Let’s face it, even as the pandemic waned and a sense of normalcy returned in 2022, it was nothing like those event-stuffed days of 2019. Still, it was a heck of a lot better than 2020 and 2021, and for those in the events industry, that’s a strong step in the right direction. And it provided proof people want to be with other people.
That desire has proven its strength by swimming against a strong current. The coronavirus is still a health concern for many, if not as broadly threatening as it might have been. However, new pressures caused by supply chain constraints and labor shortages have event hosts taking a fresh look at the time and resources needed for a corporate event. On top of that, cloudy economic forecasts mean that circumstances could change significantly between when an event is planned and when guests are supposed to show up. Yet, despite everything, “Definitely events are back, especially in New Hampshire,” says Stephanie Baxter, founder of NH Event Professionals, an industry association.
The NH Reptile Show, one of the first niche events to come back. (Courtesy of NH Event Professionals)
It took a while for events to come back. First were the social functions, and the niche events like art festivals and the NH Reptile Expo. Slower to return were corporate gatherings, Baxter says. By the end of the year, the state’s events engine finally started running on all cylinders again. “This fall has just taken off like a rocket. It’s been fast and furious,” says Baxter.
Events might be back, but Baxter is quick to add that things aren’t exactly as they once were. Event organizers have to work a bit harder to entice attendees.
“The activities need to update with the times,” Baxter says. “People don’t want to do what they always did; they don’t want to sit in a room all day unless there’s a compelling reason.”
Pictured Right: the BIA Annual Dinner, held at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Manchester. (Courtesy of NH Event Professionals)
For corporate events, that means two things. The first is that the content must be something attendees can only get by showing up, such as professional networking, or coaching or training that wouldn’t be as effective online. The other difference is that organizers are trimming fat out of the schedule.
“Events are getting shorter in duration, and I think people are appreciating that,” Baxter says.
Despite these adaptations, it is becoming normal now for events to have a hybrid engagement system, so that people who don’t feel comfortable, or perhaps don’t wish to travel, can tune in through a live streaming option.
Hybrid participation is most common when the event is about one-way information delivery, or when attendees could be coming from outside of New England. Those situations lend themselves to remote attendance, “but once you move beyond that,” Baxter says, “nobody wants to be in a Zoom breakout room anymore. It’s just not that effective.”
Learning to be Flexible
Clients are trying to navigate a changing landscape, says Sherri Ferns, which means that event professionals working with those clients have to change as well. “I think everyone’s had to adjust a little bit,” says Ferns, the director of sales for Duprey Hospitality, which operates properties such as the 600-person Grappone Center in Concord. It used to be venue contracts had terms that included minimums for expense lines such as food, but now those limits are reduced if not removed completely. “Now you’re more flexible with a client.”
Ferns hasn’t seen much of a change in the kinds of events clients want to hold, but attendance can be difficult to forecast. Events that draw young adults tend to have a reliable response, for example, but other age groups are not showing up at anticipated rates. “If they are older clientele, they are seeing much less attendance response,” Ferns says. “It’s probably about half.”
A Matter of Time
Chris Malloy, owner of Malloy Events, an event and production company based in Rochester, says he built his company based on a belief, and he held onto that belief even as the pandemic stopped his thriving company in its tracks.
Pictured Left: Chris Malloy and team producing the technical aspect of a “Chopped”-style show at The Music Hall in Portsmouth. (Courtesy of Malloy Events)
“It was always my position that, even during COVID, even during the worst [times], people want to be together,” says Malloy. His company rolled into February 2020 after what he called the “craziest 18 months” of his company’s history, propelled in large part by presidential campaign events, only to enter a “devastating” period that required him to lay off many employees, and wondering whether the disruption would last for weeks, months or years.
“For me, it was waiting for everything to settle back down,” and for people to gather again, as they always had, he says. “I don’t think that’s ever going to change. People are going to want to be together.”
Many events returned, in some form, in 2022. If he needed any evidence for his belief, he heard it, time and again, as each of those events began. “It’s almost been verbatim. For every event, the welcoming message is, ‘Isn’t it nice that we can all be together again?’”
Things aren’t quite back to full strength, Malloy says. Large hotel ballrooms are more likely to be booked by regional corporations, whose guests can drive there, instead of clients who would draw from across the country.
Clients who had done nothing for two years are taking steps to get back up to full speed, Malloy says. Last year, clients might have chosen to do a quick lunchtime event, but now are opting for an evening party with a DJ. Another might have opted to hire a lighting and sound system for an event held at the company’s headquarters but is now renting an offsite event space.
Events might not look the same as they did, but for professionals like Malloy, that’s good for now. “It’s progress; it’s going from zero, when everything was a Zoom call, to how do we get back to putting 800 people in a ballroom,” Malloy says.
How will events be changed going forward? Malloy says event organizers know how to provide a live-streamed hybrid option for clients that want one, and that there might be some novel uses of that same technology. “You might still be attending a party in person, in real life, but you might be able to bring an element from another part of the world, a live music stream or some other element,” he says. He hasn’t seen it yet, but he could imagine a day when an event hall chooses to stream a live musical performance from miles away, rather than hiring a local band or a DJ to play pre-recorded music.
“That’s a good thing about all of the live streaming we’ve lived through these past few years. It has the ability to make the world small,” Malloy says.
Ferns says her bookings for 2023 are robust, and she feels more optimistic about 2023 than she did at the start of 2022. Baxter also predicts that the industry’s momentum will carry forward. “I don’t think we call this post-pandemic, but I think people have learned how to deal with it, and do what they feel comfortable [with],” Baxter says. “I only see it going up from here.”