Forty-six per cent of meeting organisers who responded to our Future of Meetings survey said they would plan hybrid events in the next 12 months. Corroborating that, American Express Meetings & Events has forecast 28 per cent of meetings in 2023 will be hybrid. No matter how you look at the numbers, organisers are on the hook to integrate a positive experience for both in-person and virtual participants over the next year.
Hotels have done some good legwork on this. Big brands like Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott have rolled out hybrid meeting suites, but they haven’t necessarily blanketed their portfolios with them. Those hotel companies have largely worked with Encore, the reincarnation of PSAV which acquired Encore Events in 2019, to equip their spaces and provide onsite expertise. Marriott also partners with Encore, but also has formalised relationships with virtual meetings platforms Cvent, Hopin and MeetingPlay, as well as offsite production and broadcasting services from Convene.
“During the pandemic, people certainly leaned on their AV partners to understand delivery of virtual and hybrid,” meetings consultant Betsy Bondurant says, and they still do.
Forty per cent of travel and meeting buyers responding to our survey said they prioritise a venue’s technology capability when vetting for their events. That percentage roughly corresponds with the per cent of survey respondents who said they would pursue hybrid events in the next 12 months. For those who said they would not pursue hybrid, 36 per cent cited lack of technical expertise and 33 per cent cited additional costs to execute. And that’s the rub – venue capability almost always translates into costs.
For both Hilton and Hyatt, small groups of about 20 or less can execute a hybrid meeting without invoking additional services and costs from Encore. Any larger, though, and meeting hosts would be looking at increasing costs with the in-house AV provider. The Marriott approach is more customised to integrate with common platforms the meeting organiser may already use, but costs are still there.
For some, this a la carte business model might not be the answer.
Elevance global travel and meetings director Cindy Heston negotiates with every venue the ability to bring in her own technology and production partnerships.
“We reserve the right to bring in our own [providers] with no penalties from the venue,” she says. “We don’t know what the costs are, but we want to be able to bid it externally and then determine if the venue offers better value or the external vendor.”
What usually works for Elevance is a blend. “We’ll often do the main session, big-ticket items, and the venue does the breakouts. We’ve seen that work really well,” Heston says, adding that Elevance has returned to about 80 per cent of its pre-Covid meeting volume, but now runs 60 per cent of those in a hybrid format compared to zero prior to the pandemic. “It’s a big change,” says Heston.
Other travel and meetings leaders don’t necessarily have the bandwidth or appetite to take on the a la carte model or source external providers themselves. They are looking for a more integrated approach with dedicated conference venues like Convene or Etc.venues.
“We’ve known for a long time about the pain points of audiovisual providers, and it really can hurt,” says Steven Mandelbaum, who half-jokingly invoked the scenario of needing a power cord that you can buy on the high street, but instead having to source that from an internal AV provider for a cost and then “paying the AV guy to gingerly uncoil it for you.”
While Mandelbaum says he never likes to go all-in with a specific provider, he acknowledges that the integrated business model, where technology and AV are baked into the overall meetings package is “really compelling for the current scenario” when organisations are looking to scale turnkey solutions, with technologies that are still unfamiliar to many.
“It’s a model that hotels really need to consider,” says Mandelbaum, “because the Convenes of the world will continue to take their business if they don’t.”