7 Predictions on Event Planning in a Post-Pandemic World

Recently Professor Dean Mistretta '14 and I were asked by the Event Coordinator’s Network at Georgia Tech University to share our thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on the event industry in the U.S. We’re happy to have this opportunity to speak to a much larger audience. As you know, the pandemic has created a fast-moving, dynamic and ever-changing environment, especially in the hospitality industry. Here, we’ll review some of our observations and predictions, be honest about which ones were accurate and which ones were not, and provide some new information about event planning in a post-pandemic world.

Male speaker at event with masks

ABOVE: CONVENTIONS AND CONFERENCES HAVE HAD TO RETHINK THEIR STRATEGIES — AND THINGS WILL LIKELY NEVER BE THE SAME.

Hospitality Industry: Where We’ve Been

A very brief overview

Frankly, we’re tired of talking about the devastation the COVID-19 pandemic has brought upon our industry. But looking back just a bit helps to provide some perspective on the present and a clearer picture of what the future holds.

The negative effects of the pandemic have been felt across all segments of the hospitality industry:

  • Airlines lost 60% of all passengers in 2020.
  • Hotels were missing 50% of their guests.
  • In sports, entertainment and events venues, 75% of seats were empty.
  • The National Restaurant Association reports that restaurants lost $240 billion in revenue, 2.5 million jobs and 110,000 businesses.

As brutal as this snapshot is, things could have been much worse. Creative operators responded with their best ideas and efforts, and the government poured stimulus money into the pockets of struggling owners and displaced workers to assist in their ability to fight another day — and many of them have!

>> Related Reading: Hotel, Travel, Tourism Industries Persevere Through COVID-19

DJ wearing mask at event

ABOVE: "DEMAND FOR OUR PRODUCTS NEVER WENT AWAY," REFLECTED THE AUTHORS ON THE INDUSTRY'S RESILIENCE. 

Event Planning: Where We Are

The comeback

Fortunately for the event industry, demand for our products and services never went away. Consumers’ preference for gathering at sporting events, concerts and celebrations didn’t wane, it was just put on temporary hold. Attitudes toward gathering varied, and even during the pandemic, some consumers pretty well always felt comfortable mingling in public settings and crowds.

Most eligible consumers got their vaccine and then went rushing off to do the things they most missed. They traveled, went to see live music and sports, and attended family gatherings and events. Even better for event professionals, their customers came back flush with all the cash they hadn’t been able to spend for a year! Technomic indicates that spending on food and beverage in July 2021 was higher than it was pre-pandemic in July 2019.

This comeback certainly doesn’t mean we’ll be returning to previous norms. An occurrence this significant is bound to leave a mark, bound to embed itself in the psyche and change all parties involved — for our purposes, the operators, consumers and workers involved in the event industry.

Some changes may actually be for the better. In fact, there’s a good argument that the pandemic has changed restaurants for the better. Others are likely to create challenges to come for those same groups. Here are some we think are most significant.

>> Related Reading: Has the Pandemic Changed Restaurants for the Better?

Two females leave hotel wearing masks

ABOVE: LEISURE TRAVEL HAS RETURNED TO PRE-PANDEMIC LEVELS.

7 Predictions about the Future of the Event Industry

1. Leisure and business event spending will be different.

It’s been said that demand for events never went away and spending on events has returned with a vengeance.

Well, yeah, but … this statement is only partially true.

Demand never went away but results over the past few months indicate that consumers feel differently about leisure events and business events. Spending on leisure has returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Spending on business travel, international travel and group meetings has not.

This summer, Professor Mistretta attended one of the largest conventions and trade shows in the event business. Attendees were scarce, to put it mildly. It seems that remote contact may have been an acceptable alternative for many businesses and workers, and they are hesitant to spend the time and money necessary to travel to business meetings and events, a significant factor that event professionals should consider to begin their planning.

Female remote employee on video conferencing

ABOVE: REMOTE WORKING SKYROCKETED VIDEO CONFERENCING USAGE AND ACCEPTANCE.

2. Video conferencing is here to stay.

People like Zoom … or at least people don’t mind Zoom or the other video conferencing products currently in use. Studies indicate that workers feel more freedom working remotely. Incredibly, statistics indicate that workers are more productive working remotely. But we all know that personal contact can be a critical component of professional success, especially in some workers in specific positions. And some of us are still hesitant to travel. All things considered, for now, events heavy on educational content, delivered in keynotes and seminars, are best delivered remotely. Live events are best limited for those industries and workers where live mingling is considered a critical activity.

Now hiring sign at restaurant

ABOVE: OUR EXPERTS PREDICT WAGE INCREASES FOR HOSPITALITY WORKERS TO CONTINUE, WITH EVENT PRICING TO RISE AS A RESULT.

3. Good help will continue to be hard to find.

“Good help is impossible to find!”

“Nobody wants to work!”

“Unemployment benefits are keeping people from working!”

All the above statements might be contributing to the shortage of workers, but only the first statement is really true. Help is hard to find because a lot of people are already working. The United States unemployment rate in August 2021 was 5.2%. That’s low, reducing the potential help available. Immigration and travel from abroad are also low, further reducing the workforce. And to make matters worse, lots of workers have gotten a taste of other jobs and concluded that the hospitality industry is a tough place to earn a living. They’ve moved out of hospitality, and most don’t plan to return.

Professor Mistretta deals with this challenge every day. His events are affiliated with a restaurant group, and so he has the luxury of borrowing help from there when he can. That said, this week he was off setting up event space himself.

It’s clear to us that some fundamental changes need to occur in the industry. Pay, benefits and working conditions all need to improve for the industry to be sustainable. For now, the primary method of attracting help has centered on pay increases and signing bonuses. Hourly rates in the industry have skyrocketed and the scarcity of help continues. Expect compensation to continue to rise. Expect some increase in inflation. Be sure to take this into account and price your events accordingly.

Female hotel employee greets guest with mask

ABOVE: LABOR SHORTAGES WILL ONLY BE A TEMPORARY EXCUSE FOR SUBPAR CUSTOMER SERVICE, OUR EXPERTS WARN.

4. Despite setbacks, the service business must focus on outstanding service.

You may be aware of the McDonald’s sign that has been circulating all over the Internet. It reads, “We are short-staffed. Please be patient with the staff that did show up. No one wants to work anymore.” By and large, consumers understand this to be the case. They have been more tolerant of mistakes. They have been more generous when tipping. They wait longer without complaining. They understand that the pandemic has caused a crisis in the industry and have indeed been more patient than usual.

This won’t last forever.

We can’t be in the mostly service business and provide lousy service. Pretty soon, your customers will expect you to figure it out, so get to work on figuring it out.

5. Proof of vaccination for events will become standard.

A lot of your customers know a lot about COVID. They’ve consumed more media and so are more informed than you might think. They know that “sanitation theater” is mostly nonsense so you can stop wiping everything down all the time. They know it’s not really helping.

What they do know is what does help — the vaccine. Professor Mistretta and I recommend proof of vaccine for your guests. We recommended the same thing a couple of months ago and got some pushback. It will cost me business some said. Probably not, we said. Recently, restaurants in San Francisco, Boston and elsewhere decided to require proof of vaccine or proof of a recent negative test. Boston College just did the same for all sporting events. Live Nation announced this policy for all concerts, as did fourteen Boston Theater Companies for all their performances.

Malcolm Gladwell is plenty smart. He told a story recently about the development of laundry soap that washes well in cold water. Despite this development, and the benefit to the environment of not using so much energy to heat up hot water, and people caring about the environment, he mentioned that a huge percentage of Americans still wash their clothes in hot water. It’s not that these people object to cold water, it’s that they just don’t care enough yet to do something different. Eventually, they will, and that’s how norms change. Most people who aren’t vaccinated aren’t opposed to the vaccine, they just don’t care enough yet. He concludes they won’t be offended if you require them to be vaccinated.

We still think Malcolm Gladwell is plenty smart and you should keep all your guests as safe as you can.

Couple sits on blanket at outdoor event

ABOVE: AMERICANS NOW EXPECT (AND ENJOY) OUTDOOR EVENTS, OUR EXPERTS CLAIM.

6. The shift to more outdoor hospitality options will continue.

Americans have been eating and drinking outside like Europeans and we like it. The pandemic left a mark, and some people prefer to be outside because they consider it a safer place to be. As long as the weather allows, consider holding any event outside that lends itself to being held outside.

7. A responsive and flexible strategy is the best strategy.

We feel pretty good about our observations and the conclusions we’ve based them on. That said, this has been a difficult time in large part because of the uncertainty. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. We recommend being nimble.

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