Last spring, when the pandemic arrived in North America, many industries were caught off guard. Although some were able to pivot to stay afloat, others were forced to close their businesses. One of the hardest-hit was the hospitality-and-tourism sector — and the meetings-and-conventions sector bore the brunt.

With the rise of a global pandemic, stay-at-home orders, full lockdowns and border closures, hotels were struggling to fill both guestrooms and event spaces. Vito Curalli, executive director of International Sales and Industry relations at Hilton, says the sharp downturn wasn’t experienced only in leisure travel, but in the business-travel sector as well.

“Once the pandemic hit and all the restrictions were in place, the meetings environment whittled down to zero last spring,” says Curalli. “Meetings were lost, customers were pulling employees off the road and restrictions weren’t allowing for more than 10 to 25 people.”

Since then, the meetings-and-conventions landscape has adapted. Curalli says Hilton launched new programs to help entice guests to not only return as leisure travellers, but also business bookings. Its Event Ready with Cleanstay program promises guests that not only the rooms, but the public areas and breakout rooms, are properly sanitized and spaced out to allow for meetings to take place if need be, while also allowing business guests the ability to change or cancel plans with more flexibility than previously allowed before COVID-19.

“This is our way of saying to the meetings community that our hotel will be clean, and we are giving you flexibility in terms of booking,” says Curalli.

While programs such as these can help attract a few clients, they’re less of a long-term solution and more of a Band Aid. As a result, hybrid meetings are what people on both sides of the meetings-and-conventions industry have leaned on during this pandemic.

“Hybrid solutions are a way forward to come out of all this; it’s a step to get people back into meetings and events in a slow and steady way. Where we can have people in a meeting room, we will do that, but it also gives the meeting planner the opportunity to have customers in a virtual environment for that meeting,” says Curalli.

Michael Cohen is the CEO and founder of UgoVirtual, an Atlanta-based business-to-business company that specializes in virtual and hybrid meeting and event spaces. He agrees with Curalli’s sentiment, but he takes it a step further, noting, “2020 was all about virtual by necessity; 2021 and beyond will be about hybrid by choice,” says Cohen.

The flexibility afforded by a hybrid meeting, which can accommodate both online and in-person attendees, has allowed operators and meeting planners to book these meeting and events even during tighter COVID-19 restrictions.

“March 5, 2020 was the paradigm for the whole industry, and we started receiving calls that day with requests [for hybrid meetings] from clients. Before March 5, 2020 clients would say, ‘why… and how would you do that?’ Beyond March 5 until now it’s all been ‘how and when can you do it’,” says Cohen.

But while hybrid meetings are a child born of necessity and the perfect storm was created by the pandemic to let them flourish, according Cohen, they’re likely here to stay.

“Opportunity is born out of difficult situations,” he says. “We have all of these attendees and exhibitors looking to go somewhere, but can we offer them an alternative? Ultimately, what hybrid is at a high level is the optimized implementation of a B2B or B2C engagement with a dual-attendee cohort.”

This opportunity was driven even further by the members of the industry, who just want some semblance of normalcy.

“Customers want to meet,” says Curalli. “They’re telling us that they want to meet, so even if it’s a hybrid solution, that’s okay with them, because even though not everyone can go to the in-person meeting, that still allows some people to meet in person and other to meet virtually, which satisfies everybody with the overall experience.”

One of the logistical issues facing meeting planners when it comes to hybrid meetings is how do you make it balanced? How can you make such a seemingly uneven choice between in-person and online, even?

According to Cohen, it starts with mutual lynchpins, such as registration where meeting planners are able to make it a smooth process for both in-person and online attendees. But more importantly, it’s about what happens when you get in the door.

“Our focus is to create an even playing field for virtual and physical attendees. It’s not as simple as bolting on a virtual event to a physical event. Hybrid is about shared experiences and mutual engagement between virtual and physical attendees,” he says.

For Curalli, hybrid meetings are keeping the industry afloat right now, but he looks south to a more vaccinated and open United States to see what’s on the horizon for a more opened-up and relaxed Canadian hospitality landscape. And the way he sees it, the industry should soon return to normal.

“Overall, hybrid is about choice,” he says. “What we are doing with hybrid solutions is giving the meeting planners the ability to choose. You’re starting to see a shift; it will start with less attendees in the room and more in the virtual space, but as restrictions are lifted, you’ll start to see more people coming into the physical space and less of them in the virtual environment.”

Written by Nick Laws


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