Did Covid change everything? No. But don't bank on 'return to normal' just yet

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Coronavirus mannequins wearing masks Photo Credit: 123REF.com

Remember all those sages and soothsayers who took one look at the pandemic and said: ‘This changes everything!’? The hint of relish in their assertions was always a giveaway.

People often seize on moments of crisis to push their own agenda, noble or ignoble, but when the crisis has passed most of the grand claims and prophecies come to nothing.

In the heat of the pandemic, meeting tech evangelists were hailing the switch to virtual as a transformational, epoch-defining moment, rather than a temporary, practical necessity. 

Which is not to downplay the significance of what happened.

Online meeting platforms clearly had a moment during the pandemic, with investors pumping millions into start-ups and more established suppliers in the hope of backing a winner.

How many of those investors will end up with burned fingers? That remains to be seen.

For many organisations, the once terrifying idea of convening hundreds, if not thousands of delegates, in a virtual space was demystified, but not necessarily validated.

It was always odds on that most people would return to meeting in-person once the worst of the pandemic was over. A two-year hiatus, as long as it might feel, is an invisible dot on the timeline of history. People have been gathering to discuss matters of common interest for millennia.

The data is certainly pointing towards a bounce back for physical meetings.

According to the latest Pulse Survey from Northstar Meeting Group, the dwindling of Omicron has seen meeting planners becoming increasingly ‘bullish’ around meeting in-person.

Almost two-thirds, 64 per cent, are planning their next live event within the next three months, making it 'potentially the most active quarter since the start of the pandemic'.

And, strikingly, a growing number – 45 per cent in March 2022 as opposed to 10 per cent in September 2020 – said their current order book included no online-only meetings. 

So, the new normal is...basically the old normal? Not quite.

The survey provides some comfort for those who bet on virtual/hybrid formats. 

A third of respondents said they were providing a virtual or hybrid option where previously there was none, while the number who expected fewer in-person attendees stood at 56 per cent.

Zoom in a little closer and you’ll see that 18 per cent cited ‘switch to virtual effectively’ as a reason for ‘delaying, rescheduling, moving or cancelling your in-person meeting or event’. 

Another reason - ‘participants not wanting to travel’ - has been hovering around the 40 per cent mark since October last year, suggesting a significant chunk of people got comfortable #wfh.

So, what does the future hold? The managing director of a European medical association told me he thought the resurgence of in-person meetings might prove short-lived if planners didn’t re-examine the value proposition behind them and shake-up their conference programmes accordingly. It could, he said, be a temporary spike based on nothing more than nostalgia.

This sounds like an astute observation. For while we are creatures of habit and ritual, we are also an adaptable species that is always looking for quicker, easier, better ways to do things. Meeting tech showed us how some things could be done quicker and easier online, but failed to convince us that the overall experience was better than the 'real thing'. 

As we return to physical meetings once again, will that view hold? I think for most of us it will. But it's also likely that some people will return to the virtual option, when it is offered to them. How many will want to switch back, or else forego attending in-person only conferences altogether, is the question meeting planners  - and those eager investors -  should be asking themselves now.

James Lancaster
Written By
James Lancaster

AMI editor James Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk, read, listen to music, and drink beer.

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