Free tests, vaccines, reminders and prominent health policies may ease some of the anxiety over corporate meetings and events, but a surge in early 2022 feels like a postponed dream for businesses that are counting on a strong return to in-person events in the first quarter.
A Global Business Travel Association survey conducted in early December 2022 showed that even before the omicron variant of Covid-19 took firm hold in the United States, only about half (53%) of state-based respondents United said their companies would continue their plans for in-person events unchanged — both to host them and to allow employees to attend — despite the variant’s global transmission. For respondents based in Europe, already dealing with the fallout from omicron at the time, only 36% said their meeting and event plans would relentlessly come back.
As the timeline swung towards 2022, BTN reached out to business travel buyers and suppliers to gauge companies’ readiness to move forward with meeting and event scheduling.
Buyers and suppliers connected to BTN agreed that the Covid policies created in 2021 remained robust in the new year. CWT’s global head of meetings and events, Ian Cummings, told BTN: “CWT Meetings & Events will not impose any additional security requirements specifically for omicron, as we are already ready.”
That said, many buyers said January meetings were already — or were likely to be — postponed until later in the first quarter. “We are always ready to pivot as data comes to light,” said one buyer. Citing the “fluid” situation, a few buyers said they would move meetings to the second quarter.
“I think everyone was hoping in the second and third quarters of last year that this would be in our rearview mirror,” said San Diego-based consultant Betsy Bondurant. “And it’s not.” If the policies had been relaxed, she added, they have now been reenforced.
Host organizations take the lead on health and safety protocols
A report released by Destination Counselors International in January noted a marked shift in health and safety responsibility for meetings through 2022. Based on a survey of 339 corporate and association meeting planners, the “Winning Strategies in Destination Marketing” report is geared towards destination marketing. organizations and how they need to strategize to win business through meetings and events in the coming year.
The report noted the growing prevalence of host organizations taking full responsibility for attendee health and safety, and not relying on localized collaboration to plan or implement precautions. Before Covid-19, only 4% of survey respondents believed that security measures should be taken care of by the host organization alone. Today, 35% want to be solely responsible for attendee health and safety. According to DCI, the change marks a growing distrust of the local destination to have health precautions aligned with the client organization; it also shows that organizations expect volatility in local regulations and seek consistency for their events and for their own reputation.
“Planners do not fully trust destinations to meet acceptable safety and health standards,” according to DCI. “They prefer to set their own rules and protect their guests on their own terms, especially since many domestic and international destinations vary in terms of their local mandates and access to healthcare.”
Cisco Systems is one company that has leveraged its meeting management protocols and taken full responsibility for meeting health and safety. As the company weathers the Covid-19 outbreak, its 12,000-person event calendar for 2019 has been significantly reduced. But in the meantime, the company has trained more than 30 internal employees around the world as certified Covid-office advisers. Each meeting planner has access to these advisors through Cisco’s Managed Meetings program and cannot access their required meeting ID until they consult with the health advisory team. This team can support health and safety planning and on-site services for large events or simply act as an advisor for very small gatherings.
“Some countries are back to events, and some regions and countries are still completely closed,” said Carolyn Pund, global manager of strategic meetings and digital events management at Cisco Systems, who BTN named 2021 Best Practitioner for her Property of Covid-19 Meeting Safety Protocols. “We have a regular cadence of communication when regions open. This decision is made by Cisco’s global security and medical teams.”
Most companies will likely seek partners to continue supporting health and safety. Meetings agencies like CWT M&E and American Express Meetings & Events have bolstered their client services to include turnkey platforms for screening, testing, and health and safety protocols.
If 2020 and 2021 have taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected, to adapt, to be thorough, and to put the safety of travelers and attendees at the heart of everything we do.
Ian Cummings of CWT M&E
Amex M&E Vice President for the Americas, Linda McNairy, highlighted a unique partnership with CLEAR to collect and communicate vaccination status for events requiring vaccination. “In addition, we help connect [clients with] testing vendors for daily attestation or testing as needed,” she said in a statement emailed to BTN.
Commenting on the layers of health and safety precautions CWT M&E has introduced since the start of the pandemic, Cummings emphasized preparedness for any scenario. “If 2020 and 2021 have taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected, to adapt, to be thorough and to put the safety of travelers and attendees at the heart of everything we do. .”
As events begin, corporate hosts will expect attendees to take on their share of health precautions. One shopper said: ‘We expect our travelers to use common sense and follow state/local health agency guidelines when traveling. [or] meeting during an active pandemic. Cummings echoed the idea of individual accountability among attendees, but added that “businesses need, more than ever, to intensify communications with employees, customers and business partners” and encouraged strategies combining face-to-face, hybrid and virtual event platforms to protect their meeting objectives. »
The “force” may not be with you
When health and safety protocols couldn’t prevent a meeting from being canceled or postponed, many event hosts sought to invoke force majeure clauses in their meeting contracts in 2020 and 2021. According to DCI, 73 % of event hosts most concerned about cancellation policies. in 2022, not whether the destination or venues will collaborate with them on security. DCI said the hosts will seek leniency in those clauses in 2022.
To attract business, the DCI report advises destination marketing organizations that cancellation policies need to be more flexible.
“As the data suggests, managing Covid-19 is now just part of the job. Planners will feel more comfortable booking a major event or conference in a destination that recognizes the uncertainty of pandemic. Strict cancellation policies that equate to possible financial loss, even during new outbreaks of COVID-19 cases, will simply discourage decision makers from choosing a destination,” according to the report.
When the airport is open, the hotels are open, the convention center is open and everything is open, there is no force majeure. Just because your CEO or president doesn’t want it, or HR [or] legal, it is not a case of force majeure.
Visit the Mike Waterhouse in Orlando
Suppliers at the Convening Leaders Conference currently being held in Las Vegas did not fully agree with this recommendation. Panelists in a session titled “The Future of Force Majeure: Negotiating Contracts Under Uncertainty” were keen to point out that force majeure is not the no-contract clause that some organizations assumed.
Visit Orlando Chief Strategy Officer Mike Waterhouse said: “For every group that has attempted to cancel, almost every group has attempted to invoke force majeure. The reality is that force majeure is an impossibility clause. And when the airport is open, and the hotels are open, and the convention center is open, and everything is open, there is no force majeure. Just because your CEO or president doesn’t want it, or HR [or] legal, it is not a case of force majeure.
If organizations are considering moving or even canceling meetings, panelists advised including specific conditional language in contracts. McNairy in an email to BTN said Amex M&E clients have already engaged in this type of contractual precaution and indicated that the process can become a complex negotiation.
“At the start of the pandemic, vendors were incredibly flexible with changes. Now, however, we’ve noticed the need to get creative with our contract language to protect the integrity of our clients’ meetings,” McNairy said. The issue has become increasingly important as some companies have pushed judgmental decisions to meeting owners to decide whether an event should take place, rather than applying company-wide rules.
CL22 panelists suggested investing in pandemic insurance, especially for large meetings. “Those who purchased pandemic insurance are the customers who ultimately won,” observed John Hawley, executive director of affiliate group sales at Hilton Worldwide.