By Kaitlyn Wallace
In the Summer of 2020, Missouri Meetings & Events ran a cover story entitled Healing the Meetings and Events Industry: Reopening Post COVID-19. Though somber in tone, the text was full of optimism and planning for a thriving future in the meetings and events industry. Though the industry is certainly in a much better place than in the summer of 2020, it has been rocked by several new waves of the pandemic and experienced sharp fluctuations in travel and COVID precautions.
The journey towards full recovery has certainly not been as smooth as we could have hoped. So what does the recovery landscape look like now in 2022, two years later? Let’s take a closer look at what’s happening with COVID-19 recovery in the meetings and events industry.
The Current Landscape
First, we have to set the scene. What has happened since the summer of 2020?
“The beginning of the pandemic set the hospitality industry on high alert,” says Joanie Ohlms, Director of Sales at Greater St. Charles CVB. “2020 had its challenges with canceled meetings and conventions, but we began to see those coming back in the Fall of 2021 with smaller meetings and events with COVID precautions. At the moment, we are currently seeing conference planning returning closer to pre-pandemic levels.” In between these pinpoints were successive waves of the pandemic– delta, then omicron– which brought back restrictions on in-person events and the application of mask mandates in many states.
Though some industries were able to continue the uphill battle of recovery, the corporate meetings and events industry has been particularly hit hard by the constantly shifting landscape of the pandemic. Brenda Newbern, Executive Director of Cape Girardeau CVB, describes the current landscape as follows: “What has continued to struggle is our events for business; corporate travel and weekday business is just not recovering as fast. That’s across the country– corporate businesses are headquartered in larger cities, so all of their rules and guidelines are coming from places with more restrictions. It’s a very complicated scheme of recovery.” The highly local nature of COVID outbreaks and restrictions continues to complicate travel and large meetings and events across the country.
Not all industries have retained similar struggles. However, some have stepped into recovery leadership. Newbern and Ohlms both cited sports venues as a shining example of adaptability and positive attitudes towards recovery. Newbern states that “sports venues are very much in a leadership position; they’re always looking at how they can continue to host their events and do it safely. That was the best partnership we could have had… they’ve had such a positive attitude about how things can get done, even if it means extra work, there’s a feeling of ‘we can get through this, we can get past this, and we can learn from it.’” In fact, Newbern mentioned youth sports, in particular, as sustaining an upward recovery trajectory throughout the pandemic, increasing attendance and activities uniformly throughout 2021, and recording a record season so far in 2022.
Restaurants, of course, also merit an honorable mention in recovery leadership. With the help of committed patrons, restaurants have flexibly adapted to take-out, outdoor seating, and in-person dining as necessary throughout the pandemic. This kind of versatility has allowed the restaurant industry to exceed expectations to a near-full recovery in many areas and serves as an example of what is possible when, as Newbern describes, industries “make everything more flexible, more enjoyable, and really focus on what type of experience you can give to your customers.”
Here to Stay?
Debates on which COVID-19 precautions are here to stay remain contentious. The pandemic has proved difficult to predict– an unhelpful environment for organized and forward-thinking meeting and event planners, especially when precautions can be lifted or mandated at a moment’s notice. But while we can’t see the future of COVID precautions, we can make some educated guesses.
One precaution that is likely to be permanent is an increased focus on hygiene in public spaces– including meetings and events. Newbern supports this point of view, adding that “we’re going to have to learn how to live safely [and] how to monitor cleanliness. When you’re hosting a meeting, everything has to be wiped down and cleaned– which in all honesty, is something we should have been doing anything. Cleanliness is not going away– people are now always going to expect that.”
The presence of masks is also not going to fade out anytime soon. Attendance in the industry is hinged on making attendees feel comfortable and safe– which means attending to the needs of people with a variety of experiences with COVID. “There’s no judgment,” says Newbern, “if you want to wear a mask, wear a mask– we accept it all; we want to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable at meetings and events.” Ohlms seconds this opinion, stating that “attendees seem to greatly appreciate precautions as we get back to in-person [meetings and events]. It seems that precautions may continue through the next year as we get back to pre-pandemic meeting levels.”
Finally, the central question remains: are meetings and events going to remain virtual forever? Industry leadership tends to have strong opinions on both sides, with hybrid meeting proponents arguing that a more flexible meeting system can increase attendance by providing guests with more options and opponents arguing that online meetings are less effective than in-person ones. Representing the latter opinion, Newbern argues that “it’s not just the conference experience– it’s also the experience of another city, another town, another culture… the in-person meetings and the building of the relationships– the conversations that can be had in-between, on a break, at a lunch– we don’t have them on zoom. I hope the corporate world realizes that.” For now, there exists little indication of the direction of hybrid and online meetings. As the landscape of the pandemic continues to change, meeting and event planners will have to stay on high alert for changes in the online landscape to ensure the comfort and availability of all attendees.
Despite the rocky road to recovery, the meeting and events industry continues to look ahead. As Ohlms describes, “our industry peers are very optimistic about meetings returning to in-person. Tradeshows and conventions have been well-attended in 2022; the planners and suppliers are excited to be back.” On the other hand, Newburn takes a slightly more conservative point of view: “some people are feeling like we’re never going to recover, some people are feeling like we’ve already recovered. But I think the majority of people have gotten to a place where we understand that this is where we’re going to have to learn how to live.”
These viewpoints reflect the diversity of opinion within the industry– COVID is different everywhere, and so are the experiences of planners and professionals across the country.
As we continue to slowly inch towards recovery, we must keep in mind both those of us who are eager to return to normal and those who remain comfortable attending in person with strong precautions. Only by proceeding at a comfortable and cautious pace can we start to realize the vision of recovery we laid out in 2020– one of togetherness, understanding, optimism, and a return to a thriving meetings and events industry.
Kaitlyn Wallace is a contributing writer from St. Louis.