When the COVID-19 pandemic began, some travel experts worried whether videoconferencing and webinars would permanently replace face-to-face interactions and attending conferences and trade shows.
If polling data from the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) holds true, doing business face-to-face could make a comeback.
A majority of corporate travel managers expect to resume domestic and/or international travel and attend conferences and conventions again within the next six months, according to the GBTA.
Such an outlook holding true would support Florida’s convention business, as well as the work of traveling vendors that drive events like craft festivals in The Villages.
Business tourism makes up a $17 billion sector in Florida that accounts for 16% of all tourist spending statewide, according to Visit Florida, the state’s public-private tourism marketer.
In recent months, group bookings for purposes like business meetings are steadily increasing from when travel restrictions were first placed, said Deanna Mangiardi, director of sales and catering for the Waterfront Inn in Lake Sumter Landing and the Brownwood Hotel & Spa in Brownwood.
“We are hopeful the momentum will continue through 2021 and beyond,” she said. “We have been flexible with our groups to accommodate these unpredictable times and this has set the opportunity for rebooking while also ensuring that we are providing a safer environment to host their events.”
Group bookings not only include business travel, but also events like weddings and family reunions.
In years past, group bookings at the Waterfront Inn supplemented regular hotel stays during slower periods.
The Brownwood Hotel & Spa, which opened in March 2020, is a venue for traditional business tourism as well as medical tourism — when people visit a destination for medical procedures — by virtue of it being attached to the Center for Advanced Healthcare at Brownwood.
Both community hotels salvaged some of their business-related bookings by facilitating hybrid meetings and events, which combines an in-person event with a virtual component, Mangiardi said.
“Our experienced staff and knowledgeable AV vendor have created many successful hybrid events,” she said. “We feel this may be a common direction for the near future and we are ready.”
Modifying events to take on a hybrid format also is helping Central Florida’s convention industry, which includes the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa and adjacent hotels that can support smaller scale conferences.
Last year, the Orange County Convention Center hosted modified versions of the Amateur Athletic Union’s Junior National Volleyball Championships, the Together Again Expo, the Florida Wedding Expo and the International Drive Resort Area Chamber of Commerce’s convention.
This was made possible because the convention center implemented recovery and resiliency plans in July, said Mark Tester, the convention center’s executive director.
“The implementation of a controlled check-in process plays an important role in creating a safe and secure event experience,” he said. “By funneling attendees through restricted access points, the (convention center) managed attendee flow, avoided congestion and administered essential health screenings in the form of temperature checks and surveys.”
Event planners controlled crowds using one-way entry points and designed touchless registration processes, Tester said. For example, Together Again Expo guests used a QR code to check in.
Tampa’s convention center hosted the Tampa Home Show in October and also is scheduled to play a role during next month’s Super Bowl as the media and accreditation center for the NFL event. Convention center staff implemented protocols including limited capacity, a mask-wearing requirement, social distancing and an abundance of sanitizer.
Salvaging business through modified events, with an emphasis on keeping attendees safe, has been critical for convention centers.
Most of their scheduled events for 2020 — and even some for 2021 — were canceled or postponed.
As of Dec. 30, Orange County reported 73 canceled events and 47 rescheduled events, which were scheduled between March 2020 and October 2021. The cancellations resulted in a loss of about $1.8 billion.
Tampa reported at least 37 cancellations of events scheduled between March and November.
“We continue to reschedule events into 2021 and maintain the business we have on the books,” Tester said. “We know there is so much pent-up demand and the need for face-to-face meeting is there.”
Locally, American Craft Endeavors organizes The Villages’ craft festivals and vendors often come from well outside the area — even out of state — to present.
The company’s next scheduled events in The Villages are the Spanish Springs Art & Craft Festival on Feb. 13 and 14 and the Brownwood Art & Craft Festival on April 10 and 11.
Helayne Stillings, vice president of American Craft Endeavors, said American Craft Endeavors has a number of events planned even with the need for social distancing, crowd control and sanitizing.
Everyone is required to wear masks, the company is offering sanitizing areas and hand-washing stations, and the number of people who can enter at a time is limited, she said.
Stillings is among 52% of people who think an effective COVID-19 vaccine will be the greatest influence on future busines travel decisions, according to the GBTA.
Tester, the convention center executive director, thinks Central Florida’s business tourism managers have taken a measured and carefully implemented approach to attract events while also keeping the public’s health in mind.
He thinks that ultimately will shape the region’s business travel and convention outlook in 2021 and beyond.
“These unprecedented times have put our strength to the test,” Tester said. “But (Orlando’s convention business) has proven to be more resilient than ever.”