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Love them or hate them, in-person corporate events are poised for a comeback.
That’s what some Milwaukee-area venues and planners have gathered from a recent wave of inquiries and bookings for dates in the latter half of 2021, bringing a sigh of relief after a devastating year for the events industry.
As the COVID-19 pandemic wiped face-to-face meetings, conferences and networking mixers off the books, companies turned to virtual platforms like Zoom and Hopin, and event venues sat empty for months. Now with an end to the pandemic in sight, thanks to the COVID-19 vaccine, local companies are looking to gather in-person again.
“What we’re seeing lately is more companies calling us about future dates,” said Jesse Wilder, general manager at The Ingleside Hotel in Pewaukee. “The third and fourth quarters are looking OK compared to where we’ve been … It’s not gangbusters, but it is enough to tell us there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
The Ingleside has been hosting indoor and outdoor events since reopening in late May, said Wilder, but most of those functions have been social, not corporate. He expects corporate weekday bookings to pick up further along in the vaccine’s distribution, once companies are “more comfortable with the liability of sending their people out.”
He said liability remains a major concern for companies and venues as they approach the return of in-person events while trying to stay afloat financially. The Ingleside implemented its own “Safe Promise” plan to minimize risk. It sets the standard for all events at the property, but clients can build in additional safeguards, such as separate microphones for each speaker or hand sanitizer at every table. And with 40,000 square feet of meeting space, physical distance is not a problem, Wilder said.
“You have to be able to spread people out right now, and we see this being very important through the rest of the year,” he said.
The Brookfield Conference Center hosted 19 total events in January – mostly small meetings of 10 to 20 people. Larger events will begin to come back in April. However, many of the events that were originally booked in May – typically a peak month for the industry – have been pushed back to the third and fourth quarter, said Brandon Smith, director of sales at the Brookfield Conference Center.
“We’re getting a lot of last-minute stuff, too,” he said. “I recently booked a corporate meeting where they called me on Wednesday and we hosted the meeting on Thursday.”
The 44,000-square-foot venue is currently operating at 25% capacity. From an operations standpoint, Smith said, it was beneficial to be in Waukesha County, which did not impose restrictions on gatherings like other Milwaukee-area municipalities did. Plus, there’s the appeal of its size and newness. The conference center was slated to open April 2, 2020, but the pandemic delayed its debut until July.
Prior to opening, Smith said, the venue had about 115 events, mostly corporate, in the books for the upcoming year. It was able to keep a handful, but the majority were pushed back to 2021 and 2022.
Paul Bartolotta said he was surprised by how many events have been booked for this calendar year and into 2022 at The Bartolotta Restaurants’ catering and events venues.
“I think we’re beginning to turn a corner in the mindset, and we’re seeing that interest in the bookings. … It’s really dependent exclusively on how well as a society we get our arms around the pandemic and the virus itself,” said Bartolotta, the restaurant group’s chef and owner.
With many of The Bartolotta Restaurants’ event spaces located within the city of Milwaukee – the Italian Community Center in the Historic Third Ward, Bacchus in East Town and Discovery World on the lakefront – the company is beholden to local restrictions on top of its own stringent safety protocols.
As corporate business starts to return on a limited basis, Bartolotta said the group has to get creative with the event experience; for example, using mobile bars to serve drinks while city orders require attendees to remain seated at gatherings.
But just because companies are gearing up to transition back into the world of face-to-face connection doesn’t mean that virtual events will cease to exist. Given the varying levels of comfort as the world reopens and the freedom of remote work, hybrid events – with both in-person and virtual components – could be the way of the future.
“In-person (corporate events) will be back – we have no doubt about that – and they will be back strong once everyone is comfortable, but we don’t see hybrids going anywhere,” said Emma Fricke, senior event experience coordinator at New Berlin-based Exciting Events.
The event planning and production company offers a range of services from audio-video to décor. In response to the pandemic, it transformed part of its warehouse into a sound stage where clients could record and broadcast virtual event programs.
Fricke said virtual events have allowed organizations to reach more people, which can be especially advantageous for national companies with offices or board members in multiple cities.
“There’s a lot of learning that can happen, and it’s something you no longer have to travel for,” said Fricke.