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Recovery of In-Person Meetings Proves Double-Edged Sword for Planners

Skift Take

What were meeting planners discussing at the first in-person Global DMC Partners conference since 2019? Just like the conference itself, their events are moving back to in-person — but rapidly rising demand also means growing pressures.

It’s no secret that the pandemic has decimated many parts of the event industry. The tides may finally be turning, but this recovery raises the question: What does the rapid return of in-person events look like for those left standing?

At the Global DMC Partners Connection conference in Puerto Rico last month, the discussion topics mirrored the sense of celebration that surrounded the event itself. Planners confirmed that their bookings are through the roof.

While this widespread recovery is welcome news, it is in many ways a double-edged sword. “It’s the best of times and the worst of times,” said Catherine Chaulet, president and CEO of Global DMC Partners. “It’s wonderful that companies were so quick to understand that face-to-face is essential, but it’s been two and a half years of virtual, and a lot of people left the industry.”

Chaulet explained that on top of an exodus to other professions, far fewer recent graduates took on hospitality jobs. In contrast, just as many on the opposite end of the generational spectrum opted to retire. At the same time, planners are facing pressure to upgrade their tech skills while also coping with rising prices and supply chain shortages.

Staffing Crisis

Those who have weathered the storm are now tasked with returning to business as usual, and making up for lost time. “Suddenly, there are far fewer people managing so many more programs — in many instances combining 2020, 2021, and 2022,” said Chaulet.

“We’ve had more booked events in the first half of this year than we would ever have in the previous nine that we’ve been in business,” confirmed Sean Hoff, managing partner of event agency Moniker, a guest speaker on a panel of industry experts.

This surge in demand means that event businesses now have to grow their capacity fast, which they can only manage with the help of new hires.

According to research from Global DMC Partners, 61 percent of companies in the industry are currently hiring, will be hiring in 2022, or have recently made new hires.

During her opening keynote address, Chaulet asked the audience how many of them currently had open positions in their companies. Nearly everyone raised their hands. She then asked how many were overworked. “It was just a sea of hands going up, and that tells a lot,” said Chaulet of the response.

Tech Savvy Reskilling

Adding to the pressure of being short-staffed is the need for new technological skills. With the rapid transition to virtual events followed by the widespread adoption of hybrid formats, many event planners are expected to double as video production and live streaming experts.

“What are the skill sets that are required of meeting planners? Certainly finding destinations, P&L management, contract management, staffing management, labor laws, health and sanitation, and now on top of that, there’s technology,” said Chaulet. “Meeting planners are being asked to use each and every one of those skills while they have a limited budget and lack resources.”

Panelists explained that their teams are stretched too thin to consider hybrid formats at this stage. Their teams cannot afford the added investment of budget and human resources when they have a backlog of in-person meetings to plan.

The flip side of this equation is that those with technological know-how are now in high demand. Rae Malcham, chief strategy officer for BW Events Tech, said that technologists are now included in every part of the event planning process. In contrast, before the pandemic, they were rarely given “a seat at the table.”

The digital revolution is influencing the recruitment process as well. For example, Hoff leveraged his team’s video production skills to help reel in new hires. Instead of a standard job description, they posted videos with a “day on the job” snapshot of the work and its perks. As a result, they received roughly three times the number of applications they typically attracted in pre-pandemic times.

Inflation and Supply Chain Issues

Inflation, particularly as it relates to fuel prices, was one of the critical issues raised by Chaulet in her keynote address. Hoff echoed her commentary: “The cost of certain things has exponentially jumped — anything that has fuel-related transfers, airfare, boats.” Some of his clients are even considering alternative destinations because of rising airfare costs.

Other panelists pointed to exponentially rising costs for event-related services like badge printing, often with longer lead times for securing orders.

The Need to Recalibrate Expectations

As a final hurdle, meeting planners often have to recalibrate the expectations of their C-suite teams and clients. Higher prices mean bigger budgets or smaller plans (or both), and supply chain shortages mean longer lead times.

According to Chaulet, there is an industry-wide need to educate those with budget-setting authority on the rising costs of business meetings and events. Regulations such as the per-meal cost of events for the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry are now even more restrictive. “In certain European countries, the limit is 60 Euros per person for a three-course meal with alcohol,” she said. “There is a need to reevaluate all this because it’s simply not possible in many cities.”

It’s a conversation that Hoff has needed to have with some of his clients. “We explain the cost of food, cost of transportation, cost of flights, everything’s gone up,” he said. “My analogy is always, ‘When was the last time you went grocery shopping? Last week? Did it cost more than it did in 2018?’”

Competition for space, particularly for buying out whole venues, is also a challenge. Companies may not always be able to book buyouts at their preferred time of year or even at their preferred time of the week. “Because of this double cohort of other groups that have been postponed, they’re competing with weddings. And obviously, it’s preferred to have a wedding on a weekend,” said Hoff. “If clients want buyouts, they’re increasingly having to limit themselves to weekdays only.”

Return to Face-to-Face

Even when compromises have to be made, however, both Chaulet and Hoff agreed that the overriding sentiment of the moment is one of gratitude. “At the end of the day, people are just so eager to get back out; they’re more grateful,” said Hoff.

The Connection conference itself reinforced this message, with conference delegates benefiting from simply sharing their struggles in a face-to-face setting.

“A lot of meeting planners in that room suddenly realized that they were not alone,” said Chaulet. She described one client who came up to her afterward saying, “Thank you so much. I just called my team and said, “We’re not doing anything wrong. Everybody’s dealing with the same thing.’”