How the Meetings Industry Responds to Adversity
Lauri M. Velotta-Rankin
Global reverberations from the coronavirus’s impact have been felt across all business sectors, and the meetings industry is no exception. Today's meeting planners are forced to operate against a backdrop of uncertainty.  

It began with recommendations to replace handshakes with fist bumps. Conference venues were soon dotted with additional hand sanitizing stations. Preventative changes were steadily implemented, to include meetings of smaller groups with distanced seating configurations. On-site medical screening, stringent venue housekeeping procedures, and emergency medical services at the ready became added measures. But as confirmed cases of coronavirus increased and concerns arose about a taxed healthcare system, companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon began to curb employee travel. The continued, exponential growth of the virus sparked statewide restrictions with most meetings being temporarily halted, leaving meeting planners scrambling for alternatives.

On March 12, 2020, the world’s largest furnishings trade show, High Point Market, elected to postpone its April event in North Carolina. Averaging over 75,000 people from over 100 countries, one exception (during World War II) has found this biannual show uninterrupted since its inception in 1909. High Point Market Authority President and CEO, Tom Conley, stated, "Our board of directors will continue to monitor the situation, and we will remain in communication with the proper medical and elected officials."

The International Association of Conference Centres (IACC) CEO, Mark Cooper, contributed the following insight. “Until [travel restrictions] get lifted and people can move freely, conferences and meetings will continue to be postponed. I am seeing no events continuing at this time, so the story now becomes one of support for the conference industry, venues and suppliers hit catastrophically by restrictions on maximum group gatherings.”

Metro DC-based JDC Events was founded in 1997 to elevate customer brands through meetings and events. JDC Events President and CEO, Jennifer Collins, has been working closely with clients to strategize. “Many of our clients have postponed their events for later in the year and some have canceled altogether. There were some events that just made it through. For instance, one of our clients hosted a Legislative Fly-In for a reduced number of people, but their event ended the day before the Capitol, Senate and House Office buildings were closed to the public.” She added, “There are discussions to host select events online and we are offering our clients strategy and production expertise to make this happen. We are also developing a webinar on how to move events online so that organizations have options for furthering their mission.” 
Although the immediate disruption to the meetings industry is related to the coronavirus, there are numerous circumstances that can upset events. Natural disasters, terrorist threats or attacks, and transit strikes are just a few.

Successful business is built upon a fluid model with keen recognition of expectation and reality. There are moments when change is essential. So how should the meetings industry cope with this adversity?

In 2018, JDC Events met this problem head-on when an encroaching hurricane altered their conference setting. While many of the anticipated ~700 attendees were already on-site, others had flights redirected or altogether canceled. Collins and her staff developed an immediate communications plan for those who were unable to make it to the venue. Her client resorted to webcasting, converting a typical on-site event to a hybrid one. Despite the modification, both Collins and her client were pleased with the outcome.

Preparation is key. Founder and President of Electro-Media Design (EMD), Jeff Loether, explains how a critical component of EMD's work is the development of brand standards for conference technology. In turn, venue management train staff to build resources that properly operate, maintain, and troubleshoot equipment. The design and services would then be in place for the venue's audio-visual outfit to assist should unexpected technical needs arise.

As a large percentage of the workforce operate their duties remotely, a heavy reliance is placed upon collaborative software. With a moderator to curate questions and IT staff on hand, large-scale events can be successfully live-streamed. Microsoft Teams and Zoom are popular webinar options. These software tools host sizable groups with screen and file-sharing capabilities. Zoom's large meeting plan allows up to 1,000 participants while Microsoft Teams permits 10,000 attendees. Events can be pre-recorded and integrated into the webcast or executed live. Facilitator-assisted instant messaging and social feeds can be incorporated, as well as a variety of additional features. Reliance on these tools has recently soared. During the third week of March, Microsoft experienced a 40% increase in Microsoft Teams usage.

Unify Square has organized a comparison of Microsoft Teams and Zoom to help companies determine which is best suited to their needs. If seeking alternative webcasting software options, learn about the myriad of webinar technology available. And if catering to an international audience, consider including Wordly in your toolbox. This burgeoning technology instantly translates presentations into 16 languages (both audio and text). Lighting, room acoustics, and a well-functioning sound system are important considerations as well.
According to the IACC Meeting Room of the Future - 2019 Report, "increased integration of new technology" ranks as meeting planners’ top priority for influencing Millennials, the workforce’s largest contingent. While artificial intelligence won’t replace on-site conferences, it can assist when in-person attendance is uncertain. Advancements in both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) tools result in enhanced experiences from afar. Some notable VR and AR applications offer 360-degree tours of physical spaces, demonstrations and simulations, and an entirely new understanding of "hands-on" training.

If armed and prepared with the right technology, the best can be made of a less-than-ideal scenario when the unexpected occurs.

Electro-Media Design Ltd.

973 Russell Ave Suite C
Gaithersburg, MD 20879