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What direction is the conference sector headed, post-COVID-19?

Covid-19 has had an undeniably catastrophic effect on the hospitality industry worldwide. The reverberations have spilled, inevitably, into the conference and meetings sector as hotels remain closed and social distancing regulations mean mass gatherings of business and industry peers are currently impossible. But what does the future hold? When can trade shows, exhibitions and networking events get underway again, and will they ever be the same? 

To find out more, we caught up with Matthew Dykstra, Senior Vice President of ConferenceDirect, a global full-service meetings solutions company. He tells us about the effect the pandemic is having on his work, the challenges the industry is facing, and his thoughts on what the next few months have in store. 

Matthew DykstraQ: Could you give us a little insight into what ConferenceDirect does? It seems like you pull together a lot of the different elements of the events business. 

A: That’s true, we do. As a full-service meetings solutions provider, we have four key pillars of service: sourcing and contract negotiation services for our clients, housing services, registration services and conference management services. We also provide additional support through mobile app technology and, now, virtual meeting technology. 

Rather than taking a vendor-based approach to our client relationships, we like to take a consultative approach and we use our experience in the industry to help find additional revenue streams for the meetings process as well as mitigate the risks involved. 

So we're just not limited to hotel contract negotiations. Wherever there's a need, we like to provide a solution for our clients.

Q: What’s been the impact of COVID-19 on your business? 

A: It’s been unprecedented  in two key areas. Number one, as someone who’s been through 911, Sars, MRSA, H1N1, the mortgage crisis and even the economic troubles of the mid-late 1990s, this pandemic is unprecedented because during all of those events, we never shut down hotels and entire markets like we have now. We’re now seeing the big box marquee hotels such as the Hilton New York, the Hyatt Regency Orlando, and the Marquee in Washington DC. completely shuttered up for weeks and that has never happened before. These hotels are some of their brand’s largest income generating assets, so you can imagine the impact of this on them. 

The second thing that has no precedent is the fact that all of our clients have had to cancel bookings using the force majeure clause. We’ve never had such a clear-cut industry-wide force majeure event before, and that’s been challenging for the hotel side of things but much less painful for our clients to cancel. However, it has left these hotels without any revenue stream or recourse whatsoever, which of course is a difficult position for them to find themselves in. 

Q: How far in advance are events being cancelled and can you see a turning point on this? Is there a point in the future where events are still holding their dates? How is that navigating forward?

A: In terms of my account base, which covers companies in Washington DC from industries such as transport, education and medical services, everything up until July has been cancelled. Everything from August up until December is holding, so far. The major determining factor of what will happen next is of course what the Government regulations will allow. My clients want to have their meetings and events; as you know, trade shows, exhibitions and networking events are some of the largest income generating events for large companies and associations and so there is a huge pressure to get things going again. 

Q: What will happen when we get to a compression of events and how is that going to impact supply and demand for hotels in these key event markets?

A: The hotels can accommodate the demand because they've been able to move them into these new dates throughout their individual business calendars and cycles. I think the real question is how the room nights are going to materialize based on traveler confidence and airline supply. A lot of airlines are going to open up their flights based on customer demand and it's going to come down to whether they can convey enough confidence in people to travel. 

In addition, it depends on how convention centers plan to address guest concerns in terms of social distancing and cleanliness. But then of course everyone has different risk thresholds, which will inevitably differ from demographic to demographic. If you’ve got a meeting or event for a group of people aged between 55 to 65, they may have a different risk threshold to a group of young techs aged between 20 to 40. Therefore, we may think that we have a lot of demand on the books, but until those people show up at the front desk, it's really just a guessing game at this point.

Q: Which segment do you think will rebound the quickest and why? 

A: I think it will start with the leisure side of things in the resort areas because a lot of these places haven’t had to close their hotels because they’ve been able to hold on to some semblance of business by taking care of key workers, etc. Then, as this opens up, I think individual business travel will follow, and then groups will come after that.  

Q: How do you think hotels can set themselves up to optimize on the opportunity that comes with these returning segments? 

A: They’ll need to have solid messaging on their cleanliness programs and highlight how they are addressing everyone’s inevitable health and safety concerns. I don’t see how social distancing guidelines can be complied with if you’ve got an event for 20,000 people, for example. So, will they look at perhaps giving people personal accountability for their own risk and leaving it to them to decide if they enter that environment? It’s just unknown at the moment. 

Q: Exhibitions and events are major catalysts for business. If COVID-19 pushes us into another recession, how important are business events going to be to kick-start economies? 

A: Business is always best done face to face. Smaller meetings may remain on a virtual platform but the trade show market is going to be the catalyst to getting back to business as usual. So how fast our industry recovers will depend on how keen people are at the end of this to get back out there and get business moving again. 

Q: Finally, how do you keep perspective in these challenging times? 

It’s an opportunity to showcase how we can help our clients. This is the time to roll up our sleeves and show our value, to work on our client relationships and show them we are doing all we can to see them through this. 

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