Amidst the global outbreak of COVID-19, companies and governments have taken almost unprecedented steps to limit its spread, from cancelling all travel, mandatory work-from-home requirements and even shutting borders. The virus has affected everyone to various degrees, directly or indirectly.
In the meetings and travel industry, suppliers are being hit hard. Airline traffic has plummeted with both self-imposed business travel restrictions and nervousness in leisure travelers, but at least airlines can remove some of their variable costs by reducing capacity (a short-term solution, of course). Hotels and accommodation providers, on the other hand, have fewer options with large fixed capacity. Revenue management will become critically important during these times: what price best balances seat or room utilization and revenue?
While travel suppliers will need to weather this storm, trim costs and manage revenue, travel buyers are dealing with the issue by reducing travel and spend. In the short term, these restrictions may actually save travel buyers money. In the long term, however, buyers of travel services will be impacted by the virus as well. While the list of cancelled conferences and events, where the primary rationale is limiting virus transmission in large group settings, is long and growing, it certainly isn’t a stretch to imagine a near-future where individual and small group meetings like sales meetings are also impacted.
Limiting in-person meetings in the short term can impact sales in three ways: reduced access to customers, canceled or postponed training sessions and canceled conferences and events.
First, in-person sales calls are a critical part of many sellers’ sales processes, particularly for the biggest and most important customers. Companies in low carryover environments will be impacted soonest, where carryover sales are defined as sales that occur in the absence of promotional effort. Whether the impact happens in a matter of days, weeks or months, sales will be negatively impacted by the loss of this promotional channel.
Second, in-person meeting restrictions can negatively impact training opportunities. Such training sessions often go beyond simple product training and can involve strategic discussions around customers or sales strategies. Solution sales often require this type of training to ensure coordinated and up-to-date sales efforts.
Finally, the loss of large-scale meetings and events impacts the ability to bring together organizations, their customers and their partners in situations that are often used to generate excitement and network on a large scale. Whether such events are rewards (for your best sales people, best suppliers or best customers), training (for large user groups) or sales events (for your current and prospective customers), the net result is that many organizations now have fewer touch points with their teams, partners and customers through a traditionally high-impact channel. In such situations, a customer-centric marketing strategy is critical. Customer-focused orientation means that, while in-person meetings are critical, they are one piece of a multi-channel sales strategy. By identifying the most impactful channels for a particular customer, organizations can develop alternative, temporary strategies. For simplicity’s sake, imagine customers fall into one of three categories:
- Customers who prefer alternative communication channels and in-person meetings are of lower importance
- Customers who value in-person meetings but are not the only desirable marketing channel
- Customers for whom in-person meetings are the primary and preferred communication channel
In these above situations, categories one and two would be the easiest to reprioritize channel mix to ensure ongoing coverage. In these cases, organizations would leverage other acceptable communication channels with the customers, such as telesales, internet and video.
In the third category, companies will have more work to do. In the simplest situation, in-person meetings can be replaced with digital meetings and teleconferences. While many believe telesales calls as less effective than in-person meetings, they are a viable and perhaps essential substitute at this time. Telesales calls can also be made more effective by leveraging the latest technology in video conferencing and digital presentations to maximize participant engagement. This same approach can be used with training sessions. For larger meetings and events, it may be difficult to replicate the benefits as easily as 1:1 meetings but travel savings can be temporarily reassigned to marketing budgets to quickly deploy assets to help. Virtual reality and holographic technology are two other options that companies can leverage to create a more engaging and interesting attendee experience.
While limiting in-person meetings can be a challenge, keeping a customer-centric marketing strategy in mind and getting creative with virtual options can help you address it.
Steve Marley is a principal at ZS and a leader in its Meetings + Events practice. Email him at email@example.com.