Editor’s note: This article first published in the June 2023 Special Edition of Beyond the Meeting Room, ALHI’s printed magazine, a luxury lifestyle publication focused on sharing compelling, inspirational and educational stories from beyond the four walls of a meeting room.

Call it an omen of what was to come.

It was February 2020 and Austin, Texas, was gearing up for South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual two-week music, film and interactive megafestival that is an economic driver for the city.

Right about that time, the world was starting to get word of what would become known as COVID-19, a virus that would lead to a pandemic and shutter the meeting and event world, including the event simply referred to as South By.

Like many other events, technology provided a lifeline for the next two years, and while South By returned to in-person in 2021, many groups battled, and battled hard, to return to face to face.

Fast-forward to March 2023, and SXSW once again is a harbinger of a now resilient $1.6 trillion global business meeting and event industry, an industry that suffered $1.9 trillion in cumulative lost sales over three years due to the pandemic, according to a study released this year by the Events Industry Council and Oxford Economics.

Final attendance numbers for this year’s South By are still being tallied, although conference officials expect them to surpass the nearly 50,000 who attended in 2022.

Over in Las Vegas, Nevada, the CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2023 trade fair “crushed” attendance figures, according to the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, drawing 139,000 construction and fluid power attendees as AEM laid claim to hosting the largest trade show in North America.

Success in All Sizes

Size, though, doesn’t matter when it comes to business meetings. For example, nearly 100 association leaders recently gathered for the Executive Leadership Forum hosted by the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) in Vancouver, British Columbia, a scene that has played out across the country and around the globe.

From conferences and trade shows that are drawing in thousands to intimate gatherings, the business meetings and events industry has come roaring back with a vengeance. For an industry that had to pull back because of the COVID-19 pandemic, recovery is no longer the buzzword. Rather, growth and optimism, and a renewed focus on the attendee experience are driving the $1.6 trillion industry.

Danny Salas-Porras, Lead Planner of SXSW, believes meeting planners need to rethink what they do to create engaging experiences, a tall order at SXSW where there were well north of 4,600 speakers and nearly 2,000 sessions over two weeks.

“Coming out of the pandemic, a lot of people have really looked at meetings and events and said, ‘Okay, you know, we know now how important it is to have people together,’” he said. “We saw what we lost. So now we have to make it even more meaningful. And that's what I loved about South by Southwest.”

In-Person Preferred

Michelle Mason, FASAE, CAE, President and CEO of ASAE, has a unique perspective, overseeing a membership organization with nearly 47,000 members and more than 1,750 through organization memberships.

“Meetings are on a path to recovery and growth,” she said. “But it requires us to continue to evolve and think about how we produce our meetings to create new experiences in a different way, in a sustainable way. I don't think there's anything that's going to replace in-person meetings, and we as an ecosystem, as a community, as an industry, need to continue that message.”

Sarah Soliman, President and CEO of Soliman Productions, a multimedia production company, has noted the twofold improvements in business meetings and events: There are more of them and the quality in improving. She’s particularly impressed by more storytelling being incorporated into the overall promotion of an event.

“Being in the event content creation space, I have always been a big advocate for content capture and storytelling to be at the forefront of all marketing endeavors before, during and after a meeting,” she said. “It's refreshing to see planners place more value on these initiatives.”

She’s also noted more breaks or downtime in between sessions.

“Event organizers are more cognizant of mental well-being, and that is reflected in educational sessions across industries and in how the event is broken out overall, allowing for more pauses in between sessions,” she said.

At SXSW, the pace is fast and furious for an event that attracts a global audience. Nearly 21.5% of attendees this year were from 126 countries outside the U.S. The economic impact is staggering. While the numbers are still being dissected for 2023, last year’s festival generated $280.7 million for the city of Austin.

Social engagement was astounding this year with the festival’s website garnering 4.3 million page views during the festival.

With 50,000-plus attendees, that means hotel rooms are booked. In 2022, South By directly booked more than 10,000 individual hotel reservations totaling more than 45,000 room nights. Direct booking alone generated more than $1.8 million in hotel occupancy tax revenues. The average nightly rate during the event last year was $370.

$1.8 Million: How much hotel occupancy tax revenues South By Southwest generated in 2022 from direct booking.

Filling Up the City

“It was definitely great seeing it come back to what we are used to seeing,” said Nenad Praporski, General Manager of the Fairmont Austin. “We’ve had a lot of meetings and events since the beginning of this year, and we actually had several sell out the hotel. But with South By, the best thing was just seeing people interact and seeing a lot of people in the city. It was so satisfying and great to see, not just for our hotel, but for the whole city.

“There’s no replacement for an in-person meeting, seeing your co-workers, colleagues, clients, all of the above. Having a human touch, the face-to-face interaction, is just how you do business. That's how you get things done.”

The pandemic was a challenge for everyone in the hospitality industry, but Praporski believed it was just a matter of time before people returned to full in-person meetings.

Salas-Porras, whose team is at work planning the 2024 SXSW festival, is “very excited about the future of meetings, and especially in-person events and meetings,” he said. “Gatherings have been such a part of our societies from the beginning of time. We thrive on being together with others. So, I don’t believe this communal trade is going to go anywhere, anytime soon.

“I think it’s really a great time for planners. We’re getting to bring people back into the fold and get them back to what they enjoy and love.”