Meeting Mentor Magazine

July 2024

How the Omicron Variant Could Affect In-Person Events

While most planners don’t seem particularly worried about the affect the omicron variant could have on their upcoming events, some new research indicates that those who travel to their events may not agree. According to a new survey by MMGY Global, even usually hardy road warriors are uncharacteristically hesitant to hit the airport right now, thanks to the omicron variant.While it is unclear at this point exactly how transmissible and/or deadly the new variant may be, the World Health Organization said earlier this month that it posed “very high” risks globally and has called omicron a “variant of concern.”

Until we know more about how this new variant spreads and the severity of disease it causes, 45% percent of respondents said they are less likely to travel over the next three months. Should scientists determine that omicron is more likely to land them in the hospital, 43% they would be significantly less likely to travel, while 34% said they would be significantly less likely to travel if the new variant ends up being more resistant to currently available vaccines, the survey found. If omicron is found to be more easily transmitted than the currently prevalent delta variant, 32% said they’d be significantly less likely to travel.

Vaccination status did prove to be a differentiator in the results, though perhaps not in the way you would expect. The unvaccinated were much less likely to say omicron will affect their travel plans — 71% said it had no impact on their likelihood of traveling in the next three months — while 39% of those who are fully vaccinated said the new variant is making them reconsider their plans.

European Events Already Feeling the Heat

While bookings continue at a good pace for the future, some meeting organizers decided to play it safe this fall, most likely more due to a delta-variant–caused spike in COVID cases in some areas of the world, notably Europe, where some countries have reintroduced restrictions. At least three major event organizers postponed or cancelled their European meetings due to an already increasing caseload in some countries, as well as potential omicron variant concerns.

One example is the World Trade Organization, which postponed its Nov. 30-Dec. 3 conference in Geneva until conditions improve. “My priority is the health and safety of all MC12 participants — ministers, delegates and civil society,” Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said. “It is better to err on the side of caution.” About 4,000 trade officials had been expected to gather for the WTO’s 12th ministerial conference, which was canceled last year due to the pandemic.

The International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) outright cancelled the in-person piece of its show, which had been scheduled for Dec. 3-6 in Amsterdam. According to the IBC, “The move follows growing concerns about the COVID-19 situation in the Netherlands, which has deteriorated over the past week, and feedback from the IBC exhibitor and visitor community.”  The program, which was planned as a hybrid event, instead will go fully digital on IBC’s digital platform.

The Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) European conference, which was scheduled to be held in Berlin Dec. 6–8, also has been postponed until February 2022.

On the GBTA website, Executive Director Suzanne Neufang said, “Lessons on the return of business travel which were part of the lineup for the GBTA European Conference 2021 in Berlin in partnership with VDR, originally scheduled for next week, will now have to wait a bit longer. Due to the new and dynamic developments around the omicron variant, and newly instated travel and meeting restrictions, GBTA will now be rescheduling the Berlin in-person conference for late February 2022.”

She added, “In a matter of days, the world has seen the rise of the omicron variant as a new factor on the pandemic landscape, which is why public health, resilience and agility must be our new norm in the business travel industry. And as regions and governments around the world assess the potential impact of omicron, GBTA continues to encourage a consistent, thoughtful approach to travel. Actions taken should focus on vaccination or recovery status and individual traveler risk versus broad-reaching travel restrictions or border shutdowns.” In November, GBTA had held a successful in-person convention in Orlando.

Are Rapid Self-Tests the Answer?

The MMGY survey found that enhanced testing could make a big difference in international travelers’ plans. For example 67% said they are in favor of the Biden administration’s recent decision to require all in-bound U.S. travelers over the age of two — vaccinated or not and regardless of citizenship status — to show proof of a negative COVID test taken within 24 hours of departure for the U.S., rather than the three-day period that had been effect since last January for those who could show proof of full vaccination (those who are unvaccinated already had to stay within a 24-hour testing window).

While the news was not greeted with enthusiasm by some meetings, events and business travel advocates — Dan Richards, the CEO of Global Rescue and a member of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board calls the new entry requirements “yet another obstacle with dubious efficacy and be a further impediment to the industry’s recovery” — these tests may end up being a boost rather than a burden, given traveler sentiment.

Some international meeting and event organizers and/or their host venues may be offering rapid antigen tests to attendees already. For those that don’t plan to add testing to their agenda, there are several COVID self-test kits that have the necessary FDA emergency use authorization (EUA) needed to fulfill the new requirements for U.S.-bound travelers. Among them are the Abbott BinaxNOW COVID-19 home test, a rapid antigen self-test that does not require users to ship a sample to a lab. Another option is the Cue COVID-19 test for home or OTC use, which also has EUA clearance. This test is a rapid-result NAAT with PCR-level results, but it does require users to buy the Cue Reader and a pack of individual-use nasal swab tests, as well as download the Cue Health app (available on iOS and Android).

As has been the case with COVID for the past year, however, vaccination is still your best bet, even if it no longer will guarantee entrance into the U.S. In a candid conversation between ConferenceDirect CEO Brian Stevens and Bennett L. Leventhal, MD, that was broadcast to ConferenceDirect associates in early December, Leventhal said that, while there have been breakthrough infections among those who are fully vaccinated, the infections so far have been mild. That means that, even if the omicron variant does prove to be highly transmissible, the consequences of breakthrough infections should be equally mild, regardless of impressions you may get from some of the more sensationalistic media coverage.

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MeetingMentor, is a business journal for senior meeting planners that is distributed in print and digital editions to the clients, prospects, and associates of ConferenceDirect, which handles over 13,000 worldwide meetings, conventions, and incentives annually.

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