Pandemic Ripple Extends To Business Events

As the pandemic, eventually, moves to the rearview mirror — we might move from post-COVID to an era to be defined as post-convention. It’s no secret that the meetings and events industry has been hit hard as in-person events have shuttered, as seen this week with the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) taking to a virtual format. Zoom calls have replaced confabs. The ripple effects have been and will continue to be palpable.

We noted in this space, toward the end of last year, that the advent of vaccines would spur a return to “normal” life, toward large-scale gatherings, among them trade shows and events. A recovery would be an economic boon; the Events Industry Council has estimated that events, overall, add $1 trillion to the global economy.

It’ll take a while to get back to any semblance of that activity. In one estimate, back in October, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly told CNBC that it could take 10 years for business travel to bounce back to pre-COVID levels, and where 2020 levels had slumped by 80 percent. But there is evidence of pent-up demand. The Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) said late last month that in a survey of its membership that optimism abounds for a return to traveling in 2021.

“What we’re seeing in this latest poll is a number of reasons for the business travel industry to be optimistic about 2021, especially toward the middle of the year,” said GBTA Interim Executive Director Dave Hilfman in a statement. “As the vaccine rollout gains momentum and if we see a corresponding drop in positive COVID-19 test results, this survey suggests something of a return to personal connections and in-person meetings and events in the business space.”

As many as three out of four respondents say their employees will attend in-person meetings and events starting in the second quarter or third quarter of next year; 89 percent state they expect to attend an in-person meeting or event with attendees outside their own company by the third quarter of the year.

Vaccines A Determining Factor 

Much depends on the vaccine, where 59 percent of the GBTA’s members state that availability of a vaccine is a “significant” factor in resuming business travel. And although it didn’t specifically address business events or travel, PYMNTS research released this week shows that vaccines are far from a lock. The Mapping Consumers’ Return To The Physical World study showed consumers are more willing to get vaccinated now than in the past, but almost half are still either against or lukewarm about the idea. Fifty-one percent of all consumers now say they are “very” or “extremely” likely to get vaccinated. This is more than the 45 percent who said they were on Nov. 19 and the 40 percent who said so on Nov. 12 but still leaves 49 percent of the population that is only “somewhat,” “slightly” or “not at all” interested in getting vaccinated.

For cities like Las Vegas, Nevada, the recovery cannot come fast enough. As estimated by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor’s Authority, conventions, as measured in 2019, contributed more than $3 billion in wages and more than $11.4 billion of total economic output. And as detailed in Forbes, in the wake of the pandemic, Nevada unemployment was recently running at north of 12 percent, and recent hotel occupancy rates of only 64 percent on weekends, 39 percent on weekdays.

The Wall Street Journal estimated that conventions will bounce back, because of the value of meeting clients and keeping track of competitors.

What, then, might a “post-pandemic” meetings and events landscape look like? A hybrid, we’d contend — of business meetings in person (the essential kind, where suppliers and buyers gather in B2B-intense verticals), and done digitally — perhaps through smaller meetings, where proof of vaccination may be a prerequisite, and massive meets and greets may give way to more intimate (socially distanced, for now?) affairs.

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