the death of a powerful multi-billion-dollar industry that leverages several basic human emotions, the need to interact with colleagues to stimulate the exchange of ideas through formal and informal discussions during breaks (and yes, even poolside) and the value of face-to-face socialization with others sharing your interests, business concerns, and innovative ideas. 

It isn’t just the industry behemoths that thrive on in-person meetings. Alyssa Gregory, a marketing consultant for small business notes that, “Live events give you the opportunity to watch and learn from visual cues, body language, and the overall atmosphere and environment. These non-verbal elements and the opportunity to see, feel, touch, and absorb the information being presented add a level of learning not easily accessed via online events.”

Although it’s true that the meetings industry has crashed as air travel effectively shut down and corporate employees sheltered at home, signs of recovery are emerging. 

Marriott International’s President and CEO, Arne Sorenson, reported the first green shoots of recovery in his firm’s quarterly earnings call on May 11 noting, 

“April seems to have defined the bottom,” in terms of the weeks-long crash of worldwide hotel occupancy that decimated business travel and Marriott’s substantial meetings and conventions business. Sorenson and other industry experts anticipate that meetings activity will be the slowest portion of hotel business to recover. So what will the recovery look like?

Meeting planners have a clear mandate from senior management to resume a decades’ long pattern of bringing people together in productive and compelling face-to-face sessions, but it will be a multi-step process. MRINetwork Director, Meetings & Awards Programs, Kellye McClurkin notes, “Our 400-office Network, with thousands of talent advisors spread across four continents, utilizes online tools every day to stay in touch. But we see an incredible value in effectively planned and executed in-person gatherings to recognize success and to generate business growth opportunities, and many of our clients report the same interest in relaunching these vital events.”  

According to McClurkin and other planning professionals, employee perceptions of safety will drive an initial return to conducting successful in-person events. First, is air travel perceived as safe? Is there confidence in TSA procedures, airline cabin cleanliness, and distancing? Second, are meeting protocols in place to ensure cleanliness of hotel facilities, meeting spaces, and food and beverage handling. “Once these basic building blocks are in place,” McClurkin notes, “business leaders can concentrate on creating the agendas, content, and energy that generate productive meetings. Great meetings are an essential part of any firm’s future, and we can’t wait to get to that final third step.”