Last month, Daniel Levine, executive director of the Avant-Guide Institute, editor of the trends website WikiTrends, and a regular conference speaker, sent Convene a guest contribution for consideration. It was an optimistic prediction that attendance at face-to-face events, based on trendlines he has observed, will exceed 2019 levels in late 2021 — he has since moved that needle to mid-2022, with the rise of several COVID-19 variants that pose a fresh health threat. Levine had reached out to me because he had read a story we published about CNBC correspondent Brian Sullivan’s positive predictions for travel in 2021.
The same week, I got a LinkedIn request to connect with Kevin Molesworth, CSEP, owner of Portland, Oregon–based Brass Tacks Events. He had read an article I wrote on the downside of positive thinking during a pandemic, and shared that it had struck a chord with him. “Far too many event profs are living in a world of rainbows and unicorns these days,” he messaged me. “Hope is not a strategy. We have to be realistic if we are going to move forward.”
I asked Molesworth if he would comment on Levine’s contribution (I let Levine know that I was seeking another viewpoint about the events industry’s recovery). Here is Levine’s contribution, followed by excerpts of a conversation I had with Molesworth after he read it.
Meetings and Conventions Will Be Bigger Than Ever in 2022
Author: Daniel Levine
As a leading trends expert and a keynote speaker at major conferences, I am uniquely positioned to see the near future of meetings and events. What I see is nothing less than spectacular.
Over the past several months compiling research and canvassing our proprietary global network of Trend Spotters across numerous industries, several emergent trendlines have appeared that are particularly exciting for meeting planners.
In short, a profusion of positive signals indicates an exciting near future of the meetings industry. Taken together, they point to global F2F attendance at meetings and events exceeding 2019 levels by the middle of 2022. Here’s why:
- Salespeople will prioritize larger meetings as they travel to fewer individual sales calls.
It should already be clear that many sales meetings that once would have happened in person have now permanently moved online. The result will be fewer F2F sales meetings, making the ones that do happen even more valuable. Those will happen at conferences and conventions where sellers can maximize their reach. One of the oldest maxims of sales is that people buy from people they feel a connection with. And the surest way to connect with others is through social experiences. Of course, meeting planners know this too; it’s their reason for being. Trends point to the coming year’s events being some of the most fulfilling and beneficial ever. Marketing wise, planners should double-down on their pitch to attendees that meeting will be more productive than ever.
- Meetings travel will benefit from leisure travel.
Most experts in the travel industry have stated that the return of business travel will be a very long slog. McKinsey, a major consulting firm, has told its clients to expect a slow, long timeline for recovery. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby predicts that business travel won’t return until 2024. And Bill Gates says 50 percent of business travel is going away. Period. What needs to be said, however, is that while business travel in general will indeed take a long time to recover, the F2F events part will bounce back rather quickly. Why? Travel industry experts agree that leisure travel will return before business travel. But for a huge percentage of meeting-goers, event travel is leisure travel. Remember “bleisure” – the blending of business and leisure travel that began to trend a few years back? Look for this to come back with a vengeance. Going forward, canny meeting planners will go all out to offer lots more leisure opportunities as part of their events.
- Professionals will flock to association events.
At every annual event I attend, I overhear people talk about how much they enjoy being back with friends they see each year. I’m sure you hear this, too. In a year in which the majority of professionals have complained about Zoom fatigue, there is an extra impetus to connect with these “long lost” friends and colleagues in person. Trends-wise, this is a particularly fertile time for planners to attract even greater numbers by facilitating more occasions for attendees to connect, perhaps via greater interactive activities and gamification, to name two examples.
- Working from home is lonely.
Sure, lots of workers are extolling the virtues of working from home. But a huge percentage of these same people say they miss the camaraderie of the office. For lots of people, working alone is, well, lonely. People will clamor to meet their peers, if only to commiserate on the craziness of the year gone by and toast to the fact that they made it to the other side. Although it is rarely explicitly said, everyone knows that meetings and events are also an excuse for attendees to travel somewhere fun. The coming year will be kindest to those events that play up this side of the equation.
- Bookings are ratcheting up.
Admittedly, this last one is anecdotal: In addition to convention centers reporting an uptick in bookings for 2022 and beyond, I myself am seeing record interest in speaking engagements this coming Fall, and beyond. Clearly, as a trends expert I have a particularly timely and helpful message. But other speakers I know are reporting similar successes. Social trends at their heart derive from the fact that humans are social creatures who want to be with one another.
So here’s another prediction: The near future of meetings and events will look quite similar to meetings in the recent past. I know that most people are saying that “everything” has changed, but the historical truth and the forward-looking trend lines indicate otherwise. Sure, we will probably preserve at least some low-tech distancing measures like wearing masks in crowded places, washing hands more regularly, and even avoiding handshakes. But you will have your business lives back, sooner and even stronger than many have hoped.
Content Will be King When F2F Meetings Return
Molesworth sees the prospects for in-person events in the near future differently than Levine, finding some of his predictions “unfounded.” He pointed out that Levine is speaking from his experience as a speaker at business events, not as an organizer or producer. “He’s not an expert on what it really means to produce a conference for 5,000 people, with all of the liabilities and the financial considerations,” he said. “If you have a bunch of cancellations, you could lose millions of dollars.”
Molesworth said that others have made these kinds of bright predictions for in-person events in the near future — he calls them “hopes and hunches” rather than based on data and facts — and it makes him wary. While he doesn’t disagree with all of Levine’s trendlines, he thinks you can’t draw conclusions about what that means for the return of face-to-face events without taking other realities into consideration.
For example, Molesworth agrees with Levine that there will be fewer in-person meetings — and that people are going to be chomping at the bit to make more out of them. However, Molesworth said, that ignores the question of whether companies will have the money to send their employees to business events. “If you’re an entrepreneur or if you work for a company,” he said, “either you can’t afford traveling to an event this year, because you didn’t get any of that PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] money that everybody wanted, or your boss is going to say, ‘Oh, that conference is offering a virtual component this year for 100 bucks — why am I sending you?’”
Besides the economic hardships brought on by COVID, there’s the continuing threat of transmission of the virus itself. “What if your conference ends up being a super spreader event, and you can prove and trace back that 100 people got it and then brought it home?” Molesworth asked. “What’s your liability on that? You’re civilly liable. What if you could be proven to be negligent? What if you’re then found criminally liable? A lot of big companies, like Salesforce, were the first ones to cancel their conference last year because of liability. CEOs, CFOs, and attorneys are going to make a lot of these decisions about the return to live events. Not the people who want to hold the conferences, and not the people who want to attend them.”
In addition, Molesworth said that Levine skips over the reality of budgets. “If you host a conference every year and you get 5,000 people, but now this year, because you’re only allowed to have 25 percent of the people in the ballroom, that means you can only have 1,000 or so people,” he said. “How is that affecting your expenses? He doesn’t take into consideration budgets on either side — whether from the conference producers or from attendees.”
Molesworth agrees completely with Levine that people are going to want to get out and travel, but he’s not so sure about bleisure coming back with a vengeance. “From a personal standpoint, the first time that I’m able to safely go on vacation again,” he said, “do you think I’m going to combine it with work? I’m drinking margaritas and I’m tuning out the world.”
And while he said he is all in favor of emphasizing the recreational aspect of a destination and increasing the number of opportunities for participants to network, those things come with a price tag — extra costs incurred by the event organizer for networking events and additional fees for attendees to participate in destination experiences like excursions. “The money,” he said, “is not there right now.”
Instead, Molesworth thinks events that go all in on content — rather than fun — will succeed in the near future. “Content is going to be king. That’s really what’s going to be king when we get back to in-person events. Yes, we’re all going to want to see each other and hug. I don’t deny that at all, and I do agree that local association events will come back first. When people can finally hug and take a mask off and drink a glass of wine together, I really do believe people will flock back. I don’t know when that’s going to happen, but it will. But I still think regional and certainly international conferences, it’s going to take a while for them to come back.”
Molesworth doesn’t dispute Levine’s observation that “bookings are ratcheting up,” he said. “I’m also hearing some talk of people who are trying to be cautiously optimistic, suppliers getting inquiries for Q4 of 2021. And that’s okay — I mean, there’s nothing wrong with looking around and seeing what’s out there. But realistically, I still don’t see any large-scale events happening because by the time we know where COVID is going to take us, you won’t have enough time — you can’t plan a massive conference for 5,000 people in two months.”
Molesworth read Levine’s original opinion piece written in early January, in which he predicted that global face-to-face attendance would exceed 2019 levels by the end of 2021. In February, Levine revised his forecast to mid-2022, based on recent news of COVID variants.
The variant is one factor Molesworth noted when we spoke that will affect the timeline for recovery. He also has his eye on herd immunity, citing studies in which one-third of Americans and half of Black Americans said they were leery of getting the vaccine. “How are you going to overcome that?” he asked. “Even President Biden said that large-scale distribution isn’t going to take place till this summer. If you just go to the calendar and do the math, let’s say by the summer we have 50 percent of Americans vaccinated. That still means you’re not going to be able to plan a major conference until at least Q2 of 2022 — and I would argue even later. And that’s the best-case scenario.”
Molesworth wants his fellow event professionals to remain hopeful but realistic. He worries that many in the industry are thinking digital events are just a “Band-Aid, that we’ll have a cure soon and we’ll be back to normal,” he said. “But ask yourself this question: When are you going to feel comfortable in a stadium, watching your favorite band in a concert with 50,000 strangers, all breathing on you and sweating on you, and singing along? When are you going to feel comfortable doing that again? That could be five years from now.”
The excitement of bringing people together in person is the reason why “so many of us got into this business,” he said, not to do digital events. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. If Adele wanted to do a Zoom with me and sing to me, just me and her, I would jump on that in a minute. But I’d much rather go see her in concert and be in the front row. It’s just better. If you said, ‘Well, yeah, you can go to a concert, but you have to be in the very last row. And you can’t breathe, you can’t talk, you can’t cheer, you can’t sing along. You’ve got to wear a double mask, plus a face shield. And, we have to take your temperature on the way in’ — then I’d rather just watch the video.”
Planners, he said, need to stop thinking of digital as a stopgap measure, and focus on reskilling because the events industry is evolving into a broadcast medium. Molesworth’s own experience in television, film, and theater made him skeptical when event organizers were quick to pivot from live to virtual without rethinking the way their content was presented. “I thought, ‘Do you have any experience in film and television?’ Because that’s basically what online events are,” Molesworth said. “I’ve been an actor in live theater, and I’ve also produced and directed live theater. I’ve also been an actor and director in film and television. It’s very different. Trust me, they are not the same mediums.”
One difference, Molesworth said, are camera shots. “Even on the most basic television shows, almost all of them are three camera shoots,” he said. “You have the wide shot, which is two people talking; you have the medium shot of the person speaking at that moment; and then you have the close-up. I tell people to watch a program and make a check mark on a piece of paper every single time they change camera angles — it’s anywhere from every three to seven seconds.”
Which explains why, he said, we can’t expect participants to stay engaged “when you put your boring CEO up on one camera shot for 60 minutes.”
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.