After planning for a great return to travel following an unprecedented two-year hiatus, in December 2021, Omicron reared its head. By that time, though, even with some travel restrictions still in place, companies were beginning to gather for in-person events. The first event managed by Madison Travel’s Erin Pennington, a Madison Certified Event Planner, was held stateside and the mood, while excited to see colleagues after 2 years, was still reluctant. Protocols were still restrictive – mask mandates intact, assigned distance seating and Covid-safety practices in place. Even with the most stringent of safety plans, when unforeseen circumstances arose, event planning experts sprung into action to plot a new course to bring the event to a successful close.
In travel and event planning, contingency plans are the norm. In a post-Covid world, there are contingent contingency plans – and they are ever-changing and fluid, depending on location, changing guidelines and timing. Sometimes the protocols put in place during the planning phase need to be changed just prior to departure and then again even during the event. We adjust to the guidelines, which are often a moving target.
Travelers on their own might find this stressful and hard to manage. The benefit, however, of a planned travel incentive event, is that a team is there to manage these concerns for them.
While Covid added an entire new layer to event planning, a well-prepared, expert travel partner is ready to address any challenges thrown their way.
The travel timeline changes pre- and post-covid
Flash forward to the next trips in March to the Dominican Republic as well as a trip to Maui in May, and the travel team started to see even more change. Restrictions were starting to lift, no masks in public, less distancing. Even the night before the trip to Maui, proof of vaccine was eliminated and attendees were relaxed and happy to be traveling. By the time the next trip reached Mexico, with no masks on planes, attendees were having a blast.
And the excitement extended to Client Hosts as well. Clients were ready to give their incentive attendees the best time of their lives. With increased budgets that had been banked from unused events over the last 2 years, it was time to celebrate. And the result was high-end and high-service.
This more care-free reaction was anchored in the knowledge that the travel and event management team had everything under control. By working with a full-service event/travel organization, attendees are supported throughout the entire engagement.
They always have been; Covid only added a layer. A seasoned team is able to navigate issues more quickly than the average traveler, especially in emergency situations. The planning for events has always started well in advance, and clients historically express the need for contingency plans for all scenarios, Covid-related or not. The travel staff is there to execute. For instance, unrelated to COVID, at one event there was an injury on site. The Travel team member accompanied the attendee to the hospital, and made all the necessary arrangements for their treatment and safe return home.
Travel is back and welcomed, although sometimes it looked “different”
When it came to COVID exposure, all parties were all-hands-on-deck. The clients were sure to support their attendees with expenses and care, especially if they were unable to re-enter the US because of quarantining. The hotel accommodations almost universally had plans in place for quarantining and service to the sick attendee when their stay was extended. The travel team helped with all the logistics, from scheduling doctor appointments and testing dates to managing prescription deliveries. The travel “air” team had to be on call, to be able to book quick flights home when attendees were cleared to go.
The point has always been to make sure attendees felt safe, secure, supported – and never stranded.
While the general sentiment has been 'it’s good to get back to incentive travel', it wasn’t without its challenges over the timeline.
The planning changed as quickly as any guidelines would be changed across the globe. And the travel event team often had to adjust on the fly. Social distancing rules posed a new challenge – never did we have assigned seating at a general assembly – to account for safe distances between colleagues and contact tracing in case someone became ill over the trip. Essentially a room needed for 200 attendees may have to be double the size to account for the additional space. Handing out masks at the registration table was a first as well.
Staffing for events also varied. For events in the Covid-era, we would “staff up” to accommodate smaller “bubble” groups at meals, or to eliminate self-service buffets. “Staffing up” poses its own concerns – all industries are struggling with worker shortages and the event travel industry was not different.
For Anne Lang, a Madison Certified Event Planner, one of her incentive trip engagements was a chartered cruise and there were certainly some hurdles to jump to make everything come together. Pre-event, requirements with vaccine and boosters were a deterrent. The event lost a good number of attendees because of those constraints, whether it was personal preference, families who were bringing children who they didn’t vaccinate and some who were bringing infants who couldn’t be vaccinated.
Although the head count reduced, the event was still considered successful – sans Covid issues. Pre-testing mandates posed some glitches via a testing company that had to provide the results. And it required the persistence of the Madison travel team to manage the situation and get everyone on the ship who needed to be there. In the end, the hiccups did not delay the departure.
Nevertheless, people felt more secure because the expert travel event management team was in charge. And the venues were extremely supportive in covering expenses if someone was sick, which put minds at ease. Now it was just a matter of getting back into the swing of things.
Somewhere we forgot how to travel, and now we are making up for lost time
It sounds like a funny line, but it couldn’t be truer, for both attendees and planners. Planners almost forgot their routines because they had been out of routine for so long. Seasoned travelers would pause for a moment to remember things that were commonplace like luggage tags and car services. An attendee who might have not been a frequent traveler before, and who did not travel at all during the pandemic, had a laundry list of regulations to follow, with testing, vax requirements, and safety protocols that sometimes proved to be overwhelming.
Thankfully, for the event planning team, return to travel was just like riding a bike. They got back on, started to pedal and then picked up the support for their guests along the way.
Just as the clients want to create memorable experiences for their guests, it seems all the players are on board. Hotels and venues have been supremely gracious. Facing business scares from the past two years, they are excited to be opened up again, taking customer service to a whole new level.
The travel teams are excited as well. If you have ever worked as part of an event/travel planning team, it’s unique to say the least! We are teams that will work literally for 19 hours a day and we become like family. Then, of course, the attendees who are repeat winners for incentive trips from long-standing clients are like extended family. And we are just as excited to all see each other again and be on site. You would be amazed at some of the things that need to be attended to during an event. The exhaustion can set in when working non-stop – but the jokes fly, and the comradery is there to make it all worth it.
For all intents and purposes, corporate and incentive travel is back, especially judging from the record travel we’ve experienced at Madison, post the height of the pandemic. 2022 Q1 had the most travel we’ve experienced to date, even more than 2019 Q1 which was one of the busiest seasons on record. The first quarter of 2022 had even more travelers than pre-pandemic levels.
While the rollercoaster ride is not over, we are definitely excited to at least be back on again.