Since Covid-19 has put a massive pause on the travel industry, some pundits and insiders have predicted that meetings would be the last sector to recover. There have even been those who foresee a major portion of the meetings industry being lost to the “Zoom” phenomenon.
Why risk putting employees into meetings situations, they ask, when everyone can now just Zoom?
Mike Schugt, president of Teneo Hospitality Group, a premier global group sales organization with member properties around the world, believes that the pent-up demand for face-to-face connection, along with the resilience of the travel industry will fuel a meetings recovery even prior to a hoped-for vaccine ending the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Group meetings are a focus of almost every major Fortune 500 company,” Schugt told Business Traveler USA. “That’s not going to change, although we are having to pivot to new ways to deal with new challenges.”
Schugt points out that some of his member properties have already sold out space for the first quarter of 2021 with clients moving meetings to a date when anticipated lessening of lockdowns and increased ability to cope with new demands for coronavirus protocols will make it easier to plan face-to-face connections.
New hotel and meetings health protocols like deep cleaning, no-touch check-ins, boxed lunches and space for social distancing are increasingly making the idea of meeting in a COVID-19 world viable again.
He says recent proposed legislation limiting legal liability to protect businesses against lawsuits will also be a factor in how soon and how robustly the meetings industry rebounds.
“Corporations don’t want to put their employees in harm’s way,” he says. “Something is supposed to be passed in July which is a big issue we face. Once that is dealt with, I think you’ll see companies planning meetings with more confidence.”
Schugt says that a strong desire to travel is part of American culture. “It’s almost seen as a birthright,” he says. “You can see it in the opening up of domestic leisure travel which is happening now. The people who are planning to travel for leisure over this summer are people who are meetings attendees during the work week.”
Although Schugt sees a clear arc of recovery for the meetings industry, he is quick to point out that there will be changes in the near term.
“While Zoom won’t erase the need for in-person meetings, we see a trend to a combination of in-person and virtual meetings,” he says. This may entail “Zooming” with members who would otherwise have to fly but meeting in person with members who live and work near the chosen meetings destination.
Schugt also sees a trend of smaller, regional “drive-to” meetings growing which takes questions about flying and its risks off the table.
Although COVID-19 has challenged the meetings industry in ways no one could have predicted, Schugt sees recovery as happening in phases. “We are learning how to cope with this virus every day,” he says. He also sees a return to meetings as a natural part of this recovery.
“I have been in the travel industry through 9/11 and during the Great Recession and I have seen us rebound through all of that,” he muses. “I see our industry working hand-in-hand with science to give us new assurances that let us get back to business.”