About 90 per cent of meetings are projected to have an in-person element next year, compared with 88 per cent in 2022, according to American Express Meetings & Events’ 2023 forecast. Looking at the numbers the other way around, however, is also important. Fully 38 per cent of meetings, according to this forecast, will incorporate some type of hybrid or virtual meetings technology in 2023.
That’s a lot of decision-making around when, where, why, how and which type of technology to apply. Do meeting organisers have the right guidance to do it? Furthermore, should they be vetting and choosing those technologies on a one-off basis or on their own personal preferences?
The go, no-go decision
Demand for in-person meetings, particularly for smaller events of 100 people or less, has actually surpassed pre-pandemic levels, according to Amex M&E. Whether pent-up demand has triggered a post-pandemic spike in such get-togethers or if this is the new normal remains to be seen, but Amex M&E VP of the Americas Linda McNairy painted a picture of a more active meeting environment moving forward.
“Face-to-face meetings play a vital role in strengthening company culture, employee wellness, professional development, employee empowerment and customer relationships,” she says, adding that meetings are replacing the in-person office environment for the companies that have gone largely remote after the pandemic.
Companies have some counter-arguments at their disposal, namely the high cost of travel, the drive toward sustainability and the increased demand for diversity, equity and inclusion, all reasons to leverage technology to reduce meetings volume to be gentler on the planet and expand the reach of meetings that do happen in person.
Caroline Medcalf, director of venue finding and events at Agiito, also sees increased focus on sustainability. “For our 2023 calendar, we are starting to see requests for events that have traditionally gone overseas, to instead be proposed with venue options within the UK. Whether the event is held on home-soil or overseas for our customers, it’s certain that key factors for choice will be whether the destination and/or venue has sustainable initiatives in place and if it’s operating in an ethical way, giving back to the local area.”
To that end, virtual and hybrid meetings technologies have opened a new world of decision-making for meeting organisers. How each company will situate virtual or hybrid options in their specific meetings policies will depend on the company strategy and meeting goals.
“The thing that is driving the biggest changes in policy, I think, is sustainability and what people can do to help their organisations really achieve those carbon-emissions goals,” says Bondurant Consulting president Betsy Bondurant. Some of those policy elements will be around how in-person events are executed in a way that reduces food waste, reduces water and energy usage and reduces landfill-directed waste overall. But other policies may also develop around whether to hold the meeting.
Decision-making technologies are out there, says Bondurant. “Troop is something I would like a lot more people to use because it does totally focus on [data],” Bondurant states. The platform answers the question: “If X number of attendees are coming from X places, where is the most sustainable and cost-effective place for me to have my meeting,” Bondurant says.
Speaking in late October, soon after winning the BTN Group Innovator of the Year award, Troop CEO Dennis Vilovic said clients have used the platform to help determine whether to hold a meeting. “Sometimes they’ll see the costs, they’ll see the carbon footprint involved in holding the meeting, and they’ll reconsider – often, now, from a carbon perspective,” he said. “Or, maybe they’ll reduce the number of attendees who come in person.”
Another option that has gained traction during the pandemic is what Amex M&E called the multi-hub hybrid meeting, in which local or regional groups gather, reducing travel downtime and the carbon footprint, and then link up to other local or regional groups simultaneously via technology.
Embedding tech in policy
Some companies are now taking advantage of those full production offerings and expanding addressable audiences, reaching out to those who have been reluctant to travel for health or other reasons. Other companies have been more modest in their approach. But even with more limited options, meeting planners will need guidance in terms of the technologies that will suit their meeting formats and goals.
Takeda Pharmaceutical head of global meeting and events Rawya Tullgren has taken that decision-making responsibility off the table for her team by integrating compliance to preferred technology vendors into Takeda’s meetings policy.
Takeda’s in-house meeting management team handles events in conjunction with Takeda’s information technology teams and external service suppliers. The company has adopted a policy recommending virtual and hybrid meetings when such options are applicable, but does not mandate replacing travel and in-person meetings, says Tullgren. “It’s important to consider the purpose of the event and the best platform for it, which is often in-person,” she says. “We’re not trying to replace that, but we do want to make the right decisions.”
When virtual and hybrid tech is required, Tullgren has contracted directly with a number of suppliers and has master service agreements governing them. She worked with the Takeda IT department to ensure the right criteria for those agreements and to vet the suppliers for uptime and security. The company uses SpotMe for larger events. Speakers can join that platform via Microsoft Teams. For meetings that are more interactive, Takeda uses Zoom because it has better collaboration functions like whiteboard capabilities that support a different kind of work purpose, according to Tullgren.
Managing the long tail
With Takeda’s centralised team, it’s fairly straightforward for Tullgren to designate a handful of virtual meetings technologies as preferred and communicate that to her core team. But in an increasingly remote work world, small and ad hoc meetings are the fastest-growing pieces of the overall meetings pie, according to Amex M&E, and these pick-up meetings aren’t necessarily organised by a meetings team. So how does a meetings manager filter preferred tech choices and policies down to the meeting organiser level?
American health insurance provider Elevance Health has tackled that issue with the strategic use of another technology. Prior to the pandemic, the company contracted with meetings technology platform Bizly to provide a solution to its broader employee community in order to capture ad hoc meetings data, simplify sourcing and bring visibility to those activities.
“Companies need a way to assess which technologies are being used so the IT department can remove the underperforming vendors. Companies should be able capture that data within their meeting planning platforms and give the company’s [chief information officer] confidence in the technology strategy”
Bizly’s Ron Shah
Since that time, Bizly also introduced what they call ‘playbooks,’ which allow programme administers to define certain meeting types, whether by budget or purpose of the meeting, that trigger customised workflows and support materials.
During the pandemic, Elevance incorporated virtual meeting technology providers into its supplier universe. Its policy now includes compliance to those providers, if such technologies are needed to execute a meeting. In conjunction with the Bizly playbooks, ad hoc meeting planners are directed to Teams or WebEx as simple virtual alternatives, according to Elevance travel and meetings director Cindy Heston. When the invites are sent through the platform to potential attendees, they can register for the in-person event, if there is one, or for the virtual option.
If event details trigger a more complicated 'playbook' in terms of virtual or hybrid requirements, the meeting is kicked over to a meetings professional, who also has policy guidance on which tools are in play for Elevance.
“We are past the experimentation stage. We’ve got our lanes to say, Lenos is great through Brightcove and can be highly customised. We’ve got two or three parties if you need engagement or a special wrapper, or if you want games or breakouts. If you have education or training meeting, that’s a Webex,” says Heston. “Everything has been vetted,” she adds, to save time and money but also to ensure reliability and reduce risks that might come with unproven providers.
Bizly CEO Ron Shah says that while Elevance is an outlier in how it has advanced its preferred technology strategy, more companies are looking at tightening up their virtual and hybrid technology partners.
“Users should have the ability to request new virtual meetings technologies to be brought into a company’s preferred vendor ecosystem, but it’s hard from a productivity and risk standpoint to make an argument that non-professional meeting planners need to source these types of technologies on a one-off basis,” he says.
“I would think the opposite would be more important: Companies need a way to assess which technologies are actually being used so the IT department can remove the underperforming vendors. Companies should be able capture that data within their meeting planning platforms and give the company’s [chief information officer] real confidence in the meetings technology strategy.”