Free testing, vaccines, boosters and prominent health
policies may quell some of the anxiety around corporate meetings and events,
but an early 2022 surge looks like a dream deferred for companies counting on a
strong first quarter return to in-person events. 

A 2022 Global Business Travel Association survey conducted in
early December showed that even before the Covid-19 omicron variant had taken a
firm hold in the United States, only about half (53 percent) of U.S.-based respondents
said their companies would continue unchanged their in-person event plans—both
hosting them and clearing employees to attend them—in spite of the variant’s global
transmission. For Europe-based respondents—already dealing with the fallout of omicron
at the time—only 36 percent said their meeting and event plans would return

As the calendar turned to 2022, BTN reached out to corporate
travel buyers and providers to gauge companies’ willingness to move forward
with meeting and event programming. 

Buyers and suppliers connecting with BTN agreed that Covid
policies created in 2021 remained robust in the new year. Global Head of CWT
Meetings & Events Ian Cummings told BTN, “CWT Meetings & Events won’t
be laying on any additional safety requirements specifically for omicron as we
are already prepared.”

That said, many buyers said January meetings were already—or
were likely to be—shifted to later in Q1. “We’re consistently ready to pivot as
the data comes to light,” said one buyer. Citing the “fluid” situation, a few buyers
said they would move meetings into Q2. 

“I think everyone was hopeful in Q2 and Q3 of last year that
this was going to be in our rearview mirror,” said San Diego-based consultant,
Betsy Bondurant. “And it is not.” If policies had been relaxed, she added, they
have now been reimplemented.

Host Organizations Taking Lead in Health & Safety

A report released by Destination Counsellors International in
January noted a marked change in health and safety responsibility for meetings
going into 2022. Based on a survey of 339 corporate and association meeting
organizers, the report “Winning Strategies in Destination Marketing”
is geared toward destination marketing organizations and how they should
strategize to win meetings and events business in coming year. 

The report noted the growing prevalence of host organizations
taking full responsibility for the health and safety of attendees, and not
relying on localized collaboration to plan or deliver on precautions. Prior to Covid-19,
only 4 percent of survey respondents felt that safety precautions should be
shouldered by the host organization alone. These days, 35 percent want sole
responsibility for attendee health and safety. According to DCI, the shift marks
a growing distrust in the local destination to have health precautions that are
aligned with client organization; it also shows that organizations have come to
expect volatility in local regulations and crave consistency for their events
and for their own reputations. 

“Planners don’t fully trust destinations
to adhere to acceptable safety and health standards,” according to DCI. “They
prefer to set their own rules and protect their guests on their own terms,
especially as so many domestic and international destinations vary on their
local mandates and access to healthcare.”

Cisco Systems is one company that has leveraged
its meetings management protocols and taken full responsibility for meetings
health and safety. As the company weathers the Covid-19 epidemic, it’s
12,000-strong event calendar for 2019 scaled back drastically. But in the
meantime, the company trained more than 30 internal employees globally as
Covid-officer certified advisors. Every meeting organizer has access to those
advisors through Cisco’s managed meetings program and cannot access their
required meeting identification number until they have a consultation with the
health advisory team. That team may take on the health and safety planning and
onsite services for larger events or simply act as an advisory for very small

“There are some countries that are back
to events, and some regions and countries that are still completely closed
down,” said Cisco Systems global leader of strategic meetings management
and digital events Carolyn Pund, who BTN named a 2021 Best Practitioner for her
ownership of Covid-19 meetings safety protocols. “We have a regular
cadence of communicating when the regions will open up. That decision is made
by Cisco’s security and global medical teams.”

Most companies likely will look for partners
to continue health and safety support. Meetings agencies like CWT M&E and
American Express Meetings & Events have buttoned up their client services
to include turnkey platforms for health screening, testing and health and
safety protocols. 

If 2020 and 2021 taught us anything, it was to expect the unexpected, be adaptable, be thorough and have traveler and attendee safety at the heart of everything we do.”

CWT M&E’s Ian Cummings

Amex M&E VP
of the Americas Linda McNairy pointed to a unique partnership with CLEAR to collect
and communicate vaccination status for events that require vaccination. “In addition, we are
assisting with connecting [clients with] testing suppliers for daily
attestation or testing where required,” she said in an emailed statement
to BTN.

Commenting on the layers of health and safety precautions CWT
M&E has introduced since the start of the pandemic, Cummings emphasized
preparedness for any scenario. “If 2020 and 2021 taught us anything, it
was to expect the unexpected, be adaptable, be thorough and have traveler and
attendee safety at the heart of everything we do.”

As events do get underway, corporate hosts will expect
attendees to own their part of the health precautions. Said one buyer, “We
expect our travelers to use common sense and follow national/local government
health agency guidelines when traveling [or] meeting during an active
pandemic.” Cummings echoed the idea of individual responsibility among
attendees, but added that “corporates need, more than ever, to step up
communications to employees, customers and business partners” and
encouraged strategies that combined face to face, hybrid and virtual event
platforms to safeguard their meeting objectives.”

The “Force” May Not Be with You

When health and safety protocols could not save a meeting
from being cancelled or postponed, many event hosts sought to invoke the force
majeure clauses in their meetings contracts in 2020 and 2021. According to DCI,
73 percent of event hosts are most concerned with cancellation terms in 2022,
and not whether the destination or venues will collaborate with them on safety.
DCI said hosts will be looking for leniency in these clauses in 2022.

To attract business, the DCI report advises destination
marketing organizations that cancellation policies must be more flexible. 

“As the data
suggest, handling Covid-19 is just a part of the job
now. Planners will feel more comfortable
booking a major event or conference in a destination
that acknowledges the pandemic’s uncertainty.
Strict cancellation policies that amount to possible financial loss, even during new surges in COVID-19 cases,
will simply discourage decision-makers from choosing
a destination,” according to the report.

When the airport’s open, and the hotels are open, and the convention center’s open, and everything’s open, there is no force majeure. Just because your CEO or your president doesn’t want it, or HR [or] legal—that’s not force majeure.”

Visit Orlando’s Mike Waterhouse

Suppliers at the Convening Leaders Conference currently being
held in Las Vegas weren’t totally on board with that recommendation. Panelists in
a session called “The Future of the Force Majeure: Negotiating Contracts Amid
Uncertainty” were eager to point out that force majeure is not the
get-out-of-contract-free clause that some organizations presumed it was. 

Visit Orlando chief strategy officer Mike Waterhouse said, “For
every group that tried to cancel, almost every group tried to invoke force
majeure. The reality is, force majeure is an impossibility clause. And when the
airport’s open, and the hotels are open, and the convention center’s open, and
everything’s open, there is no force majeure. Just because your CEO or your
president doesn’t want it, or HR [or] legal—that’s not force majeure.”

If organizations are considering moving or even canceling
meetings, panelists advised including specific conditional wording into
contracts. McNairy in an email to BTN said Amex M&E clients already have
engaged in this type of contractual precaution and indicated the process can become
an intricate negotiation.

on in the pandemic suppliers were incredibly flexible with changes. Now,
however, we’ve noticed a need to get creative with our contractual language to
protect the integrity of our client’s meetings,” said McNairy. The issue
has become increasingly important as some companies have pushed judgment decisions
to the meeting owners to decide whether an event should take place, rather than
enforcing companywide rules. 

CL22 panelists suggested an investment in pandemic insurance,
particularly for larger meetings. “Those who bought pandemic insurance are the
clients who won in the end,” observed John Hawley, executive director for association
group sales at Hilton Worldwide.

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