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Is LMM Business Travel Back? Survey Says…

Gone are the days of carte blanche access to our peers’ calendars. Twelve months ago, we were able to reach out last minute to schedule a meeting or invite someone to an event. Scheduling conflicts were basically non-existent. Today, however, travel is back, deal activity is booming, and the lower middle market is clamoring to meet face-to-face. 

Beginning around this time last summer, Axial began polling its (virtual) event attendees to gauge when in-person events could make a comeback. We penned a couple of different articles (first in July and again in November) with thoughts and predictions on in-person business development opportunities. Now, as we emerge from the nationwide lockdown and continue down the path towards normalcy, we’re taking a look back at the data to see just how off/on point we were. 

June 25, 2020

When we first began polling in June — as case counts slowly began to improve in many of the initially hard hit cities — we targeted August as a goalpost for the first in person event. However, as you can see from the chart below, deal professionals were hesitant with that timeline. 69% responded that August was simply too soon to attend an in-person event. 

Even those who thought they’d be comfortable travelling said it would need to be either deal-related or for an extremely valuable event to justify the risk. As one respondent said, “It would have to be a meeting that could not be done virtually. There is no reason to take the extra risk otherwise.” Another member shared a similar sentiment, saying, “ Given the efficiency of online meetings, I am prone to focus more on digital meetings for the rest of the year. We will resume travel, yes, just not sure that will happen unless necessary for a deal reason until there is a vaccine.”

August 27, 2020

When August rolled around, we re-polled  our members with Q4 in mind as the new target for a potential in-person gathering. Despite some interest in an August event just a few months prior, at this point in time, half of the respondents said they would not be comfortable attending an event late in the year. Interestingly enough, however, the majority of those who were comfortable getting back on the road were all-in; they’d not only drive, but get on a plane and fly to an in-person event in Q4.

November 4, 2020

Our November poll occurred during a major spike in Covid cases throughout the country. Despite the rising case count, more respondents actually said that they’d be open to attending an in-person event in Q1 2021, but, with major contingencies and safety precautions. The top comments were that people would only consider a “COVID-friendly” event if it was outdoors, with smaller groups, and located in warm-weather destinations across the South/East. 

For some, even if they were comfortable travelling personally, there was concern about firmwide travel mandates. “It’s more about my company,” one respondent said. “We will probably still be on travel restriction, in which case I would not be able to attend.”

Another perspective was that “COVID-friendly” procedures would dilute the value of the event: “I’d rather speak to someone normally on Zoom than to ask them to repeat everything they’re saying from 6 feet away while wearing a mask.” Another attendee recommended temperature checks and a COVID survey, but said “I probably wouldn’t attend if masks are still required. It’s too difficult to talk and express your personality.”

February 28, 2021

As we made our way into 2021, we began asking participants if they would attend an event at that point in time versus sometime in the future. However, after holiday surges and slow vaccine rollouts, the number of “no’s” went up from 33% in November to 44% in February. And a good number of respondents were still unsure, noting that it would depend on the type of event or distance of travel.

April 29, 2021

The tide finally begins to turn… We asked our members again whether they’d be comfortable attending an in-person event at that moment in time, to which 75% of respondents said that they’d be open to the possibility of event-specific travel. That said, those who were participating in the survey began to reopen the topic of ROI. One said, “I am comfortable travelling, but it is hard to justify the time & expense. The event would have to be of significant value.” Another respondent noted that the event would have to be high impact and extremely targeted.

June 3, 2021

Fast forward to the beginning of June 2021. Vaccines are widely available and most people who wanted to receive it have already done so. The pendulum swung swiftly in this poll, with 92% of respondents saying they would travel specifically for an event (with no contingencies). One of the only “no’s” noted more specifically in the comments that the answer was more about the format of the event than comfort levels. “ While I am comfortable traveling,” he said “I like virtual conferences for introductory meetings. It’s a more efficient use of time and resources.”

So there you have it, folks. The post-COVID travel boom is just beginning and you can count on seeing your peers out on the road in the very near future (if you haven’t already). That said, the event industry will need to step up its game, as the status-quo clearly won’t cut it going forward. 

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