Assessing Challenges for The Return to In-Person Meetings

BTN is following a single group of meeting practitioners throughout 2021 to assess corporate meetings’ progress as companies return to face-to-face events. Kicking off a three-part series are Zurich-based Nadja Haag, global meetings and events manager for Takeda Pharmaceuticals; ZS Associates meetings and travel manager Suzanne Boyan; Anthem director of travel and events Cindy Heston; and industry consultant Betsy Bondurant. They spoke with BTN senior editor Donna M. Airoldi in late April about the issues facing meeting and event departments. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

BTN: Have you begun to hold in-person meetings, and, if so, what considerations are you facing?

Cindy Heston: For Anthem, it’s been a cautious journey. We had some live events scheduled for the fourth quarter that we just moved to virtual. One was an internal meeting, and [we] checked with the participants, and they said they prefer to be virtual. … The other piece is if someone comes to us and says, ‘I want to have a live event,’ we have to consult them and say there has to be a hybrid aspect to it. You need to make sure you are opening both doors and not saying either in-person or nothing, because that is discriminatory. … We have to be cognizant for that dual approach for the rest of this year and possibly into 2022. Then there’s the budget: They’ve all been operating with very low costs, but when you look at a dual option, you’ll be increasing your budget a good 40 percent to 60 percent. 

Nadja Haag: At Takeda, leadership made it clear that it was important safety was provided for employees, patients, the health care professionals we do meetings with, and our vendors. Therefore, we haven’t had a full lift of the travel ban, especially because the situation is different in many countries. We do see some regions starting to think about hybrid meetings, smaller meetings in the office with strict guidelines and security measurements. For example, a colleague had a meeting in the Boston office, but it was restricted to 10 participants, and people needed to be tested ahead of time. … In Asia-Pacific, they are starting to consider hybrid models. It depends on the countries involved. [One] region decided today for September that they won’t go with hybrid and will play it safe and keep it virtual. … It’s definitely a bit easier for local meetings. In countries where things are going well, things are slowly picking up.

Suzanne Boyan: We are full-steam-ahead planning meetings for Q3 and Q4, but we are ready to pivot as we did last year, based on the comfort level of our people. We have a big global leadership meeting planned for October. A large contingent comes from India, and we are cognizant of what is happening there now, and how it could be perceived to have this meeting. We have to ensure the hotels are on board with a contingency plan should we need to move these meetings elsewhere. With that said, our people do seem excited about the possibility of getting together in-person. … We just got two requests for smaller leadership meetings to take place in Q3 and Q4. Then we’re planning a meeting for 850 people for Q2 of 2022. But to everyone’s point, we are cognizant we can’t just host it in-person. It has to be hybrid. One thing we are trying to figure out is how to make that hybrid experience as good if not better for those who are attending in-person.

Betsy Bondurant: I’ve been hearing similar things, but some of the other topics are the reputational risk of going back to face-to-face events. Some companies that are risk-averse are waiting to do face-to-face events until 2022. As far as budgetary concerns, if hybrid, it’s not only the financial [element] but also the team needing to be able to deliver that. A lot of companies are struggling with, ‘I have a meeting planning team, I have a technology team, or event marketing team, and who is responsible for what?’ There are conversations regarding governance and who owns what part so people aren’t stepping over each other, but also so there aren’t gaps. 

BTN: Are you using metrics from virtual events to change how you plan in-person content?

Heston: What a unique opportunity we have today given the fact that we can track everybody. … You can see how long [attendees] watch a video, how long they were at a booth. … If you were to have a live event in 2022, keep these hubs open and do ongoing engagement, ongoing videos, so you have this build-up to the live event. … When you get to your hybrid events or live in 2022, you have a really good case study of what [attendees] are interested in. And you can build out your content in a much more thoughtful, data-driven manner. … It gives us more partnership and consistency with our leaders in our organization.

Haag: It’s great having these metrics to see what we can build on for next year and where we need to improve. Also, communications. Should we have made this session more attractive for people to attend? We also [can see] in which regions where we have bigger attendance. Our U.S. and European sessions were much better attended than Asia-Pacific. It’s up to us now to know we need to target these regions better and understand how we can attract [people] to join. 

We are full-steam-ahead planning meetings for Q3 and Q4, but we are ready to pivot as we did last year, based on the comfort level of our people.”

– ZS Associates’ Suzanne Boyan

BTN: Is anyone happy with the platforms they are using for virtual or hybrid?

All: No.

Bondurant: I understand there is a lot of tension in companies. Some IT folks will say, ‘Use our Zoom account.’ And it doesn’t have the functionality needed for more complex things. For an internal meeting, it’s fine. But [IT doesn’t] know what is needed by an event marketing firm for example. Another is, in some organizations, there [are people saying,], ‘I’m going to use Intrado, I’m going to use On24, I’m going to use XYZ,’ and they don’t realize that it needs to go through a significant vetting process from security for privacy and all that. Then there is pushback. They’ve already paid for a license, and all of a sudden the IT and security folks find out about it. Can you use the technology tool that your AV provider or creative agency has versus do you have to own the license? There are lots of things to consider in addition to the actual functionality of the tool.

Haag: We have multiple vendors, and today I can better recommend to my internal stakeholders which platform I would use for which event, setting clear expectations, because certain platforms are better for these meetings, certain others for [different ones]. For now, there is always a tradeoff. 

Heston: We found a few that have worked really well. Then as we get into a groove with them, there is price creep. Events that were $50,000 in June 2020 are now $100,000 to $120,000 in October [2021]. … I can’t have an internal virtual meeting cost over $100,000, especially when you did it in June for [a lot less]. We have four major players we work with repeatedly. We [request for proposals] them for every event and make them price out every line item. They were saying, ‘Here’s your lump-sum price.’ We didn’t know what we were paying for. … [One company had] prices that were out of control. … After ignoring them, they’d call and say, ‘You didn’t respond to my outrageous cost, do you want me to reduce it?’ If you are going to price outrageously, I won’t call you back. Who has time for that? What are your costs, mark it up 10 percent to 20 percent, and be done. Quit doing this 60 percent to 100 percent markup because you think you will be the magic tool. There are a lot of other tools out there we can use. 

BTN: What is the biggest challenge you have as you begin to plan in-person meetings?

Boyan: For us it’s the space, but it’s also that the hotels we’ve been in negotiations with are still operating as if the world is not going through a global pandemic. We want to be a good partner. It’s not that we don’t want them to make money. But they also need to understand. The meeting we are hosting in October is a global meeting. If people can’t make it because of quarantine issues, that’s a problem. That’s been hard to get across to them in understanding that when you enter into these contracts, you can’t use Covid as a reason to get rid of it, and they’re like, ‘You’re covered under force majeure.’ Well, not really, because we are going into this contract with our eyes wide open. … It’s been a struggle, especially for the 2022 meetings. One thing we’ve done is say that if you don’t accept our contract terms, it’s a non-starter. Don’t even bother RFP-ing. Don’t waste your time, don’t waste our time. Here are our terms. There is some flexibility in there, but if you can’t meet us in the middle at least, then we can’t move forward. And it has limited our options. 

Haag: Last year, [our biggest challenge] was technology and finding the right resources. Looking forward, … in the U.S., you have large venues and can usually find a broad variety of places to host a meeting. Here, depending on the size of your meeting, you may end up with three in a city. And especially coming from the pharmaceutical industry, where we cannot choose all the venues due to compliance reasons, we are already a little limited. 

Heston: [It’s been] everything. There’s no one-size-fits-all. Pre-Covid, our customer knowledge was in-depth, [and] they knew what to expect. Fast-forward to a dynamic where your customer is really at a level of not understanding the platforms. … We are looking at it as an opportunity to partner and to educate, to consult with our internal customers and make sure their outcomes exceed what they want. … Now, we are not only working with security, but also with our Covid committee and the back-to-office committee. What are the protocols they are asking for? Will they do temperature checks? What should we ask for on our registration site as we go back to live meetings? … For years we’ve been [trying] to augment and complement that opportunity we have with these [virtual] technologies. I think now that it was forced upon them, they see these great opportunities. It’s a big pivot for everybody, but it’s about time. [There were] unfortunate circumstances to get there, but I’m thrilled to be in this position to partner and lead our organization toward the solutions that really will impact our business in the future.  

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