The (Hopeful) Return of the Business ConferenceMay 11, 2022 04:49PM ● By Amy Bonesteel
Business people love to meet in Charleston: its chef-run eateries with fresh seafood, King Street shopping, and storied colonial history naturally make it a solid choice for visitors of any kind.
And after a hiccup last fall (called the Omicron variant) on the road to restarting the conference and event business, the city is opening its doors once again.
Take the technology summit Dig South, celebrating its 10-year-anniversary this May. The three-day summit, which includes speakers, booths, and panel discussions, is being held on the campus of the University of Charleston this year and was getting close to pre-pandemic numbers at press time.
Anticipating about 800 attendees, founder Stanfield Gray says that’s getting closer to Dig South’s 2019 numbers of 1,200, especially as many may register in the last weeks before the event.
Gray has maintained contact with his 400 members throughout the last few years, offering a virtual summit in 2020 and a hybrid event last year that had a smaller in-person and livestreaming combination.
“We stayed engaged with our full audience the entire year and made sure that we continued to promote investors and leading global brands,” says Gray, whose 2022 events includes “Wild Pitch” investor forum, speakers, and networking. “This year we are fully back in person.”
Bobby Pilch, assistant director of sales, government and citywide conventions for the Charleston Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, Explore Charleston, says meeting demand has surpassed 2019-2020 already by 20 percent with 402 potential meetings generated over the first three months of 2022. The city is also “pacing ahead of our three-year average of definite group room nights by 11 percent,” he notes.
“Charleston has always been a very resilient community,” says Pilch. “When the clouds started to break (in fall 2021), we were already seeing a very quick recovery with a nice, steady uptick of RFPs (Request For Proposals).”
He did notice one change: “A lot of it was smaller groups in nature. There was hesitancy with meeting planners wanting to bring thousands together.”
Then Omicron hit, he recalls, “and we saw a little pullback.”
“Now we’re on full steam,” he says. “People are anxious to get back to work.”
The nature of large corporate functions and association meetings requires two-to-three-year planning windows -- a time that only increased with the pandemic. “We are already seeing large programs looking for future years booking three to five years out,” says Pilch, noting that many associations have bylaws that require annual meetings.
Inflation and rising fuel prices have impacted the industry leading to some price increases for venues and programs. Despite that, says Pilch, “We haven’t seen hesitancy,” for bookings and reservations. “We’re seeing a nice ramp up as the ‘big stuff’ is starting to layer in for spring and fall.”
Because of liability factors related to the pandemic, some companies are requiring conditions such as more space, he notes, and venue professionals are glad to accommodate these and other requests. Additionally, digital broadcasts are now almost always built into programs.
“Some of the RFPs are more cognizant of internet fees, band width, advertising, and co-ops or partnerships for digital sessions.”
At Furman University in the Upstate, facilities like Younts Conference Center are “100 percent back with no restrictions,” according to Lisa Green, director of conference and event services for Furman. Green notes some standard reservations have changed a bit, such as tables for eight decreasing to tables of six people instead.
She also says adaptation to clients’ needs is expected, as a 250-person cyber security and sustainability conference for automaker BMW did include masks and Covid-19 restrictions. Upcoming events on campus include homebuilder associations and church-affiliated meetings or fundraisers, with the 20,000-person Greenville Scottish Games planned for Memorial Day weekend.
Greenville’s 280,000-square-foot Convention Center has seen a “noticeable rebound” it the last few months, according to General Manager John Wilusz.
Corporate events tended to be more affected by travel policies, he notes, but some social events and fundraisers like a recent one by the American Heart Association have been coming back to the space. “We have seen a strong response in our consumer show segment and in some of our youth sports events.
“As the cases decline our clients seem to have more confidence with moving forward with events.”
He points to a recent two-day, 300-person corporate meeting for a technology company as part of the growing trend. “Our year-to-date numbers are well ahead of last year but still not to where we were for fiscal 2019,” says Wilusz.
Support staff can be harder to find in the industry as food and beverage/hospitality workers stepped out of the workforce or changed career paths. Add increasing costs for goods as well as wages, and “finding labor is a challenge,” he admits. “We rely a lot on temp labor but there are times when no one responds to a labor call.”
In Columbia, VP/general manager of the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center Cheryl Swanson says their contract with food and beverage company Spectra has enabled them to “handle all of our demands” as business events started up again.
The facility also financially invests in upholding a GBAC (Global Biorisk Advisory Council) certification, which means a level of sanitation and health that patrons can feel good about.
Swanson says they spend $10,000 annually replacing air quality filters, for example.
So far, future confirmed bookings in the first quarter of 2022 are “just a few” percentage points higher than the same type of bookings in the first quarter of 2020 (pre-Covid-19), says Danna Lilly, interim VP for the Columbia Metropolitan Convention & Visitor’s Center. “This gives us all indication that in the Columbia market planners are rescheduling previous cancelled groups and booking new – consistent to what we’re hearing from prospective new clients as well.”
Being close to downtown as well as the University of South Carolina campus is one of the center’s attractions, says Swanson. “January to May is an extremely busy time of year. We can’t always meet the demand with requests for groups and space.”
Melissa Murray, whose title is Chief Encouragement Officer for Mosaix Group, a corporate event management firm based in Asheville, Greenville, and Charlotte, says RFPs have increased in Q1 of this year “well beyond what we were seeing at the same time in 2019.”
Like others in the business she says they are experiencing rising prices in rentals, transportation and catering as well as staffing challenges. “Quite often we need to craft our programs around supplier availability rather than having our suppliers work around our clients’ requests. With a bit of good creativity, we can make both work out,” says Murray.
One thing’s for sure: business professionals are glad for the opportunity to meet in person, to create relationships, and to network once again.
“During the pandemic, everyone was firing up the Zoom app,” says Charleston’s Pilch. “It’s refreshing and good to see that Zoom did not win out. ... After going through this, human interaction is alive and well and not going anywhere.”