As virtual meeting demand surged in the early days of the pandemic, meeting planners responsible for finding the proper technology providers frequently turned to Google – and not Google Meet.

“They realised the event marketing people needed something more robust than Zoom or Microsoft Teams, and they were really just Googling ‘virtual meetings’ to identify providers,” says strategic meetings management consultant Betsy Bondurant.

Frequently, they did this independently of their internal IT, risk and security teams, she says, each of which could provide valuable guidance in vetting virtual meeting suppliers to ensure they could meet both technical and data security needs.

Try that method today, and an endless stream of listicles will appear, some of dubious origin, promising the best seven, nine, 11 or 27 virtual meeting and conference platforms. Perhaps that’s why many meeting planners said they still feel at sea in terms of the skill set needed to ensure programme compliance from virtual and hybrid meeting providers.

“I feel there are so many options out there that it can be confusing to see what the difference between them is,” said one planner in an open-ended response in BTN Europe’s Future of Meetings survey. “Coordinators have to up their game and have greater creativity and understanding,” another planner said. “I’ve doubled what I knew before,” a third planner said, “but many planners are still behind in knowing all the requirements.”

About 46 per cent of our survey respondents said their organisations had purchased or selected some sort of external technology to facilitate virtual or hybrid meetings after 2019, and most of those who had not said they already had such technology in place.

The technology explosion has evolved the necessary skill set not only in vetting vendors but also in what’s required for successful execution. Many planners used to tackling such problems as avoiding long registration lines or ensuring a buffet selection could please all guests found that “they had to turn into TV producers,” says Cvent CMO Patrick Smith.

Now that live meetings are making a rebound, it’s only made the required skill set more complex. “It requires more technical skill and the ability to think differently and plan three events in one: virtual, in-person and where the two come together,” a buyer in the survey said.

Even with that complexity, about 59 per cent of survey respondents whose organisations had purchased virtual and hybrid meeting technology did so directly with vendors, though 34 per cent also said they used a mixture of direct sourcing and working with their travel management company. Very few said they relied solely on their TMC for sourcing the technology.

However, TMC expertise can be valuable not only in ensuring successful execution of a hybrid or virtual meeting but also helping to keep costs in line and identifying the right technology solution as providers can be so diverse.

Some, for example, are standalone virtual tools, while others have more complex features including collaboration tools, gamification options or a mobile app for attendees. Different providers have different levels of technical support, with some handling such needs as rehearsals, troubleshooting and other services to ensure things go smoothly. A TMC or consultant partner can help ensure planners are getting all that they need but not paying for services they do not need.

In some cases, planners might have no alternative. “Some customer IT requirements are so restrictive, it made it challenging for them to find their own tools,” says Kari Wendel, global VP of strategic customers and operations for CWT Meetings and Events. “So they have to outsource to use it.”

Outside of such situations, the decision largely comes down to a planner and their team’s capabilities, along with the complexity of meeting needs, said Smith, who added that Cvent sees a mix of customers working with them directly.

It requires more technical skill and the ability to think differently and plan three events in one: virtual, in-person and where the two come together

BTN Europe survey respondent

Measuring success

Regardless of who is handling the sourcing, virtual and hybrid suppliers must be regularly assessed, as their priorities can change, as can platforms. Service-level agreements with vendors can help define success, though Bondurant says they need to be “fair and equitable” and urged planners not to go overboard.

“Less is more,” says Bondurant. “Once you have to start measuring 15, 20 or 30 different activities, you’re spending more time measuring than you are actually producing the event. Determine what is critical to success and measure those things, but stay away from the minutiae.” 

Such basics include whether the event started on time or taking into account technical difficulties and platform reliability.

In fact, having access to such data is encouraging planners to enhance the way they conduct in-person events, Smith said. More planners are using such tools as badges with chips so they can track how many people went into a room for a session or how long they stayed, or they elect to forgo live questions in a session altogether and push everything through an app, he says.

“Organizations saw how much information they could get in virtual, and they want to bring that to in-person events as well,” says Smith.

While it remains to be seen how big a portion of the entire event space that virtual and hybrid events will occupy in the coming years, planners need to remain educated about virtual options even if they don’t plan to use them. As one of the lingering lessons from the pandemic, the travel landscape can change unexpectedly in a matter of weeks.

Buyers' evolving role

New digital savvy has been injected into corporate meetings and events teams, but a hurried pivot to virtual while many were in lockdown has meant formal training largely hasn’t been established. And as business travel continues to rebound following the removal of restrictions across Europe, many conference and meetings organisers are returning to in-person formats.

Nevertheless, hybrid meetings persist while hybrid working models have raised the stakes for internal corporate meetings that build team bonds, instil company culture and increase professional development.

All of this has raised the profile of meetings planners and, according to Kerry Douglas, head of programme at the Institute of Travel Management (ITM), prompted a greater convergence of meetings and travel management.

“People travel to meet, whether it’s to meet one other person or a thousand people. If travel managers or their organisations do not see the need to bring travel and meetings closer together then they are missing a huge opportunity to leverage knowledge and visibility, and potentially spend,” she told BTN Europe.

“This is even more relevant post-pandemic where the travel experience is not what it used to be, so the connectivity between those managing travel and those organising meetings and events needs to be closer than ever,” she added.

Organizations saw how much information they could get in virtual events, and they want to bring that to in-person events as well

Cvent's Patrick Smith

ITM’s most recent survey of its travel buyer members (April 2022) found that 37 per cent had seen their remit evolve to now include responsibility for meetings and events. It also revealed that corporate travel managers have become increasingly involved in high-level conversations around the rationale and ROI of in-person meetings, with 39 per cent saying they have been party to such discussions.

This is also due in part to the more complex nature of booking business travel and meetings in the wake of the pandemic.

“It’s almost as if everyone has become travel virgins, so they rely on a subject matter expert within the organisation,” says Karen Hutchings, global head of travel, meetings and events at consultancy, EY.

Hutchings said her team is now taking on a more “consultative” position within the company as the travel and meetings manager moves from being tactical to highly strategic.

“We are like salespeople on steroids because, basically, what we're trying to do is influence our stakeholders and drive behaviour change,” says Hutchings.

And the key to driving change? Data.  

Crunching the numbers

Hutchings has five data analysts and seven AI-powered robots as part of her team – “we’ve actually named them and they’re on our organisational chart,” she says. “If we didn't have our bots running then there would be many elements of our programme that wouldn't happen.”

At EY, all travel and meetings reporting is automated, including the company’s 150,000 individual traveller dashboards, and Hutchings is planning on further automation across the programme.

“When there is such a lack of talent in our industry, and competition is so high, [automation] helps significantly… and as volumes increase you don’t have to hire more people because you can rely on technology to get the job done,” she said.

Amid the current talent crunch, data-driven deci­sion processes will prove vital in allowing corporate planners to restart their programmes and help travel management companies return to pre-pandemic levels of service.

Herve Mattan, vice president, meetings & events EMEA, American Express Global Business Travel, believes a growing number of automated software platforms has “rapidly expanded” the digitalisation of meetings management – in person and hybrid – in recent years.

“For planners using these platforms, removing some manual booking processes means they can spend more time being creative and strategic with programming,” he says.

Shauna Whitehead, vice president of customer solutions at BCD Meetings & Events also sees tha strategic meetings management is evolving, “even if [companies] aren’t ready to dictate exactly how meetings need to be managed”.

“There is a general need in this post-pandemic world to always know where employees or attendees are at any given time, and to better understand how, why and where people are meeting in order to drive ROI for their company,” she adds.

Booking efficiencies

For in-person meetings, this is where technology platforms like Troop, Gant Together and Bizly can help streamline booking processes, allowing planners to review spaces, rates and room availability, along with policy compliance and sustainability requirements – all with a few clicks.

Madrid-based Troop enables meeting planners to select appropriate venues and destinations based on data-driven criteria such as cost, connectivity and attendees' carbon emissions. In June the company launched M&E dashboards, which are updated in real-time to allow planners to “gain visibility” across all M&E spending.

Gant’s planning portal, meanwhile, enables online event registration and in-policy air travel booking for attendees. The platform’s automation tools match travellers to room blocks, shuttle services, and other event details, and bots can be set up to answer traveller FAQs.

Bizly’s venue-sourcing technology is also being harnessed to streamline management around small meetings. In August, the consulting division of Meetings & Incentives Worldwide, Intent Strategy, integrated the technology into its larger meetings management platform to bring together data capture and reporting.