Will the international event market ever recover?
With the government lifting restrictions on the use of conference space from 1st October 2020, hotels and conference venues are planning the re-opening of event space. This announcement came with a few caveats however that will still be cause for concern for bookers. The announcement stated it would happen “provided rates of infection remain at current levels” and that Boris Johnson stated he “will not hesitate to put on the brakes if required.”1 Also a series of pilots were announced, the details of which have not been revealed and no indication of when results will be made public.
No going back
There is no doubt that businesses have realised they can hold very effective virtual meetings, events and training. “This pandemic has proved it is possible to host more virtual events” says Claire Bell of Dorchester Collection. “There is so much wonderful technology out there that can help with bridging the gap and make people feel connected”. Established conferencing software have been a saviour to many companies and new entrants are getting traction. “I am sure technology will play a big role for smaller meetings that can be transformed into virtual meetings.” added Kasia Rudnik of The Langham London “We have seen that happening in past few years and it will only evolve further”.
Some business discussions still rely on building rapport face to face and being able to see the nuances of body language so it is hoped that the smaller off-site meeting and training will return quickly. It will take a while for trainers to master getting the same level of interaction and outcomes from virtual workshops as well as the redesign of their group activities and is an opportunity for hotels that can offer a flexible and more creative environment. Virtual meetings, though productive and efficient, often lack the ideation and team forming that comes from people gathering in a room.
So what about the large international events? Will they ever return?
With quarantine rules changing weekly it is hard to see when large groups of multinational delegates will want to travel to a location to confer, network and do business.
Chair of the HMA Petra Clayton is confident they will return. “There will be a decline in some sectors I’m sure, but the international conference will still have a place. We need face to face and we long to travel and to meet new people so it’s going to be key to business and networking.”
Steve Lowy who sits on the Board of BETA and STAY WYSE agrees. “I think humans have always had an urge to explore the globe, and this won’t change. Meeting a human face to face as opposed to online is a very different experience, from body language to general banter.
Pamela Carvell, HMA Life President has a different view. “I have a feeling that the days of international conferences are over. Many have always been ‘jollies’ with a bit of learning thrown in, and I think they will be discouraged in future for a whole variety of reasons: reduce travel, reduce costs, save time, reduce the environmental impact.”
Looking to event organisers
“It poses a challenge to conference organisers that will have to work hard to keep their events relevant to people travelling” says Steve Lowy.
Rather than cancel, some conferences and exhibitions have and continue to go ahead virtually and with conference streaming, workshops, exhibitions and even wellbeing hubs all possible online the pandemic has given us a glimpse of the event of the future. A survey by Freemans2 found that 52% of event marketers will plan to have a digital component to all events moving forward. Stephen Moran, HMA Vice Chair, also looks to technology. “The industry had already seen great innovation in this segment with conferences becoming more interactive with the introduction of new technology. These innovations will only be accelerated even further in the current environment.”
Some ideas by Freemans2 suggest event organisers could look to orchestrate smaller events connected via general session, livestreamed and allowing for at home participation, or even put on smaller events that travel from location to location. This provides an opportunity for hotels and venues with space for exhibitions or that have been too small for the major events. Especially those that have the technology to support synchronous events over multi-national locations.
Are we ready?
For smaller events hotels have adapted quickly and are proactively promoting their reduced room capacity to accommodate social distancing and some using explainer videos to reassure bookers and attendees. This is a bigger challenge for conference and exhibitions where virtual tours, floorplans and capacities will need to be redone with variable guidelines in place.
The government guidance1 on the safe resumption of business events and conferences cover such things as; contactless registration systems, no paper handouts and gifts, one way systems and space between exhibition booths along with enhanced cleaning protocols. Large brands have now published their new cleanliness and safety protocols and a range of certifications are being promoted for smaller venues. The Meeting Industry Association3 has provided a comprehensive roadmap to help hotels re-open their meetings space. It is safe to assume that event organisers will be looking for reassurances of all these measure in proposals. Marketers need to work closely with the sales community to ensure they have agreed messaging and materials to share.
Martin Evans of The Tourism Business runs a number of conferences each year including the National Hotel Marketing Conference. He acknowledges that large international events, as with all conferences, will need to change and adopt new practices but is confident they will return. “I am currently working with the venue for the postponed 2020 National Hotel Marketing Conference. It’s meant thinking about how we can still deliver an inspirational environment where people can network and exchange ideas and current best practice in hotel marketing yet feel safe.”
To bring international conferences to the UK marketers will need to look at their product offerings, the re-packaging of features and benefits and what opportunities there now are. Marketers need to be at the centre of how this can be communicated consistently to the customer on all channels and planning the campaigns that will bring the larger events back to them when the sector starts to recover. Meanwhile, those able to offer more open and creative spaces and with outdoor areas can be featuring these and giving reasons to travel to specific locations will be as important as ever.
It seems hotels may have to wait a while before they see large events and banqueting to come back through their doors, but enquiries may soon start coming through with new requests seeking innovative new product offerings. Though some events may well be casualties of the pandemic, the human need to connect, share experiences and bond over pre-dinner drinks gives us real hope that the international event will survive.
Sources and resources
- The full Freemans report can be downloaded here.
- Resources and full reports are available on the MIA website
And with thanks to the Hotel Marketing Association committee for their contributions.