BTN throughout 2021 has followed a group of meeting practitioners on the recovery’s progress as companies return to face-to-face events. Participants in the third of the three-part series include Zurich-based Nadja Haag, global meetings and events manager for Takeda Pharmaceuticals; ZS Associates meetings and travel manager Suzanne Boyan; Anthem director of travel and events Cindy Heston; and industry consultant Betsy Bondurant. They spoke with BTN senior editor Donna M. Airoldi in late October and early November about how the issues facing meeting and event departments had evolved in the past few months. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
BTN: How have you resumed in-person meetings, and what have you learned?
Suzanne Boyan: It was an adventure. The largest required the most coordination. We invited 297 [people] and did a lot of things we had not done in the past. We had to consider [National Interest Exception] waivers to get people into the country for non-U.S. citizens. We worked closely with the global mobility team to get international participants who wanted to come in. They had to test before they arrived. To be equitable and for everyone’s peace of mind, we required PCR tests for domestic attendees, too. We shipped 250 tests to domestic attendees [to] get results 72 hours prior to the event, and on-site we had rapid testing available. PCR tests were available for those who wanted or needed to take one to return home after the meeting. It was hybrid, and we worked with a production company to make it a successful hybrid meeting. We had 216 in person and 75 over the platform.
I can now say I am a Covid PCR test expert. I know every question to ask. I think that will be the norm for at least a year. … We are still working with a very compressed market, in terms of labor shortages. One thing to take away is really communicating not just with the sales team but on-site staff and saying, ‘What can we do to partner closely together to make sure our meeting is a priority?’ I did feel like a lot of meetings were taking place during our meeting. They were at capacity, and they weren’t prepared.
Nadja Haag: We are in the middle of two virtual meetings and haven’t gone fully live again. We are still mindful that [some] people are not ready to travel. I have a colleague [who planned] a face-to-face, but [they] included a hybrid option because some people felt more safe virtually. Also, it is still complex to get people into other countries, depending on where they come from. Guidelines change every other day, at least in Europe. You need to know what is currently going on and try to keep up to date.
Cindy Heston: We are doing some in-person events with very tight protocols around requiring vaccinations, but also testing pre- and post-event for all participants. We now have the ability to request [test kits] through the event team, both for business travel and meetings and events.
On hotels, I agree, hotel staffing is a bit reduced. We are asking questions in the [requests for proposals] along the lines of, ‘Do you have other groups in-house?’ [If capacity is] at 200 percent, that’s a big red flag in our world. We don’t want crowding. … For the most part, we are not asking what type of group—just please let us know so we can inform our client what is happening, then they can make the call. It could happen after we contract. If they sign another group, we want to inform our client. That’s been in place for a year now, at least. Another thing which has been helpful is asking in the RFP if hotels are willing to have vaccinated staff. Are they willing to be tested pre- and post-[event]? We were asking a week before arriving: “No way. The staff is set.” But if it’s in the RFP, we get a very positive response.
Haag: It’s the same, we have stricter protocols than most venues. Even when we do production with a studio, we have tighter health and safety protocols internally and ask them to comply with us.
Boyan: We did tell them ahead what our expectations were. We wanted all hotel employees masked when servicing our group. They put caveats in—they didn’t know they had to be masked when outside. That would have been a good question to ask if not sure, and they knew we were having a lot of meals outside. Though we gave them a two-month heads-up, they were unclear on what the expectations were. Don’t assume that because it’s clear to you, that means it’s clear to them.
Betsy Bondurant: A client said as much. They want to go back to face-to-face—it’s a somewhat conservative company—and they are reserving the right in 30 days to revert to virtual depending on what is happening in the location. It’s [figuring out] how to be fair to hotel partners and be fair to the companies. The future is still so uncertain.
BTN: What current meeting trends are you experiencing?
Boyan: I’m seeing a push away from hybrid. It was important for this past meeting, because it was global. But now, heading into regional meetings, people are less excited about hybrid. When it comes to regional meetings, they do tend to be larger. It might be part cost consideration. People think hybrid should be less expensive, and it’s just not if you want it done well and engaging for both groups. As always, we are ready to pivot.
Heston: 2022 looks good. From a strategy standpoint, it’s all systems go. Since the beginning of September, there’s been a huge project initiative to automate as much as possible, to retrain and reeducate event planners on high-level event engagement stakeholder protocols and principles. We are much more open but cautious. We definitely see testing continue, especially being a health-care company. But we also see the desire not only for customer-facing [events] but also in the two years, a lot of our department leaders have hired new people. Teams are new but have never gotten together. A lot are incoming to our office facilities. Internal for us is still very facility-driven, but for sales and high-level meetings, we are sourcing and seeing tight compression for 2022. For meetings we know are normally on the books, we are talking to [internal] leaders and saying, ‘We know this is gray for you, and we don’t know what will happen in [the future]. Let’s see if we can negotiate for protection if things change.’ We want to make sure we are not behind. … Worst case, we know what to do in the virtual world. But we don’t want to be in a position where in Q1 they start to look and everything in the marketplace is gone.
Haag: We’ve had some in-person for smaller events. And more also [domestic] rather than international. We are looking at events next year, and I find it’s very hard. We already experienced this with one I’m searching for in November 2022. I have some offers, but the [venues] I wanted are already booked. I’m trying to follow what the stakeholders are looking for, to get the best negotiated terms needed. It’s hard to know what 2022 will bring.
Bondurant: There is an appetite to get back to face-to-face, [especially] for those companies less risk-averse. … I hadn’t heard what Cindy and Nadja said about looking to their partners to really step up. But the partnership between the hoteliers and the AV companies and everybody who’s helping to produce these face-to-face meetings certainly is an evolving dynamic.
There’s also the trend of the advent of digital meetings technology leaking into face-to-face meetings. And people in many cases are trying to avoid the hybrid scenario. But going back to face-to-face, they’re trying to be more creative about attendee engagement. … It used to be that mentions on Twitter measured engagement. Now, it’s a lot more interactive conversation. People don’t want to be preached at; they want to talk to colleagues at a table. People will spend a lot more time curating content in the face-to-face environment. The in-person meetings I’ve attended, there are more options. If you want to be in the general session, great. If not, there’s the trade show. Before it used to be that the general session was prime time, and everything else was locked down. The session offerings are a lot shorter. People determined they have short attention spans for educational sessions. I’m seeing the timing change from 60 to 90 minutes to 30 to 50 minutes.
BTN: Are you seeing any delays or resistance for finalizing space for 2022 events? Hilton’s CEO said on the company’s Q3 earnings call that it was a ‘balancing act’ regarding commitments for 2022 space because they know they will have pricing power.
Boyan: It’s frustrating. It is really hard to find properties that will meet whatever standards our stakeholders want. Hilton is not a small independent brand. They are a humongous player in the game. That doesn’t sit well with me.
Heston: I see where that would be a tactic they use. But again, we need to work as partners, as we have been doing the past couple years. I would hope we come out of this wiser and better prepared to move forward in a more civil way of partnerships with travel suppliers. We are willing to pay market pricing. There are ways to put it in the contract to protect both.
Bondurant: That is startling, especially if you are a small company trying to hold meetings. … [If you have a strategic meetings management program] and are recognized as a good customer chainwide or brandwide, you’ll have much more ability to demonstrate why you should be getting this meeting space at this time and relative price versus people who can’t demonstrate that. It could be a feeding frenzy out there. On the flip side, you can’t blame hotels. So many have been either temporarily or shut down completely. It’s been a terrible time for owners. There need to be a lot of good conversations. … We are all experiencing inflation. I would counsel the hoteliers to make sure they are open and honest with their clients and explain why the pricing is changing. It could be challenging for internal meeting planners to explain that they were at the hotel two years ago and now it’s 25 percent more.
BTN: How about contract terms?
Heston: We have a standard contract with major chain partners, and those terms have been accepted universally. We did carve out caveats for Covid-19. [For example,] if you give us a rate and the market rate is lower, we have the right to lower the rate to the market rate. If we are contracting for next September, we have no clue what the market will be. The hotel is asking for higher prices than rates showing today. We understand, the market is high. But let us put a clause in there, because we don’t want to walk in with 30 percent over what you are selling on brand-dot-com.
Bondurant: That’s a real challenge because the clients were looking for more favorable and flexible terms. But booking further out, hotels are not going to be willing to be as flexible with rebookings and cancellation clauses [as they have been]. Attrition, possibly. In general, I don’t think people are looking to make wholesale changes to contact clauses. … That said, as far as who is responsible for your participants’ health and safety, I have seen that being called out. You, the hotel, are responsible for my clients when they are enjoying your hotel in non-meeting related activities. Sleeping rooms need to be cleaned properly. As the meeting planner, don’t tell me I’m responsible. I have seen stipulations around that begin to be added to contracts.