In-person events: Dare we call it a comeback?

We take the pulse across Alabama of the potential return to corporate events in 2022.

Conference participants check out the booths at the SMD Symposium in the Von Braun Center. Photo courtesy of SMD Symposium.

Two years ago, as we entered February 2020 and were blissfully unaware of what was to come, the term “Zoom fatigue” had not yet entered our lexicon.

Now, in February 2022, it’s what’s driving the return of the corporate event, planners say.

Despite the rollercoaster ups and downs of different variants — from Delta to Omicron — venues like Huntsville’s Von Braun Center have been, since last fall, pulling numbers equal to 2019, says Samantha Nielsen, director of marketing and public relations at the VBC. She reports that the venue began seeing an increase in events in July 2021, and, by October, numbers were on par with pre-pandemic figures.

Samantha Nielsen, director of marketing and public relations at the Von Braun Center.

“Companies and individuals are ready to return to face-to-face meetings, and we are seeing that in our booking numbers,” Nielsen says. “With that being said, I think some meetings held via Zoom during the pandemic are going to remain on a virtual platform due to costs saved. That isn’t true for many events, but there will be some that find the transition makes sense for their particular company or industry.”

And, though corporate events are returning, Brittany Sharp, owner of event planning firm The Sharp Standard, is reticent to call it a comeback — she prefers to call it a “change of course.”

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“For so long, people have celebrated without thinking of the ‘What if,’” she says. “Now when people celebrate, we have to do it with new safety measures in mind — but it’s my duty to ensure that the safety measures do not cause people to focus so much on COVID, and that they instead focus on the reason for the event. Life and its events should still be celebrated.”

Though the Von Braun Center is open at full capacity, not surprisingly, changes abound. Nielsen says hybrid meetings are commonplace now, with corporate events offering both an in-person and virtual components — though it’s a trend she’s not sure will last.

“Due to the significant added expenses needed to produce quality virtual spaces, this doesn’t seem to be a feasible trend that will continue much longer,” Nielsen says.

Nielsen is finding that meeting planners are investing more time in scrutinizing contract clauses, with many asking the VBC to make it easier to back out of the contract if need be. WiFi has been a revenue stream, Nielsen says, though the VBC plans to eventually offer WiFi as a complimentary service, “as that is now what meeting planners are coming to expect,” she says.

In addition to taking precautionary measures to maintain and monitor the cleanliness of the building — including the VBC upgrading its air filters and HVAC systems to assist in disinfection and improve air quality — planners now expect COVID testing within the facility, Nielsen says.

“We’ve seen this take several different forms — sometimes just impacting the staff and sometimes impacting attendees,” she says. “We’ve been asked to provide a separate room so they can administer tests to attendees. We’ve been asked to provide our own staff to administer testing or approve proof of vaccination. We’ve been asked that all staff handling their event be tested or show proof of vaccination. It seems this category in event planning will become a standard, at least for the next couple of years.”

Neillie Butler, owner and executive planner at Mariée Ami.

Though most of her planning expertise is funneled into weddings, Neillie Butler, owner and executive planner at Birmingham’s Mariée Ami, also has knowledge of the landscape of corporate functions.

“We are experiencing a surge of people wanting to plan events to celebrate all of life’s occasions, whether big or small,” she says.

And, rather than waiting, folks seem to want their events now, she says — her firm is just completing its busiest fall and winter season in history. Though guest lists still seem to be smaller than pre-COVID days, they are steadily increasing from where they were in 2020, Butler says — and she predicts corporate events to be back in full swing by the end of 2022 at the latest.

“With so many employees still working from home, corporate events may take on a whole new look,” she says. “Employee morale and camaraderie is important for the longevity of a company, and events always bring people together.”

Kevin Hellmich, of The Grand Hotel Golf Resort & Spa in Point Clear, says 2022 will be a busy year for the Grand. Josh Rivers, assistant director of the Bryant Conference Center in Tuscaloosa, agrees, reporting that most events are operating at normal, pre-COVID-19 levels; he expects a return to pre-COVID-19 numbers in 2022.

Josh Rivers, assistant director of the Bryant Conference Center.

“We have seen a dramatic increase for in-person events because people are Zoom fatigued,” he says. “There is more of a desire now to meet in person, but also to have a virtual option. Our facility went through a major enhancement of our virtual capabilities to ensure those events have that option.”

And, though numbers across the board seem to be trending upward, planners across Alabama still hesitate to use the word “comeback” with confidence when it comes to the corporate event. For these folks in particular, COVID hit hard, and many seem unwilling to put the cart before the horse.

“It has not been an easy road,” says Denise Koch, of Birmingham’s Denise Koch Events. “But we have learned so much over the past two years. I believe those who listened, learned and adapted are going to be better for it, and so will their clients and event attendees.”

Of the roughly 20 annual events her firm manages, 19 of them were able to stay alive and relevant and continue fundraising efforts by going virtual in 2020, Koch says.

“The organizations that were able to do that successfully have been able to come back and flourish,” she says. “Although a virtual event is not ideal, it did provide a lifeline for my clients and my firm during the height of the pandemic.”

And, fortunately for Koch, her firm specializes in outdoor festivals, and all but one of them came back in 2021, she says. Looking to 2022, about half of her clients are opting to forge on with future event plans, she says.

Denise Koch, of Denise Koch Events in Birmingham.

“I am hopeful that in 2022 we will see the comeback of many corporate events,” Koch says. “I can tell you that my business has picked up significantly over the past few months, and the majority of the new business is corporations celebrating major milestones.”

For event planners and event venues across the state, COVID forced a deep look at “the way things have always been done,” Koch says, driving the brains behind events to consider and reconsider how to make events the safest they possibly can be for attendees, staff, volunteers, vendors and all other parties involved. Yet, Koch says, the heart of these events has not changed, and, thankfully, it is event professionals’ bread and butter to adapt, adjust and modify — a skill certainly tested over the past two years.

“That is a gift and a common trait of event industry professionals,” Koch says. “We see a challenge, we adapt and we grow. So, I am optimistic about the year ahead. I’m not naïve to the fact that there will be challenges, but I am confident that we can meet those challenges so that we are able to gather and celebrate together. That is what events are all about.”

Rachel Burchfield is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appeared in the February 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

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