Hybrid gatherings pave the return to in-person meetings & events

The American Express Meetings & Events 2021 Global Meetings and Events Forecast finds that this transformative time will lead to a more innovative, responsive and secure industry
Following a year of uncertainty, the 2021 Global Meetings and Events Forecast from American Express Meetings & Events, a division of American Express Global Business Travel (GBT), found that businesses have quickly adapted meetings and events programmes to keep customers, prospects and employees engaged.

Despite a steep learning curve, meeting planners have learned to implement new safety and security protocols and accelerated the use of existing technologies across virtual, hybrid and in-person formats. Web conference platforms have revealed both their benefits and limitations, as planners seek out engagement strategies to combat virtual meeting fatigue. But everything comes at a cost: survey respondents indicated that 35% of virtual and hybrid events would require the services of a full-service agency. With the recovery of travel volumes expected to vary by geography in 2021, hybrid meetings will be a stepping stone towards meeting in-person.

Gerardo Tejado, Senior Vice President and General Manager for American Express Meetings & Events, said: “The value that global organizations continue to place on meetings and events is evident in the speed with which they transitioned from in-person to virtual formats.  The passion and innovation applied to keeping people meeting through the acceleration of existing technologies has been incredible for my team and I to be a part of.”

He added: “The message in our Forecast is clear: meetings have to happen. There is an appetite to get back to meeting in-person as soon as it’s safe to do so, and hybrid meetings will be the catalyst.”

Looking ahead to 2021, planners must reconcile pent-up demand for in-person events with tightening and shifting budgets. As air fares and hotel rates still somewhat in flux, there is still hesitancy around advance booking.  To combat this uncertainty, suppliers are currently shifting to more lenient cancellation or change policies, often at no cost. Across the globe, planners expect small and simple meetings, taking place closer to home at local or regional destinations, to return faster than other meeting types at 21% globally, followed by internal meetings at 18%.

Positive sentiment around the remainder of 2020 exists, as 16% of respondents said they had already resumed in-person meetings while nearly half, or 47%, expected to resume operating at least some in-person meetings and events before the end of 2020. Overall, 60% of respondents indicated they had in-person events booked or contracted for 2020.

Respondents in China and Hong Kong expected to see increases across the board of every type of meeting. Four in 10 meetings and events planners in Asia Pacific, or 43%, expected to see an increase in client/customer advisory board meetings, and nearly half, or 49%, anticipated there would be an increase in internal team meetings in 2021.

North American respondents estimated that almost one quarter (23.6%) of their events in 2021 would include a virtual component and would be smaller local events, with fewer than 25 attendees, requiring no air travel or hotel rooms. They expected 45% of virtual/hybrid meetings would be web conferences, and 27% of all virtual/hybrid meetings would make use of a mobile app.

The leading type of meeting in North America in 2021 is expected to be small and simple meetings in the U.S. and internal team meetings/training in Canada. Regionally, respondents anticipated decreases across most types of meetings. However, 36% expected the number of senior leadership or board meetings to stay the same.

Respondents expected in-person events to make up about half of their 2021 events line-up. They predicted an increase in hybrid events into 2021 and a decrease in virtual-only events, as they plan for the return of in-person events. Despite these predicted reductions and uncertainties, most respondents rated their level of optimism regarding the health of the meetings and events industry in 2021 somewhere in the middle – on a scale of one to 10, 12% were very optimistic (eight to 10), 72% were in the middle (four to seven), and only 15% were very discouraged (one to three).

Central and South American respondents showed greatest optimism – the highest amongst the regions – regarding the health of the meetings and events industry in 2021. More than three-quarters of planners, or 76%, described career options available to them as meetings and events professionals as “excellent.” For overall budgets, 41% of respondents anticipated their organizations’ meeting spend for 2021 would increase, which was the highest of all regions surveyed.

The 2021 Forecast is based on a survey of more than 560 meetings and events professionals and interviews with 16 industry experts. The survey and interviews took place in August and September of 2020. Respondents represented corporations, associations, buyers, and suppliers on five continents and in 37 countries. The result is a statistically and globally representative snapshot of what to expect in the meetings and events industry in 2021.