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The pandemic might change the way planners handle meetings & conferences moving forward

By GARY SHERWIN

This certainly wasn’t the year that we imagined as 2022 began.

With COVID fatigue in full force, we were supposed to begin seeing meetings and conferences again in Newport Beach – a significant part of our tourism economy – after nearly two years of coma-like conditions. Bookings at area hotels were rebounding as of late last year. We were coming back, baby!

Well, Omicron had a different idea and that was to give us more of the same. Despite vaccination rates and safety protocols in place, many meeting planners chose to postpone their gatherings.

And that is actually good news.

Instead of cancelling outright, most planners pushed many of their meetings to later in the year. We’ve also seen that play out with high profile local events like the Mayor’s Dinner and the Christmas Boat Parade Dinner which are being rescheduled to the Spring.

Gary Sherwin

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Visit Newport Beach

Gary Sherwin

Unbelievably, that is the silver lining in this latest COVID outbreak. Planners, who have endured a start/stop event cycle for the last two years, aren’t for the most part panicking. In fact, most of them are seeing this latest variant as a temporary bump in the road that will be short-lived.

The first three months of the year are usually reserved for meetings and conferences in Newport Beach as the leisure visitor is still recovering from their holiday financial hangovers. While a few vacation seeking people show up during holiday weekends like Valentine’s or President’s Day, most of the money is made from these previously booked groups.

Planners are cautious people by nature. There is often a lot of money on the line and if word gets out that someone attended a conference and got sick, that setback could cost them in the future. So invariably they err on the side of caution.

A recent industry report said that nearly two-thirds of meeting planners have cancelled, postponed, or moved in-person events over the past six weeks. This mirrors the wave of cancellations and changes in late summer when the Delta variant was nearing its peak. 

This time, however, the slump should be temporary: Nearly 80% of the 668 respondents in a recent industry survey, fielded from January 15-25, intend to produce their next in-person meeting in the first half of 2022. We’ve seen that same trend locally with meeting clients.

And those who paused their live events in December and January won’t be waiting long to resume their plans. Forty-four percent of respondents will hold their next in-person meeting this quarter, and another 34% will meet this Spring or Summer. Only 4% will hold off until 2023 or later. 

Have you been on too many Zoom calls and are sick and tired of the whole thing? You are not alone. The other good news is that people are moving on from virtual meetings and planners are increasingly committed to doing live, in-person gatherings. Fewer than 20% of planners said most of their upcoming events will be digital-only, another indication that planners remain committed to returning to in-person events.

All of this is really important because Newport Beach cannot truly recover its tourism business without robust meetings and conventions. It is a massive cash flow stream for our largest hotels accounting for as much as 60% of their annual revenue or more. With new hotel products coming online soon with VEA (the Marriott Newport Beach) and the new alliteration of Fashion Island Hotel to be announced shortly, meetings will be critical to their economic success as well as our city’s other properties.

As meetings return, there will be some challenges, however. More than half of the planners said they will now require masks indoors, a significant increase since the end of last year. That won’t be popular for many people and compliance will certainly be an issue.

Nearly 20% of all meetings will require both proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test prior to in-person events. As in the political arena, the range of COVID protocols reveals a huge difference of opinion: 56% of respondents in an industry survey will adhere to state and local mandates and nothing further. 

Another precautionary measure that doesn’t bode well for Newport Beach is that 40% of planners said they will or might avoid holding live events in the winter (December through March), specifically due to health and safety concerns. Since our city needs group business during that time, that trend could be problematic. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

2022 has been forecast by the U.S. Travel Association as the year of recovery and I still buy that prediction. As Omicron wanes and people get adjusted to living with COVID, people are eager to get out and see people in the flesh. Meetings are a vital part of that.

Gatherings are also critical because we are humans. Zoom helped get us through the pandemic but we are social creatures who crave connection. There’s nothing like seeing an old industry friend in person at a conference after only viewing them on a screen for the last two years.

It’s time to get together again. We need it as people as well as our city’s economy.

Gary Sherwin is President & CEO of Visit Newport Beach and Newport Beach & Company.