Campaign Savvy wordmark with headshot of Campaign US editor Alison Weissbrot

Gearing up for the most confusing return to awards season and business travel of all time.

For the first time in two years, my inbox is filling up with emails about what seems like a simple ask — “are you going to Cannes?”

As we get deeper into spring, planning for the annual festival of creativity on the Cote d’Azur in late June is in full swing.

From what I can tell, the tech companies and platforms are reclaiming their usual spaces on the beachfront, ad tech firms are lining up on yacht row, agencies are hosting clients in private spaces and La Croisette will be buzzing with CMOs and creatives once again. I’m told I must book now, because accommodations are going fast.

But behind the veneer of excitement, there are many layers of nuance and contradiction.

When I talk to people on the record, they'll say that, while they’re excited to go back to Cannes, they’ll be sending a smaller team and be more focused on clients and top-to-top meetings. Then, in the same breath, they’ll mention they are posting up on the same lavish beachfront or splashy hotel as last year (unless, of course, that hotel is the Carlton, which is closed for renovations) and that a party invite is soon to follow.

Catch them off the record, and they’ll allude to worrying about the optics of partying on yachts in the South of France while a war is raging in nearby Ukraine — not to mention, the optics of partying on yachts just two years after laying off thousands of staffers during the pandemic.

As I start to set up meetings and interviews, I’m struck by this nagging feeling of “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Maybe I’m scarred from the Omicron surge that collapsed the industry’s return to CES (let’s face it, we’re all scarred by the pandemic at this point). Maybe I’m just having trouble picturing an actual return to the way things once were after two long years of isolation.

Whether we make it to the French Riviera or not, there’s a broader shift around the future of business travel that the industry must confront.

It’s not just COVID and the shift to hybrid work that is changing sentiment around events such as Cannes. There’s also a broader societal push for purposeful and sustainable business as consumers seek deeper connections with brands and face real threats such as climate change.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that companies have gotten used to razor-thin bottom lines and padded profits thanks, in part, to significantly reduced business travel — especially as record-high inflation rages on.

For the first time probably ever, CMOs at big corporations will have to think twice about the optics of a weeklong boondoggle in the South of France — especially those flying internationally.

They’re thinking about Cannes not in terms of the glamor of winning a Lion, but in terms of ROI — on productivity, effectiveness and capital. And if marketers (or their CFOs) decide the ROI isn’t there, the dominos will tumble beneath them.

Many people remain bullish on Cannes, this year and beyond. After all, we’ve been cooped up for two years and people are ready to mingle, network and, frankly, party. They’re hungry for connection and craving the exhausting efficiency of being able to meet anyone they would ever need to speak to in one work-hard, play-hard week. And they’re especially ready to celebrate their hard work and craft after two long years of virtual award ceremonies.

Even the market is feeling positive about a return to live. After Cannes Lions’ parent company Ascential reported Q1 earnings this week, posting reported revenue growth of 52%, investment firm Numis said it sees the company as a “key” stock pick, thanks in part to “a very strong digital awards performance at Cannes [that] bodes well for the return of the physical show in 2022,” according to an analyst note sent on Tuesday.

This year, Cannes will set the tone for not just the future of advertising’s most important festival, but also the future of live events in the industry overall.

I hope to be sipping a glass of rose with you all soon — but I’ll believe it when I see it.

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