Looking Back—and Ahead—at the Local Meeting and Event Landscape
An in-depth conversation about the state of Delaware’s meeting, event, and tourism climate, and how to plan for a new future.
Recently, Polly Weir, Director of Conference & Event Services at the University of Delaware, “sat down” with Jessica Bittmann, CMP, Director of Sales at the Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau. Their conversation reflects the scramble we all faced at the beginning of the pandemic, the necessary shifts made and surprises experienced, and offers some insights as to how venues can prepare for the imminent “new normal.”
Polly: Can you walk us through the past 10 months as a tourism professional during the pandemic?
Jessica: It started off very optimistically: How can we do things differently? What can we do to help people? How can we provide funding to help everyone? It didn’t take long before we realized that none of that was going to work.
It felt like the Hunger Games – watching the groups go: starting with the spring groups, then the summer groups, and then the fall groups. Then watching friends, peers, and mentors go. A lot of hard work was lost too. It has definitely been a long, tough 10 months.
The entire event mode cascaded. First, shifting from Spring to Fall and then shifting again or just canceling. Some events went completely virtual while others are rescheduling. That rescheduling will impact us for years.
For example, one particular big convention that we lost in October – normally they move to a different city every year. This year 2020, they didn’t have one. So, even though we get to host them next year, it’s now two more years before another city will have the opportunity to host them. That means for some groups, it will be a few more years before we have the opportunity to bring them back here. What has always been a very reliable schedule—groups have a spring and a fall, and then they have an annual, etc.—has just gone completely out the window.
So, at GWCVB, we shifted our focus. How do we market an area when people aren’t traveling? We focused on our regional market – specifically within driving distance. For instance, people in Philly who wanted to get out could come here and enjoy the gardens, etc. The timing was right for that and we will likely continue that strategy into the future.
Have you found that your clients have been understanding?
It ran the gamut. I saw how flexible venues were able to be and how understanding clients were – or were not. Understandably, everybody was looking out for their bottom line, but generally, I think people appreciated that it was just an unusual situation.
Were there any surprises that came out of this experience?
How fast everything stopped. It was shocking. I’ve never seen anything like it. I can understand that feeling of desperation when you’re losing revenue and the uncertainty of what’s best to do. I followed what was happening across the country – watching cities where they were meeting in person and trade shows and conferences that were continuing to host in person. Even with plexiglass and masks, there were still some instances where COVID cases resulted from those.
We’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the idea of virtual gatherings – and it looks like they will continue. What trends do you see emerging for virtual meetings and events?
I’ve attended more lunchtime networking events instead of evening events – which is a break from the norm. One event paid for and delivered my lunch. I know of groups that are initiating partnerships with DoorDash or Grubhub.
I see more experiential things being incorporated. At one event, everyone had fun participating in a quiz game on an app. At another networking event, they hired a musical group who made up songs based on things that we did. I’ve also received swag bags ahead of virtual events.
Restaurants have arranged Zoom wine tastings. Wine is sent to your home and you gather virtually with other people. That’s happening on both the convention and meeting level.
I’m also seeing a trend towards individualized food and beverage. Say, on the opening night of an event for an in-person meeting, instead of a reception, they may have room service send up a box filled with different items to everyone’s room. Everyone can enjoy it together – but virtually instead of in a conference room.
I predict certain virtual aspects will remain. Still, there’s much to be said for people gathering in a room and focusing on tasks in person – and I expect that to return. Virtual has great attendance, but it’s not as engaging.
I see smaller meetings going hybrid: monthly in-person meetings shift to quarterly, with the remaining months being virtual. Or, adding a virtual aspect to an in-person conference – which has already been successful.
I agree. There’s been research on this — you don’t problem solve as well when you’re not in a room with people. Have you seen examples of hybrid meetings where there’s a panel of people socially distanced, and everybody else attends remotely?
I know it’s happening. Places have really capitalized on it. They have the AV, the speaker, and they film for future needs. Plus, now there are new sponsorship opportunities. The live event may not be as prominent, but the virtual aspect enables new and different ways to engage – and that will grow.
With the political climate changing and the availability of a vaccine, where do you see our local industry in 1 to 5 years?
In one year, unfortunately, I don’t see a whole lot of change. This year is going to be a difficult one. Even with vaccines, October 2021 meetings are not going to look like they did in October 2019. Meetings will slowly come back, but will probably be smaller and with fewer opportunities. It’s going to be a long time before we see three people per six-foot table again. The theater-style chairs are going to have to move too.
In one year, I don’t see a whole lot of change. Now, in five years, I think we’ll have settled into a new normal – and it won’t resemble the previous five years.
Do you think that’s driven by budget or apprehension or both?
I think it’s everything. Our industry is in shambles right now – between the budgets of the venues and the strict hotel protocols. And, they’ll have to continue to be strict and careful. Year-on-year comparisons show 2020 was rough and many hotels lost half their staff. As a result, employees shifted and took on new positions – so there’s a lot of relearning happening.
And don’t forget the budgets from the groups – they also took hits. Caution from their board of directors might be, “Where are you going? Do you really need to do that? How much money are you spending? Can we bring it from three days down to two?” There will be plenty of those conversations.
If they haven’t already, all meeting venues should reconfigure their space. Plus, whatever meeting charts they have regarding how many people they can accommodate can go right in the recycling. This is going to be with us for a while, and it will look different.
I think contracts will be important, as well as clauses – and the language will be more flexible. More than before, square footage will be part of the conversation. Groups will want to make sure that they have the space they need, maybe even more so. Plus, in terms of sharing space, if you’re hosting multiple groups I can see there being more transparency about that – for both political and medical reasons.
What does that say to you as far as small venues go?
It’ll be difficult for small venues, I’ll be honest with you. And that’s tough because that is most of what we have here in Delaware. Still, small venues can survive by being creative.
I can see prices increasing for smaller meetings – if you’re going to come in and take all my space, you have to pay for it. It will be a seller’s market in a few years, but right now we’re taking anything we can get.
Joe Biden is our new president. How do you see his presidency impacting Delaware?
It already has.
It’s been tremendous for our organization because of the national spotlight that Wilmington has garnered – we couldn’t have paid for that. Plus the news media – we’re in the New York Times and Forbes. It’s been really exciting.
We’re seeing an increase in leisure travel. Tour operators inquire about Biden itineraries, so we created a Biden driving tour which has been picked up by other media outlets like Fodor’s and Apple News. Tour and travel groups are putting their itineraries together and these tend to go for a few years.
We’re talking to other cities too about how they capitalized. And, we’re hoping for a presidential library. That would be a good add-on. When people are in the area, they look for unique things like that.
I think we can agree, in a year like we just had, this was a much-needed morale boost. And not just morale, but revenue. Suddenly, the Democratic National Convention comes – hotels are seeing business again. Election Day comes – some are selling out.
The Biden/Harris campaign staying here the entire time may not have been enough to save things, but it gave us a good boost. Looking ahead, the Biden’s will periodically be returning to Delaware, along with staff and his secret service entourage. We’re looking forward to seeing how that plays out.
Can you offer advice for meeting and event planners as to how to navigate a still-changing world? What might be some keys to success?
The number one key to success will be flexibility.
I’ve worked with people who were able to move forward, and people who wanted to do things the same as before. You have to shake it off and see how you can do things differently – what’s best for now, not what was best for before.
For meeting planners, site visits are going to be more important than ever. I can’t imagine somebody booking anything now without seeing it in person. In response, we’re adding 360° videos because we expect that will be needed.
Involving your CVB (Convention & Visitors Bureau)! We’re a free service. I’m available for anyone: meeting planners, brides, people planning family reunions. I can offer an impartial review of our area and I am familiar with who is able to do what.
Flexibility will be key. Also: Don’t pretend there is no such thing as COVID. Embrace it and have essential conversations right off the bat.
For meeting planners, that means asking your suppliers questions upfront. Also, include your COVID protocols on your website. If someone’s coming from out of town, they will want to know. Own it and communicate honestly how you’re handling things.
Do you have any final thoughts?
Again, communication is going to be vital. Keeping in touch with each other – but also what’s new, what’s happening in your area, and how people are feeling. Keep your finger on the pulse. Realize that people are having different conversations wherever they are. When you have people coming in from out of town, make sure they know what to expect in Delaware because the differences from state-to-state can be crucial.
Back to being optimistic – I choose to believe we will be okay. We will get to the other side.
Jessica Bittmann, CMP
Director of Sales
Convention & Visitors Bureau
Polly Weir, MA, CHE
Director of Conference & Event Services
University of Delaware