People attend a banquet at the Skirvin Hilton Hotel in downtown Oklahoma City before the COVID-19 pandemic. (Journal Record file photo)

In a survey sent to 16,000 meeting planners, Smart Meetings asked how planners adjusted during COVID-19. Industry experts weighed in with their opinions to create a complete picture of the future of meetings, conferences and gatherings.

The white paper, “A Vision for Post-COVID-19 Meetings,” found that restrictions on group activity stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic did not slow planners for long.

In fact, 80% of survey respondents said they were still actively planning for future meetings. When the virus shut down group meetings for months, planners mostly stayed busy with 69% using videoconferencing to network, 68% taking classes or continued education and 42% working to help others who were struggling.

Recently, factor 110 kicked off the National Weather Service’s national conference, a five-day event that is all-virtual. Fourteen people working 12 hours a day is what it takes to pull off a virtual conference this size, but Brian Ferrell, president of factor 110 in Oklahoma City, is thrilled to have the business.

“Our industry was the first to go and will be the last to come back. The industry is really suffering,” said Ferrell.

As one of Oklahoma City’s top providers of event and destination management, factor 110 lost 95% of its business this year as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down events and conferences worldwide.

Although the industry learned to pivot quickly to virtual and hybrid events, the blow to the meeting planning industry was severe. The looming question now months after the pandemic hit is how meetings and gatherings will look in the future.

Nicole Thomas, founder of Epic Events in Oklahoma City, specializes in corporate, nonprofit and social events. Most of her nonprofit clients simply do not want their galas and events to be virtual, she said.

“I took and am still taking every webinar I can find about hybrid and virtual events,” she said, wanting to keep busy when business dried up. “Not one of my clients chose virtual, but I really think that virtual and hybrid events are the way it’s going now.”

The lockdown stemming from COVID-19 affected thousands of meetings, which meant meeting planners had to either cancel or postpone events to later dates, pivot the meeting to a virtual format or cancel events altogether.

While more than 56% said they had to cancel some meetings, more than 69% said they would be postponing, and almost 51% said they would pivot to virtual.

In many cases, planners used multiple strategies to avoid canceling scheduled events or meetings.

Event management companies in Oklahoma like factor 110 had to quickly pivot into the virtual sphere, but even then, they also had to weather a blizzard of cancellations and lost business.

“We were on track to have a very good year in 2020,” Ferrell said. “Most of the events in April and May simply canceled, but we held our first virtual conference in June and had three weeks to plan it.”

A little over half of planners, according to the survey, are planning to convert their programming to a virtual or hybrid program to expand their reach beyond the number of people willing to travel to a destination in the short term. Several said that more meeting professionals will be comfortable in the future planning hybrid meetings and charging for streaming content after having to pivot to virtual this year.

“It’s not just hosting webinars. You have to be able to offer experiences, find cool ways for people to connect virtually and have fun virtually,” Ferrell said. “The value in meetings and conferences is in the connectivity and the networking. That’s why we try to replicate in a virtual space.”

With all the meetings from the early part of 2020 pushed to the fourth quarter, many planners said they thought meetings would come back with a bang, but most felt group events would return more tentatively.

“In-person events will come back with a vengeance when it does come back,” said Thomas. “People are itching to gather together again. You just can’t get that human connection through a computer screen. I think COVID also opened up new avenues like hybrid events that will continue into the future.”

Hybrid events would probably come back first before full in-person conferences do. In addition, having a hybrid conference that is both in-person and online opens up more sales opportunities for conferences in the future.

Still, many are looking at a long haul before the industry bounces back for good.

“We don’t anticipate our business returning to pre-COVID levels until 2024,” Ferrell said.

One thing that might change is how binding contracts look, especially when so much uncertainty remains. Many planners said they are asking for and getting more flexible attrition, food and beverage minimums, cancellation terms and enhanced force majeure clauses. Others expect contracts to become more binding.

“I think contracts will get a lot more strict and we’ll see more upfront, nonrefundable deposits, which makes sense,” said Thomas. “Businesses will tighten up their contract guidelines. It’s about protecting their businesses too. When events cancel, it creates a nightmare of trickle-down effects.”

While almost all respondents agreed that the industry will come back, the big question seemed to be how and when. Despite that open question, many planners said the social distancing experienced this year could place a greater value on what meeting professionals do and on in-person gatherings.

“The human connectivity and human spirit is what people miss. They miss connecting in person, so in-person events will be huge when it comes back,” Ferrell said. “But, it will have to be meaningful. We won’t have meetings just to have meetings in the future. You’ll have to offer something with value that is meaningful.”

Thomas agreed.

“Some of the good things that will come out of all this is it has taught us new creative ways to reinvent the wheel,” she said. “It forces us to make events more attractive, forces us to think outside the box and for who survive this year will come back stronger and better.”