9 Event Trends to Watch in 2021

In a time of upheaval, expect these meetings industry movements to pick up steam in the coming year.

As this difficult year comes to a close, we have more questions than answers about what's ahead for the meetings industry. Much is dependent on the trajectory of Covid-19. But one thing is certain: We are all eager to get back together. Following are 9 trends to count on in 2021.

1. More Groups Are Choosing Limited-Service Hotels

As of late October, limited- or select-service hotels were selling more than half their rooms, according to lodging-data provider STR, while higher-end properties were nearly two-thirds empty. A big reason for that was the lack of group business. Hotel occupancy recovery is being driven by leisure demand, and those who are traveling don't need upper-upscale properties with meeting space. 

While the volume of group requests for proposal steadily rises, according to data from Cvent, most of the activity is happening in the limited/select-service category. Not only is there more activity there than in any other chain-scale segment, but the percentage of meetings being booked there is higher than ever.

"That shift has been consistent over the last several months," says Jeffrey Emenecker, senior director of analytics at Cvent. "I would expect it to stay that way until corporate travel really picks back up again — so probably well into next year." 

While the lower price point of limited-service is probably driving the trend, planners who need higher-end hotel space should have improved negotiation leverage as a result of that demand.

2. Immunity-Boosting, Plant-Based Items Dominate Menus

This mango and peach parfait is perfectly packaged for the new F&B.
This mango and peach parfait is perfectly packaged for the new F&B. Photo Credit: Jenifoto for Adobe Stock

Covid-19 has transformed the food-and-beverage experience, with a spotlight on safety. Plexiglass dividers are being installed at food stations, and servers are outfitted in face shields and gloves. In 2021, attendees can expect the same focus on health to be applied to the menu itself. 

"People are really homing in on the overall wellbeing of what they're eating because of Covid-19. So, we need to think about how we can make the food better and more nutritious than we have in the past," says Tracy Stuckrath, a food safety and allergies expert and the owner of Thrive! Meetings and Events. "Eating healthy improves your immune system, and that's what we all need right now. We need to be healthier so that we can come back stronger."

Stuckrath predicts that plant-based, immune-boosting meals will dominate menus in the year ahead, and sourcing local, artisanal foods will be more important than ever, to give attendees a taste of the destination. Presentation still can be unique: Aim to create healthy, Instagram-worthy meals that can be served safely, such as individual vegan charcuterie boards and small dishes served in mason jars.

"We want events to be more meaningful as we come back. We want them to be an experience well worth getting on that plane or driving in the car to get there," says Stuckrath. "Have fun with the food and celebrate where you are. If you can't meet 

in-person, find the flavor of the city where the event was supposed to be held and send gift bags with food and beverages reminiscent of that city."

3. Sustainability Is Becoming a Necessity

Sustainability is becoming more of a priority for events every day.
Sustainability is becoming more of a priority for events every day. Photo Credit: ipopba for Adobe Stock

The push for sustainability in the events industry has been gaining momentum in recent years. But 2021 could be a watershed year, where planners move beyond simple measures to embrace the circular economy, where nearly all event materials are reused, repurposed or recycled. 

"The events sector generates an immeasurable volume of waste that goes far beyond the bottles, cups and straws that are used," says Guy Bigwood, managing director of the Global Destination Sustainability Movement, in a new report published by the IMEX Group. "It includes carpets, pop-ups, banners, fabrics, flooring, graphics, furniture, displays, merchandising giveaways, stands, booths, food, clothing, etc... This needs to change."

According to the report, 92 percent of event professionals said it is important that sustainability is integrated into the industry's recovery. While only 12 percent said their organizations have an advanced sustainability strategy, 49 percent said they were working toward one.

In 2021, attendees likely will see more sustainable swag, including face masks made from recycled materials and eco-friendly pencils, which can be planted after use, growing into herbs, vegetables or flowers. Planners will also look to book destinations and venues with strong track records in sustainability, and they will collaborate with suppliers and sponsors on new ways to go green. 

"We must use the pandemic as a 'great reset' to rethink, reimagine and redesign a new restorative, resilient, inclusive and zero-carbon growth model," says Bigwood.

4. Technology Is Being Repurposed for Safety

PC/Nametag's tracking wristband lets wearers know when someone is too close.
PC/Nametag's tracking wristband lets wearers know when someone is too close.

Wearable Bluetooth devices were already gaining popularity for networking, exhibitor marketing and even for wayfinding at large trade shows. Now, as we slowly return to meeting in person, these have been repurposed: Rather than simply notifying us when a prospect or potential collaborator is nearby, they sound off to let us know when anyone is close — or too close, as the case may be.

Such was the use for the physical-distancing wristbands employed by North­star Meetings Group at the Reconvening for Recovery: Live event, held in October at the Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino in Mystic Country, Conn. These Bluetooth bracelets, provided by PC/Nametag, buzzed whenever another wristband-clad participant came within six feet. The safety-technology provider Proxxi makes a similar device, which not only vibrates when attendees get too close, but also keeps records of the interactions — ideal for contact tracing should anyone test positive after the event.

The trend extends well beyond wearables. Indoor Lab, which developed 3-D LiDar technology to measure foot traffic and audience flow at events, now uses that same technology to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in venues such as airports and stadiums. Renamed as Safe Space, the tech currently monitors foot traffic for the purpose of sanitization notifications, to ensure physical distancing and occupancy limits are followed. 

The cutting-edge solution actually measures people's vapor trails using a black-light-type tracking mechanism — instantly identifying which areas need to be cleaned. The tech also shows when the vapor trails have been wiped away. Sanitization status, real-time occupancy numbers and physical-distancing measurements will all be available to consumers via an app.

5. Venues Are Getting Hybrid-Ready

The Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center's campus is itself a broadcasting studio.
The Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center's campus is itself a broadcasting studio.

In order to be ready to host events in the coming year, large venues are having to redefine their spaces.

Many convention centers, such as Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center and New York City's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, have been adding hybrid-meetings studios, offering in-person event space packed with the necessary technology to beam the meeting to attendees in the far corners of the world. One of the most creative examples is the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center in California, which has turned its entire campus into a broadcast-ready venue.

Reconfiguring space also means rejiggering capacity charts and layout recommendations. For instance, at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu on Oahu, all room capacities have been redone for theater, classroom and banquet setups, as well as booth layouts in the exhibit halls. Click here to see the facility's new specs.

6. We Are Upskilling for Virtual Events 

A lot has changed since March, when many cancelled in-person conferences were converted to virtual events in a panic. Production logistics have improved immeasurably since then, but the people delivering the content — and those sponsoring it — have rarely been given proper support and training. Count on this oversight to be addressed more often in the coming year.

"One of the things that we've been emphasizing, and that we bring specifically with our expertise, is trying to answer the questions people don't even know to ask," explains Arianna Rehak, cofounder and CEO of Matchbox Virtual Media, a production agency. "For every stakeholder of a given virtual conference — the speakers and sponsors and everyone else — we've built out the suggested journey through the whole experience." For many speakers, she adds, "it's very scary to move into this new environment."

Event organizers need to make that training available. "So many of us lean so much on our speakers to do everything," says Will Curran, founder and chief event Einstein at Endless Events. "What we're seeing is that speakers are making or breaking the content. As an industry, we need to figure out how to do this better."

7. Incentive Trips Are Getting Smaller and Closer 

In-person incentive events — which more than two-thirds of surveyed planners intend to hold in 2021 — will look different than traditional trips. Groups will stick to domestic destinations, for the most part, with fewer participants and fewer group activities. 

For winners who prefer not to travel, many program organizers will offer alternative rewards. Merchandise and gifts will be the most popular options, per Incentive's survey, followed by individual travel rewards, cash and gift cards. The lack of travel has been a boon to companies that offer gifts and gift cards this year, and that need should continue through 2021.

8. CVBs Are Shifting Focus to Funding and Partnerships

With hotel-tax revenues in the tank, convention and visitor bureaus have had to work on finding other sources for support, and are rethinking their funding models. Aside from shoring up relationships with traditional local organizations that benefit from bureaus' efforts — hotels, restaurants, transportation companies and venues — CVBs should reach out to all the industries, organizations, businesses or other stakeholders in their communities that could benefit from their work, suggests Destinations International. These include local companies, hospitals and universities.

To further those efforts, DI has partnered with the United States Conference of Mayors, a nonpartisan organization for U.S. cities with populations above 30,000 people. "Our work in the areas of equity, diversity and inclusion, workforce development, and restarting the economic engine of tourism clearly aligns with their goals," says Don Welsh, DI's president and CEO.

9. DMCs Are Rethinking Their Pricing Models

Destination management companies have found themselves particularly vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic. Current pricing models and contract practices mean that many have invested significant time and resources to planning an event, only to have the gathering postponed or cancelled — leaving the DMCs with no revenue or reimbursement of funds laid out in advance. "We have to make adjustments as necessary," says Alaina Tobar, regional general manager of PRA Northern California and president of the Association of Destination Management Executives International. "You can expect that DMCs are really going to be reviewing their pricing models and how they charge, to more directly reflect the value of the time spent on some of these programs."

To this end, ADMEI has recently rolled out a sample letter of agreement and is putting the final touches on an updated service agreement to protect DMCs better in the future. Expect an open dialogue and an evolving business model.