Looking Back—and Ahead—at the Local Meeting and Event Landscape

Looking Back—and Ahead—at the Local Meeting and Event Landscape

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
Greater Wilmington
Convention & Visitors Bureau

Polly Weir, MA, CHE
Director of Conference & Event Services
University of Delaware

Celebrate Your Team With a Virtual Holiday Event

Celebrate Your Team With a Virtual Holiday Event

Celebrate Your Team With a Virtual Holiday Event

Reimagining holiday gatherings reinvigorates the spirit of the season.

This is not the year to consider canceling your company’s holiday party. Internal events are crucial for your company culture – not to mention employee morale after such a challenging year. Your teams have worked hard to adapt – it’s important to recognize their efforts. And, whether in-person or virtual, a holiday gathering still offers ways for them to strengthen relationships.

Creativity is key to successful virtual events, and if you scour the internet you’ll find there’s plenty of it. We’ve put together our own tips to keep in mind when planning a virtual party plus some creative ways to bring your employees “together” as we close the book on 2020.

Engagement is Key

We recommend a 1 to 1.5-hour event which can be easily filled with engaging fun and building employee loyalty.

Brainstorm with your team on theme ideas or read our Unusual Themes blog post to find inspiration.


You could also send out a survey in advance to get a sense of what kinds of activities your employees might be interested in. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Interactive events, games, or contests make a fun and easy way for people to participate.
    • Hire a bartender or chef to host a mixology class or a cooking class…both if your guest count is large enough.
    • Holiday-themed Charades
    • The classic Ugly Sweater contest
  • It’s always good to laugh. Virtual comedy shows can lighten the mood.
  • Sharing goes a long way. Everyone can join in fostering a team-building atmosphere, and the virtual platform is especially suited for this.
    • Holiday decorations “tours”
    • Cultural traditions “show and tell”
    • Secret Santa
  • Has a certain topic been floating around that employees seem particularly interested in? Breakout sessions with guest speakers show you’ve been paying attention.

Celebrate Accomplishments

Be sure to allot ample time to recognize accomplishments. Some employees or teams may have easily gone above and beyond this year and there are bound to be some new categories to consider as well. If you want to pass out awards (or prizes to contest winners), you can showcase them virtually and ship them after.

Be Prepared

This may be a more relaxed atmosphere than usual, but you’ll still want to be prepared.

  • Surveys are ideal here for getting maximum input from teams or employees.
  • Invitations should be used as a way to provide the obvious critical information, but also ensuring attendees have plenty of advanced notice for whatever activities have been planned so they can be prepared as well.
  • Having a tech guru on hand could be useful – there are always inevitable technical difficulties, so be ready to assist your attendees.
  • Using an online event planning app, like SignUpGenius, makes it easy for employees to reserve their spot if there are multiple events happening simultaneously.

Share Your Celebration With Us

We’d be interested to know how your holiday event turned out. What unusual methods did you use to make it fun and meaningful? Head to one of our social media channels and leave a comment.


And Finally…

As we anticipate the return to in-person gatherings, we’ve been considering how that might look and we are working on ways that our team can assist our clients in creating new and meaningful ways to share their time together.  We are always interested to hear how our clients and community are finding innovative ways to solve meeting and event challenges.

Take care and stay engaged.

Returning to Campus…for Business Meetings and Events

Returning to Campus…for Business Meetings and Events

Returning to Campus…for Business Meetings and Events

While we look forward to reopening, there are compelling reasons to keep UD’s Conference Services in mind when planning your 2021 meetings and events.

We’re just going to put it out there: We are out to strengthen our client relations now so that when in-person meetings and events resume, we’ll have a busy schedule.

We’ve noticed that with the obvious increase – and its relative success – of the virtual meeting platform, brick and mortar venues are being forgotten. The idea that the virtual meeting space is here to stay is growing. It is nearly a guarantee that some form of virtual meetings, events, and conferences will remain – even if it is a hybrid scenario.

So we’re here to make the case for conferencing on campus as you plan for the future.


A Certain Feeling

Here is a simple reason that is quite underrated because it can not be quantified: Have you ever noticed there is a certain feeling you get when you step back onto an academic campus? You’re youthful vibrancy bubbles up while the wisdom that comes with years of experience provides commanding confidence. You can actually feel your journey from college student to professional in a single moment. It’s a good feeling. And, it’s one worth experiencing. After all, you worked hard to get to this point. This feeling alone could invigorate guests and result in a more productive meeting.


Academic Credibility on Top of a One-Of-A-Kind Experience

It’s an obvious fact that a university campus lends credibility to any meeting or event. From its academic prestige to visionary research, a university location instantly evokes a satisfying feeling of being associated with a hub of knowledge.

Conferencing on campus can be a unique experience. Access to a plethora of resources is practically unlimited for our clients, including sports fields, theaters, bookstores, libraries, labs, classrooms, auditoriums, and dining halls – even our own full-service hotel a few steps away from the Clayton Conference Center. Walking the footpaths, meeting on the green, hosting an activity on a sports field – these are experiences unique to campus, and readily available. With these resources and more, your meeting or event can rise to a higher caliber.


Community Support

Supporting UD contributes to the overall health of the community it serves. While we are respectful of our neighboring businesses, we are also directly connected to them. Our ability to bring business to our campus reaches beyond our academic walls. Our clients take advantage of nearby attractions, restaurants, and recreation – spreading the economic benefits of hosting your meeting or event here.


A Safe, Hybrid Scenario

In the meantime, connect with our Conference Services team. Between our Virtual Meeting Coordination Services (read more about them here) and our hotel—which is open for overnight stays and dining—we can assist you in your strategy to continue business in a safe, hybrid scenario. This could be the future for a while, and we’re ready – with the tech needed to broadcast events and our own Courtyard by Marriott hotel providing dining and clean, private guestrooms.

We want to be here for you now and in the future and we hope you feel the same way.

Move Meetings Forward with Virtual Meeting Coordination Services

Move Meetings Forward with Virtual Meeting Coordination Services

Move Meetings Forward with Virtual Meeting Coordination Services

They’re valuable. They’re essential. Time to level up your meetings.

I think it’s safe to say that, by now, nearly everyone has experienced a virtual meeting. And many businesses will attend, for the first time, one of their industry’s conferences in a virtual environment. These past few months have been a real test for the virtual meeting platform – with kinks still being worked out.

Still, as we continue to move towards reopening, we expect that initially most, if not all, meetings will be conducted virtually as opposed to live. We have taken the critical steps needed to assure that we will be able to accommodate any client request in this regard. 


Multiple Platforms Supported

UD has its own license for Zoom Meetings and Webinars. This gives us the ability to offer you more flexibility in scheduling your event. If you prefer another platform such as Webex, BlueJeans, Facebook Live or other, we are prepared to support those as well.


Designing and Managing Your Event

We can assist you in designing your meeting or webinar through content development, social networking, live Q&A sessions, an audience response system, real-time chats, post-session surveys, and more. We can help you determine which format works best with your objectives. With our Zoom package, we can offer features like polling, panel discussions, creating breakout rooms for smaller group discussions, use of annotations, and creation of private branded FB pages where attendees can engage in a specific topic or offer “one-on-one” private meetings. We will also offer the ability for practice sessions prior to the meeting date to assure you are comfortable with the format and flow of the meeting.


Live Streaming and Participant Engagement Covered

Our technology-driven solutions help you build engagement. We offer live streaming if your objective is to present information in a more formal manner – where one or a few team members can present their camera image on live video, as well as any visuals they choose to use, i.e. PowerPoint, video playback, etc. This will allow hundreds of people to watch this one-way communication from any internet browser on any type of device. Interaction, such as questions or feedback, can be accommodated through a separate chat option.


Quick Responsiveness

Just like in the non-virtual meeting world, there can be sudden twists and turns – and our technical crew will be with you every step of the way. In every scenario, regardless of the platform, we are prepared to react quickly if circumstances dictate a change in the meeting format – like taking a live event partially or fully online or vice versa. While we focus on making sure your virtual event runs smoothly, you can focus on your attendees.


UD Conference Services will continue to be a resource for you. Whether you’re organizing or viewing a virtual meeting online (Zoom, Webex, BlueJeans, Facebook Live, or other), having a Webinar, or live streaming or webcasting your Town Hall or event, our team can help you from conception to post event debrief.

Unusual Themes for Virtual Meetings. #9: Invite a Goat.

Unusual Themes for Virtual Meetings. #9: Invite a Goat.

Unusual Themes for Virtual Meetings. #9: Invite a Goat.

Ban boredom. Slay tune-out. Themes add life to meetings.

Aside from technical issues, the biggest problem with virtual meetings is engagement. This challenge existed even before social distancing guidelines were implemented.  Moving to virtual communication increases that challenge because it decreases the benefits received from being physically together.

There are many tried and true ways to keep attendees engaged during a virtual meeting – taking polls, chat boxes, virtual whiteboards, assigning roles, sending the agenda before the meeting – but even these have become commonplace. We’re talking about taking virtual meetings to the next level. We’re talking about adding life to your next virtual meeting. We’re talking about Themes. Oh yeah…we’re going there. We asked ourselves: Is it possible to make a virtual meeting productive AND enjoyable? We answered ourselves. Why not try?


Why Themes?

Themes can help you enhance your meeting outcomes because they can be:

  • Positive and fun – Lighten the mood and help people enjoy themselves. They may even look forward to the next meeting.
  • Participatory – Keeps everyone on their toes because everyone participates equally, instead of tuning out.
  • Open – People loosen up and say what they really think.
  • Creative – Pushes the thinking beyond the usual and into new territory.
  • Disruptive – By regularly interrupting the flow of the meeting, you’ll keep people’s minds focused, which makes for a more fun and relaxed experience.


Try Something Different

There is certainly no shortage of ideas you can google about how to make your virtual meetings more engaging. But, we’re focusing on original ideas that just might take you, and your group, out of your comfort zones while offering some memorable moments.

1. Swap Jobs
Having members of your team swap roles isn’t an original idea. However, each member taking on the role of their colleague can net some interesting results and ideas. It offers an opportunity to get other perspectives that might otherwise never surface because it’s “not my job.” You can level it up by each member taking turns facilitating the meeting.

2. Cast of Characters
Does participating in a virtual meeting, with lots of people, remind you of the Brady Bunch opening segment? Well, what if you selected (or voted on) a show or a movie and everyone had to act out a character from what you chose at the next meeting. Yoda anyone?

3. Alternate Universe 
Get weird. Face it, it’s a weird time.

  • Burning Man Meets Coachella. This theme idea, by Brian Worley of B. Worley Productions, allows for a carefree, relaxed vibe: “…With these two events getting so much coverage these days through social media and just how creative they are in terms of visuals, it can really be a fun event.” Translating this idea to video conferencing shouldn’t be too challenging – try rummaging through your stuff (or better yet, your kids’ stuff) to put together something unusual.
  • Superheroes. Ok, not everyone will have a Wonder Woman or Ironman costume laying around, but maybe participants can create their own superhero with its own superpowers. The ability to see the future would be a good one to have right now.

4. Dress Up or Dress Down
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. But you could stretch it a bit with ideas like:

  • Pajama Party. Let’s face it, sweats and a T-shirt aren’t that far from it anyway. If you have a gang that feels comfortable doing this…just do it!
  • Get Cultured. Pick a culture to explore – like Mexico’s Day of the Dead – and see how creative you can get with that Halloween makeup that’s laying around. Just be respectful.

5. Charades
The ultimate go-to, this theme is ideal for smaller groups where talking over each other won’t be too disruptive. Charades can easily be interspersed throughout the meeting with each person getting a chance to be the mime. It also helps to ensure that each participant contributes to the meeting. You’ll need to choose a charade theme beforehand so attendees can work out their ideas, then keep a time limit on each. Be sure everyone has good bandwidth to avoid lag time – that’s not fun.

6. I Spy
We love this one! Here, you’re really just taking advantage of the fact that it’s human nature to peek at what’s in the background of everyone else’s home office.

7. Storytelling I Spy
Add intrigue with this version adapted to include mystery and the chance to learn more about each participant. To play, each person takes a turn picking an object in their house and telling the story of how they got it, without actually saying what the object is. The rest of the group then has to guess, as quickly as they can, what that object is. Decide how challenging you want it to be: keep it light by selecting common items most people probably have in their home, or let each person pick from any of their prized possessions.

8. Open Mic
Give everyone a heads up: they’ll each have about a minute to take the virtual stage. They can tell jokes, read a poem or a book excerpt, sing a song, play an instrument—anything goes! Start your meeting with these unabashed performances and be sure to allow time in between each for a rush of applause.


Try Something Really Different

Brighten up your video conference with a llama. Or how about a goat? Wild ideas like these are starting to emerge and will likely continue as people look for increasingly unusual ways to break up the monotony of virtual meetings.

9. Goat 2 Meeting is our favorite one so far. The Sweet Farm Animal Ambassadors will join your call, do a quick intro of the farm and introduce you to the animals on a virtual tour. It not only makes people smile, but you’ll be contributing to a good cause.

If you’re still looking for more, our post on Gamification dives deeper into a few science-based boredom busters. We think you’ll find it interesting.


Connect With Us

We’d be interested to know if you’ve tried any of the themes mentioned above. How did it go? What unusual methods do you use to make virtual meetings fun, creative, and productive? Head to one of our social media channels and leave a comment.


And Finally…

As we anticipate the return to in-person gatherings, we’ve been considering how that might look and we are working on ways that our team can assist our clients in creating new and meaningful ways to share their time together.  But until then, we are here and ready to help you coordinate your virtual meetings with ideas and tech support.

Take care and stay engaged.


Animal Icon made by Vectors Market; Superhero Icon made by Smashicons from www.flaticon.com.