Finally getting to meet

The UK’s final easing of covid-19 restrictions now looks likely to allow full scale large events, after the success of a series of pilot events.  

The move comes as hotel groups around the globe underline the importance of real world meetings, encouraging businesses to get travelling once more. New research sponsored by Accor suggests face to face meetings deliver a 25% uplift in business signed.  

An Events Research Programme, which began with a series of carefully managed events in April and May, has found little evidence of covid-19 outbreaks at a variety of venues. After studying nine events, both inside and outside, which featured a total of 58,000 attendees, just 28 cases of covid-19 were spread.  

Prof Iain Buchan, public health expert from the University of Liverpool, was involved in the study and commented: “The single most important thing people can do is get vaccinated to make events happen.” The ERP will continue into July, with a further list of events marked out for assessment that includes monitoring the health of attendees before and after the event.  

In early June, Manchester’s Mercure Piccadilly held a test event with 200 attendees, albeit in a space with a normal capacity of 800. Des Brewer, director of organiser Legends 7 said the successful event “shows that hospitality events can be carried out and that guests can have confidence in attending.” Steve Dunford, regional manager for operator Interstate added: “This was the first event that wasn’t government run, as several trial events in the north have been.  We had an amazing night, no incidents and have created a blueprint for the future.”  

And research conducted for Accor has underlined the value in face-to-face meetings. A survey of 2,000 employees, while they were working from home during the pandemic, discovered that they reckoned on average they would make 25% more in revenue from face-to-face meetings, compared with online. Almost a third said they missed out on non-verbal cues and body language, while 22% said video conferencing made it harder to build rapport.  

“With the return of face-to-face meetings in touching distance we are able to recognize, now, more than, ever their importance,” said Sophie Hulgard, senior vice president of sales, northern Europe at Accor. “The findings of the research are compelling – a potential 25% revenue gain by meeting face to face will be worth millions, potentially more, to the domestic and global economy.” 

“The psychological learnings of the past year are also crucial – people need to connect and technology can take us around the world and bring people together but in doing so it can miss the nonverbal cues that only face-to-face can see. Digital solutions in business are here to stay but there will always be a need to meet face-to-face to get the deal done.” 

Hulgard predicted a growth in hybrid meetings, combining face to face and dialled in remote participants. She expects to see growth through the second half in meetings directly designed to close deals, with employees keen to get together to reinforce corporate culture, or to bring leadership teams together once more.  

In the US, hotel groups and event organisers are expressing frustration at a confusing lack of consistency, which appears to be holding back event demand. Despite 85% of American workers regarding face-to-face meetings as “irreplaceable”, spending on conferences and events remains significantly down, as is business travel.  

Roger Dow, CEO of the US Travel Association, is heading a campaign to oil the wheels, commenting: “It’s time to get back to business. Nothing happens in America – or in the world – until someone gets together.” 

And Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta echoed the sentiment: “To get teams back to work and to get back to full employment in the industry, we need business travel, particularly professional meetings and events, to restart. We now know enough about covid-19 and we are far enough along here in the US with vaccinations that a layered approach can work and you can do it safely.”  

HA Perspective [by Chris Bown]: Whether it’s philandering politicians or the realisation that car accidents now kill many more than Covid-19, it feels as though the Brits are ready to throw off their masks. Vaccination does really turn Covid into a modest nuisance, and with an increasing number of regions hitting high percentages vaccinated, so travel must surely resume. At the moment, it feels more like preening politicians and vested interests are holding up the practicalities – but they can’t hold out for ever.  

And thanks to a growing number of test events – none of which has led to significant Covid-19 outbreaks – we can now see that these, too, are unlikely to cause a problem.  

The debate still goes on about the degree to which people will return to their office jobs – but what is not in dispute, is that – overwhelmingly – people want to get back to physical business meetings. That’s got to be good news for hotels, even if that restart seems to be hobbled temporarily. Bring it on.  

Additional comment [by Andrew Sangster]: The pandemic hangover is proving to be extended. Restrictions are being gradually eased but lingering doubt is causing the recovery to take longer. Rather than one big bang of reopening – a so-called “Freedom Day” – the impact of the virus is departing more gradually than might be hoped. 

But depart it will, or at least, perhaps more realistically, the virus will be contained sufficiently to impact society in the same way as seasonal influenza. In the UK, it is not unreasonable to assume this position is now reached. There are going to be a worrying few months as the number of infections balloons but already the data indicates that the link between infections and death or hospitalisation has been broken. Few fully vaccinated people are ending up seriously ill or dieing. 

As it becomes clear that we can safely reopen society, life before Covid should resume as normal. Critically, for the meetings industry, people want and need to meet face-to-face, as Accor’s research mentioned above shows. 

There will remain work to be done to reassure people. The UK’s Meetings Industry Association has developed its AIM Secure accreditation scheme to help this. And schemes like this may prove crucial if there is an upsurge in infections during the winter. 

But also, precautions should not be so intrusive so as to perpetuate the sense of fear in society. Nor should the precautions be such that they dimmish the quality of experiences. As an example, face masks at conferences or exhibitions will inhibit interaction and likely shorten participation times. There is a difficult balance between reassurance and damaging experiences. 

I went to Wimbledon last week, an event that was part of the UK Government’s trials to see how restrictions can be eased. Very few attendees chose to wear face masks, under 10% I would guess, and even some staff removed them (despite official instruction to keep them on). The cut in capacity of attendance made my visit more enjoyable but will have hit profitability for the organiser. If capacity is to remain restrained, prices will have to rise.  

This then presents an opportunity to review existing pricing structures. We have previously written in Hotel Analyst about the gap at the top end of the market to provide better experiences at higher prices. 

For business to resume as normal, the sense of crisis has to end. This means the end of face masks and requires adjustments to others, notably the requirement to self-isolate in the event of contact with an infected person. 

UKHospitality said this week that severe staff shortages are being “compounded massively by the abasence of team members who have been told to isolate despite not having shared shifts with colleagues who tested positive”. 

In England, it has been announced that fully vaccinated people will not have to isolate from 16th August. But many hospitality workers, who are typically younger (60% are between 15 and 34 according to UKHospitality), will still not have received a second dose by then. A sensible approach would be a test-to-release scheme, as urged by UKHospitality. 

The next few months are going to be bumpy in the UK and may prove even worse elsewhere in Europe where vaccinations lag the UK. Already some restrictions are being reintroduced in some continental European countries and it seems likely significantly more tightening will occur. 

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