I am getting a little overwhelmed by the many predictions that so-called experts are sharing about the future of face-to-face meetings. The range of opinions–from wild optimism to frightening pessimism–is exhausting to wade through. The news cycle of 24/7 pandemic coverage, conversation and debate has obscured the fact that travel and meeting attendance are not always decisions made by companies but by people. People are feeling cooped up and restrained and most crave a return to normalcy. But I am not convinced that translates to them attending meetings.
I believe the future health of face-to-face meetings depends largely on individual, family and company decisions about health and safety. And how people feel regardless of the facts or expert opinions will determine their likelihood to attend meetings of any size. This is not about kids going to a pool party or people flocking to beaches, it’s about the very real concerns people have about safety and the potential impact on their loved ones.
I have read articles that predict “revenge attendance” will be huge, and others that forecast smaller and local meetings will take root in the fall. Some organizations are planning on holding their in-person events and large conventions while developing hybrid or all-virtual meeting scenarios. Others are just throwing in the towel and hoping that venues, hotels and other partners will continue to waive attrition or cancellation penalties as they get closer to the meeting date. Hope is not a strategy. A rebound in domestic leisure travel does not translate into meeting attendance, as past recessions have shown.
The bottom line is, if you don’t understand the motivations and concerns of members and suppliers, your predictions are meaningless. Our customer’s customers are people: association members, exhibitors and employees of companies. Their motivations are disparate yet valid as we look at the future of face-to-face. I just received an email from a major hotel company announcing reopening plans with an emphasis on cleanliness, distancing and other appropriate measures. Applause for saying all the right things, but you can’t convince me the risk is worth it in a marketing email. I wish there was certainty to the Field of Dreams quote, “if you build it they will come.” But there is no crystal ball or any expert (even if armed with reams of data) that can tell me with conviction if that can or should happen.
I am by nature a glass-half-full kind of girl. But nothing has prepared us for the disruption we are currently in and nothing will bring back those we have lost or the challenges faced by those on the front lines of this virus. I have hope, but to be honest, if my four-year-old niece told me she was really scared about me getting on a plane, I am not sure I’d travel.