The Return to Convention Travel



Here in San Francisco, where Destination Analysts’ is headquartered, we miss all the conventions we were fortunate to host pre-pandemic—and the visitors from around the world they brought. However, a recovery in this segment is happening. As of October 19th, our Coronavirus Travel Sentiment Index Study shows that 15.7% of American travelers overall—and nearly 40% of convention travelers—say they have plans to attend one or more of these events in the next year, up from 11.1% in May. The percent of convention travelers who report they would be happy if asked to attend such a meeting in the next six months has grown to 49.7% from 40.8% in June. To gain further insight on the convention travel market—including changing travel policies, the trends that look here to stay and the shifting business landscape—Destination Analysts’ President & CEO Erin Francis-Cummings interviewed a panel of meeting planners during our October 20th industry update webinar.

Here are 5 key takeaways that meeting planners shared about the recovery of meetings and convention travel:

When it comes to the return of in-person meetings, there are still many unknown factors. However, there are signs of hope around small meetings. While large in-person meetings are being planned far into the future, smaller business meetings are currently taking place. According to Adam Tillotson, Director of Regional Sales for Global Meeting Sources, “There are still meetings happening right now. I had a client meeting last week and one 2-3 weeks ago and these were both in person. They were national, but these were small meetings with 15-20 people at a time.” Several factors ensured a safe environment that allowed for the smooth and successful execution of these meetings. In addition to the small group size, these meetings were set outdoors under warm weather conditions. Adam planned meetings that were nearly exclusively held outdoors. As Adam shared, destinations that are “warm, outdoors and open” are ideal for small meetings, as he was able to plan a program that ensured attendees felt both safe and comfortable.

Virtual meetings don’t come close to the level of engagement of in-person meetings. Simply put, virtual meetings cannot replace the personal aspects of meeting in-person. As Katina Lancaster, Meetings Manager for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, stated, “Even given how much we have done virtually in the last 8 months, people want to meet in person. I know I do.” Brenda Glass, Director of Sales at Site Search, further emphasized, “I just think there is nothing like personal meetings where you are able to interact with everybody on a human level. I would like hugs and handshakes to come back.”

Hybrid meetings are here to stay. With business primarily conducted virtually over the past 8 months, it’s inevitable that the meetings industry has evolved and will evolve. Meeting planners see these past months as “a forced period of trial into virtual meetings” and the lessons learned from virtual meetings can be adapted into in-person meetings when they return, though it’s unlikely that virtual meetings will be obsolete once in-person meetings do return. According to Katina, “Hybrid [virtual and in-person] meetings are here to stay. I think it allows organizations to reach a larger audience than they normally would with in-person meetings.”

Destination marketing organizations and their partners can leverage specials and deals to book future meetings. Despite the fact that small in-person meetings are successfully being planned, bigger in-person meetings are not forgotten. None of Brenda’s 2020 meetings were cancelled, but rather rebooked for 2021. And she’s taking full advantage of the specials and discounts offered by destinations to book larger in-person meetings. The CVBs Brenda works with “have been wonderful throughout this whole process. I get emails from them all the time with the specials their hotels might be running and the incentives they may have. And I’m able to pass that on to the groups that are booking for next year and into 2023, letting them know that we should do this now and that great deals are on the table.”

To help bring meetings back, DMOs should communicate safety protocols and keep small groups in mind. When asked what could be done to bring in-person meetings back, Katina stated that “CVBs can continue to develop ways to make their destination safe and inviting for meetings to return.” Communicating safety protocols to meeting planners can ultimately help attendees feel safe and comfortable. DMOs should also keep in mind that small meetings are happening and should take advantage of the opportunities available. Destinations that are open, spacious and warm can certainly accommodate outdoor meetings and this message should be delivered to meeting planners. As shared by Adam, “Don’t sleep on these small groups. Look for these board meetings, look for these risk-tolerant industries and folks that are willing to travel and are happy to travel. And if you are a sun and fun destination, now is the time to spend money and get in front of people because people are willing to travel to come to your destination.”