Despite inflation, corporate cost-cutting and other challenges, business travel — specifically conference and expo business travel — is experiencing a post-COVID revival, according to several industry sources.
“Over the past 12-18 months, in-person events have surged back, with some destinations and events claiming to have returned to pre-pandemic business levels,” Drew Holmgreen, chief brand officer for Meeting Professionals International, a meeting and event planner association, said. “While the return of leisure travel has outpaced the return of business travel, the dark days of the pandemic are firmly in the rearview mirror for both.”
In fact, in the spring 2023 edition of MPI’s Meetings Outlook research, 38% of respondents said their meeting and event business is already back to pre-pandemic levels — with an additional 27% expecting to achieve that milestone this year. As well, for the past five quarters, 80-85% of MPI’s Meetings Outlook respondents have projected growth in live attendance over the next year.
“Only 8% of survey respondents expect a decline in their in-person attendance in the 12 months to come – that’s the smallest percentage seen for this data point in the survey’s nine-year history,” Holmgreen said.
The Global Business Travel Association has seen the same, with its January 2023 survey revealing that travel buyers had allocated 18% of their 2023 travel spend to conferences, trade shows and industry events. And conference and expo-goers are in fact attending. According to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research Index, there was a sharp decline in cancellation rates for physical in-person events in Q4 of 2022, which dropped to 1.3%, compared to a whopping 97.9% in Q4 of 2020 and 14.8% in Q4 of 2021.
“Since the start of the pandemic to now, GBTA has been regularly tracking global business travel’s rebound and the overall sentiment of travel buyers and suppliers,” Suzanne Neufang, GBTA’s CEO, told SmartBrief. “Especially over the past year, we have seen pent-up demand for in-person meetings − and really face-to-face business connection overall − as people return to attending conferences and events.”
Today’s conference and expo traveler: What they want — and need
The conference and expo business traveler segment is diverse, covering personas ranging from sales “road warriors” to the C-suite and age ranges from millennials, zillennials and Gen Zers to Gen X and Boomers.
“These younger generations are more comfortable with and willing to adopt innovations in technology, which pairs nicely with their desires for genuinely personalized and individualized experiences,” said Holmgreen of MPI. “Studies are also endlessly pointing out that these more recent entrants into the workforce place a greater value on work-life balance and pursuing professional endeavors that are environmentally and socially beneficial. These and similar interests will become increasingly mainstream as the workforce demographic continues to shift.”
Hilton’s report “The 2023 Traveler: Emerging Trends That Are Innovating the Traveler Experience,” predicts an uptick in business travel, but with evolving preferences, such as expectations surrounding technology and the ability to accommodate both business and leisure activities.
The Hilton survey also found “strong demand for carbon neutral meetings and environmental, social and governance reporting globally,” according to Gerilyn Horan, vice president, group sales and strategic accounts at Hilton.
“While there was a rise in digital meetings in the past few years, people are eagerly returning to in-person business travel, embracing its unique value,” she said. “However, while the desire is there for live events, more conference planners and travelers are seeking out innovative meeting spaces and growing more cognizant of the role of sustainability in business travel.”
According to a GBTA research report, 77% of business travelers said reducing their carbon footprint is a moderate or top priority. And to reduce their carbon footprint, three-quarters of those surveyed said they were willing to opt out of daily hotel room cleanings (77%), rent smaller cars (73%), fly premium class less often (68%), and even travel for longer periods of time (56%) to make the most of every trip.
Neufang of GBTA identifies interest in sustainable business travel as “one of the most significant developments” in recent years. Sustainable and green travel is also becoming part of companies’ corporate travel program agendas as well as for the industry travel suppliers that serve them, Neufang said.
“Within the framework of a conference or event, there are many opportunities to offer and encourage ‘greener’ options for attendees,” she said. “At GBTA, we’ve been bringing this ‘greener state of mind’ into our own events around the world – from encouraging greener modes of transportation to offsetting carbon emissions to plant-based conference meals. It’s been very well received and we are looking to continue to increase this area of focus in our future GBTA events.”
While innovative meeting spaces and sustainable business travel are hot topics, experts point out that for the conference and expo segment, basic accommodation needs include proximity to the venue where the event is being held and the ability to stay for multiple days.
“Conference and expo business travelers may prefer hotels with conference facilities and amenities, while other business travelers may prioritize other features like a convenient location or proximity to their client’s office,” says Robert Reitknecht, founder and CEO of Hospitality Renu.
Recognizing this, Hilton has been investing “in a big way” in meeting and event space within its all-inclusive portfolio, Horan said. “For instance, Hilton Tulum Riviera Maya All-Inclusive Resort and Hilton Cancun, an All-Inclusive Resort, have some of the biggest meeting spaces in our all-inclusive portfolio.”
And while these travelers are often on tight schedules, they also value networking opportunities. The Hilton report, for example, finds that many business travelers include strengthening connections with co-workers or customers as a travel goal.
How conference travelers book travel
While Travelport finds that a majority of conference travelers in North America said they book at least some business travel through online travel agencies, at most mid- to large-sized companies, business travelers are likely booking through a corporate travel management tool, Neufang said.
“Supporting employees aligned to travel policies and duty of care is best achieved when travel is booked through corporate booking tools — and ensuring their well-being and safety while on the road or in the air is more important than ever,” she said.
Reitknecht also touched on the fact that those serving expo travelers should remember to include health and safety information alongside flexible bookings and cancellations.
Flexible booking has taken a front seat now more than ever, and as business travelers aren’t booking travel months in advance anymore, tighter booking windows have become more commonplace.
“That significant shift towards a tighter booking window is one that I believe will loosen as time passes,” said Holmgreen, adding that MPI saw 20% of its attendees for a 2019 Toronto event registering six months in advance. “The trend of booking two-to-three weeks out will soften, with people likely settling closer in that two-to-three months range. Much of that, I believe, will be driven by the cost of travel, which does not appear to be on the decline any time soon.”
Beyond the conference
Being responsive throughout the travel experience is the best way for service providers to help conference and expo travelers throughout their experience.
“Conference and expo travelers may have limited time to explore their destination city, but they may still want to experience local culture and attractions. The travel industry can provide recommendations for local restaurants, attractions, and activities that are easily accessible from the conference venue,” Reitknecht says.
Holmgreen agreed that the bleisure trend is here to stay.
“People want more than just a professional experience; they want it merged with something social media worthy – a unique personal experience that others simply don’t have access to,” he said, adding that MPI has long been incorporating that aspect into its events. “This bleisure experience also brings an appeal for attendees bringing family or friends along for the ride. That makes the event’s unique component critical in attendee decision making, as they are mapping out where to spend their participant dollar two-to-three months out.”
Additional reporting was done by Amy Sung.
Read more from SmartBrief:
- Part 1: How to serve today’s digital nomad and bleisure travelers
- Report: Travel industry challenges ahead
- Study predicts rebound of business travel in 2023