For two years, the COVID-19 pandemic created many challenges, halting the global face-to-face meetings industry, where planners spent much of their time cancelling or rescheduling meetings and negotiating penalties.
Fast forward to 2022, and the recovery process is full steam ahead, where event planners are run off their feet. It feels like our industry has gone from zero to 100 in the blink of an eye. Clients are looking for innovative solutions to help with the workload, staff shortages and rising costs.
Workload boils down to the execution of the postponed 2020 and 2021 programs while at the same time managing RFPs for 2023 – 2025 and the furloughed staff that didn’t return. This issue is not unique to the incentive or event planning industry – it is a global problem.
I have just returned from exhibiting on behalf of the financial and risk management company I work for, while also attending a SITE (Society of Incentive Travel Executives) meeting at IMEX America in Las Vegas. From this exhibition, I learned that suppliers are experiencing an upswing in business, walking away with RFPs and even confirmed pieces of business. This is fabulous news, but I also heard from an agency that had to turn a large piece of business away because they didn’t have the bandwidth to make it happen and explained to the client, “if we take this piece of business, something will go wrong, and we are not willing to take the risk”.
While at IMEX, planners expressed the challenges they are facing. Regarding negotiating, it’s a sellers’ market, but the end goal for both parties is to minimize risk. Meetings, events, and incentive programs are a significant financial investment and with that comes rising costs due to inflation. Add to that the volatility of exchange rates, which can negatively impact the budget. To tackle the staffing shortage issue, some resolution, at least in the short term, is to consider outsourcing some peripheral elements such as the financial components (manage currency fluctuations, final program reconciliations) so that planners can focus on the logistical aspects of the program.
While exhibiting, my appointment visitors repeated time and time again, “although we want to learn about new hotels, DMC offerings and up-and-coming destinations, this year, we are looking for innovative products.” I had two people say to me, “your financial solutions intrigue me, so I want to learn more. It was the appointment I was most excited about”.
Innovative solutions are the new reality; in the past, when you mentioned financial risk, people’s eyes glazed over. It’s not sexy, and there is nothing exciting about it, but it provides significant value and avoids risk.
When it comes to incentive programs, they are trending towards wellness and luxury with more downtime built in. A packed agenda with less time for R&R is less attractive. Panellists also indicated another want is wellness and luxury accommodation with incentives held in destinations that offer them something they couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to do themselves. Luxury accommodation fills this requirement, and the popularity of wellness spas satisfies the opportunity to indulge, restore and relax.
We also heard about sustainability calculators, checklists, and tools to help event planners make their events more carbon-neutral. The event planner’s job description has evolved into a more encompassing role. We are project managers with additional mandates such as sustainability, diversity and inclusion, accessibility, and financial risk that are gaining traction. This paints a very different picture from, say five years ago.
Remote working and COVID restrictions have proved the importance of human connection. As a result, there is more interest in incentive travel than ever before. We want in-person meetings to continue. Having innovative solutions to get us through this crisis, and help event planners explore growth opportunities in uncertain times, allows clients to plan and execute with confidence.
Liz Holtby is vice president, operations at Meeting Escrow where she manages financial risk for a variety of organizations. She has held a variety of operations-related positions in the marketing and MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events) industries over the course of her career. She is the president for the 2022 SITE Canada board of directors.