The event industry is counting on a swift return to in-person events, particularly in the U.S. where many states have fully reopened and are eager to see vaccinated people fill convention centers. Despite increased bookings and positive signs across the industry, travel policies remain restrictive and may scupper recovery plans.
According to the latest CDC recommendations, large gatherings remain unadvisable for anyone who is not fully vaccinated, leading states like California to warn against mega events, even for those fully vaccinated. Still, there are positive signs across the event industry and venue bookings are on the rise.
This matches the trend in the wider travel industry. New bookings for future stays in U.S. hotels were above pre-pandemic levels for the first time in April 2021, according to the Skift Recovery Index, highlighting the growing confidence in reopening and a real thirst for travel.
The business world is keen to get back to meeting in person and there are compelling arguments for the ongoing need for face-to-face events, even if only as an antidote to the “Zoom fatigue” that even Zoom’s CEO Eric Yuan admits to having. Overall, all legal advice continues to point to the need to “plan carefully and review all state and local guidelines before planning large corporate events.”
Business Travel as a Barometer
The B2B event industry is strongly linked to business travel, so understanding the current corporate thinking is key to assessing the short-term viability of the event industry. The recently published “Back To Blue Skies” Report from American Express and American Express Global Business Travel suggests a desire for business travelers to return to pre-pandemic levels of corporate travel over the next two years. The same report also points to 78 percent of decision makers expecting changes in corporate travel policies compared to pre-pandemic.
GBTA’s May 2021 member polls reveal that 62 percent of companies canceled or suspended most or all domestic business trips, and 42 percent of those plan to resume these over the next 1-3 months. In the case of international travel, the numbers are more dramatic: 92 percent of companies canceled or suspended most or all international business trips, and of those, 13 percent plan to resume these over the next 1-3 months. The same polls also reveal another worrying sign: Business travel supplier optimism has dropped from 54 percent (optimistic/very optimistic) in April to 47 percent in May. It seems the jury is still out on Bill Gates’ November 2020 prediction that “more than 50% of business travel will disappear in [the] post-coronavirus world.”
The many events that have taken place in Florida and across the U.S. (as well as dedicated test events in Europe) suggest that we can organize safe events. The current limitations in business travel suggest that it may be the biggest barrier to the recovery of the event industry, and not proving that events are safe or that people want to attend them. Issues around insurance and liability are likely to be the main cause, and these may not go away any time soon.
Evidence From the Field
Speaking with Kai Troll, President of ASSOCIATIONWORLD, he shares that “many [European based] associations have a travel ban until the end of the year, including organizing their own travel, so they are not able to participate in any public meetings.”
Troll is also aware that many are also not comfortable with attending live meetings, and even those who are comfortable may not be able to do so with the limited travel budgets available, previously set for a year without travel. While the travel policies of associations and nonprofits may differ in scope from corporate travel policies, the limitations they impose have the same effect on the event industry.
Academic institutions appear to also be following suit. A professor at Copenhagen University (who did not want to be named) reported that the message from the parent organization is clear: no travel for any academics until further notice. Given that Copenhagen University is considered to be the research institution in the Nordic region with the most articles published in the leading journals Nature and Science, this could have a significant impact on upcoming academic conferences worldwide.
The Case for Virtual Events
It may not be what those focussed on the in-person part of the event industry want to hear, but lingering travel uncertainty only contributes to the case for virtual events. We’ve explored the benefits in terms of inclusivity, and there is growing interest from the academic community around improving scientific meetings of all shapes and sizes. Even organizers of small meetings at local council level such as the infamous Jackie Weaver have made the case for virtual meetings.
Some corporate travel agencies are embracing this idea, although they will likely be the minority. Virtual event tech vendors themselves differ in their approach and predictions. Some (presumably those with a vested interest in in-person meetings) are betting on a swift return to in-person meetings, with hybrid offerings bridging the gap. Others are happy to continue to develop their platforms fully focused on the virtual side of the events.
While the link between events and travel policies is undeniable, there is no way of knowing how quickly the travel policies will change and adapt to new coronavirus recommendations. Vaccination has given the event industry a huge boost, at least in terms of bookings, but recovery cannot be confirmed until convention center halls are buzzing with business once more across the globe.