By Kaitlyn Wallace
In March of 2021, the US will have faced a full year of partial or complete COVID-19 lockdowns. The meetings and events industry has been hit particularly hard by these shutdowns, leading to many gatherings being canceled, and many others being moved to an online platform. But with vaccine distribution underway, that might be about to change.
As of now, vaccine distribution has been divided into stages based on public health needs. The CDC defines these stages as follows:
1a: long-term care facility residents and health care personnel
1b: persons 75 years or older and frontline essential workers
1c: persons 65-74, persons aged 16-64 with high-risk medical conditions, and other essential workers
2: all people aged 16 and older not in Phase 1 who are recommended for vaccination.
What does this mean for the meetings and events industry? Though there is no current guaranteed timeline for the progression of these stages, it does mean that it is time to start planning. What will we do when vaccinations become widespread? How will meetings look different? And how will face-to-face meetings be “injected” back into the industry?
Decision Factors for In-person Events
As Vicki Mauck, Executive Director of the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association (KCMBA) says: “Making predictions during COVID-19 is a losing proposition.” This has been an adage for most professionals in past months. Especially in the spring and summer, so little has been known about the virus and its transmission that planning for the future has been practically impossible. However, as scientific research begins to catch up to COVID-19, this is beginning to change. Mauck knows this better than most, saying: “We are hopeful that by mid-late summer we will return to outdoor gatherings and that we will be able to host our annual fundraising gala… This is of course subject to change based on vaccine availability, as well as the percentage our community vaccinated. We are also watching the news about ongoing mutations of the virus that potentially could impact the vaccine effectiveness.”
Like many other aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, new variants of the virus are presenting unique concerns for the meetings and events industry. Unlike some other professions, such as healthcare, childcare, or other essential work, meetings and events professionals are unlikely to be at the frontlines of vaccination. This means that industry professionals must keep a close eye on vaccine efficacy and COVID-19 variant news. Do you have a plan if new mutations render the vaccine less effective? If they render some vaccines effective, and others ineffective? Are you keeping track of your geographical proximity to new strains of the virus?
There are a variety of other considerations that come with widespread distribution of the vaccine. As Mauck mentioned, many meetings and events professionals have been considering the prevalence of vaccination in their surrounding communities when planning ahead for in-person meetings. In the future, new questions will have to be considered:
- What percentage of the attendees will be vaccinated? What about the surrounding community?
- Will this event be held in an area with high risk of community spread? Is the surrounding community known to have a higher proportion of people over 65 or otherwise at risk?
Taking into account your attendees’ preferences will be important as well. Though many are eager to return to in-person events, some might continue to feel cautious. As a solution to this, Mauck suggested that the meetings and events industry might permanently take on a hybrid meeting approach, which has advantages outside of COVID-19:
“Although remote meetings prohibit familiarities many people long for, such as shaking hands, making real eye contact and having meaningful interpersonal connection, our meeting attendees (many of which bill by the hour) have appreciated the ability to connect without the commute. As a result, our meetings and continuing education attendance in 2020 on a remote platform far exceeded that of 2019 in-person. Eliminating the commute and other barriers to attendance for our routine meetings have led us to plan for hybrid events, even when it is deemed “safe” to meet in person… we anticipate that early hybrid meetings will incorporate required mask-wearing, social distancing and cleaning protocols– at all times in conformance with the prevailing health orders and recommended cleaning protocols.”
The Hybrid Approach
As Mauck explains, the future of the meetings and events industry will be built on flexibility, as well as a variety of options. Successful events will need to work not only with attendees’ transmission concerns, but also with their schedules and other needs. Remote work has been revolutionary for many industries, allowing increased productivity, a shift in the work-life balance, and greater freedom for independent work and creativity. Though many, if not most, attendees are looking forward to in-person events, the advantages of remote work for some might now factor into their attendance. Planners must now be cognizant not only of pre-COVID-19 attendance decision factors and COVID-19 attendance decision factors, but post-COVID-19 attendance factors. We will need to ask ourselves what exactly has changed in people’s lives (and in the world at large) that can factor into meeting attendance. What does meeting in this new world look like? In what specific ways can we use the possibility of remote attendance to our advantage?
As it stands now, vaccine distribution is not the only factor in the decision to bring back face-to-face meetings. It will, however, become increasingly important as vaccine distribution continues to increase and community vaccination percentage increases with it. It is everyone’s hope that this trend will continue linearly– barring events such as mutations and distribution problems, the meetings and events industry is on track to slowly begin introducing face-to-face meetings in the coming months (especially into the summer). And while factors such as the accessibility of remote work and the time efficiency of virtual meetings are important to some, the ability to meet in person is essential to many. As Vicki Muack notes: “We are sensing a swell of not only a desire, but a true emotional need, to congregate in person, as KCMBA has done for so many years. As a result, as soon as it’s safe, we anticipate hosting one heck of a party!”
With safety and respect towards our surrounding communities in mind, we can all hope for the same: an emergence of a new and stronger meetings and events industry, more flexible and with more opportunities than ever before. The lessons that the industry has learned in the past year will carry us forward into a future where meetings and events can proceed effectively– in whatever way fits the needs and comforts of attendees.
Kaitlyn Wallace is a contributing writer/editor from St. Louis.