Meeting and Event Executives Weigh in on Post-COVID Events

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Meeting and Event Executives Weigh in on Post-COVID Events

By Kristi Casey Sanders | Oct 7, 2020

Photo by Floris Heuer, courtesy Sven Boelhouwer.

As live events come back post-pandemic, the biggest challenge won’t be keeping things sanitary. It will be human nature.

“Once delegates get excited to meet, the biggest challenge is to maintain social distancing,” says Sven Boelhouwer (MPI Netherlands Chapter), a self-employed marketing and event professional.

Melanie Clifford (MPI Tennessee Chapter), regional director of Gibson Hotel Management, says meetings in her Tennessee convention centers and hotels restarted in June 2020. But two guests left during the first event because safety protocols wouldn’t allow them to sit side-by-side. A director was ejected from the San Sebastián International Film Festival in Spain in September for failing to wear a mask after he’d been reminded five times.

Related Webinar: Meeting Executive Re-Think Tank: Lessons Learned from Hotel Openings & Restarting Live Meetings

Boelhouwer suggests meeting and event professionals get creative with how they enforce these new event safety rules to diffuse tension and increase compliance. During a three-day event he organized in Amsterdam this September, he employed artists to act as health referees. They whistled and awarded penalties to noncompliant individuals the way football (soccer) refs throw yellow cards at athletes behaving badly on the pitch. Rather than getting upset at being called out, people laughed. More importantly, they avoided getting another penalty that might get them thrown out of the “game.”

Despite how well venues are sanitized and protocols are observed, someone still might get sick. Four days after Boelhouwer’s event concluded, someone on staff tested positive for coronavirus. Boelhouwer’s team alerted all delegates and staff about the situation to let them know that they potentially were exposed to COVID-19.

“Plus we added the question of what they felt was the best way to take care of this, if they appreciated getting this info from us and if they felt comfortable sharing if they still felt healthy themselves [so we] could keep track of a possible outbreak,” Boelhouwer says. “That input is being used in new event protocols now.”

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Nicole Unger, CMP, vice president of sales for Alliance, put into play several new procedures when she organized July’s Together Again Expo in Orlando, which attracted 1,405 face-to-face attendees and 8,000 views of the digital element.

“I knew we weren’t going to have 15 registration counters or a ribbon station,” she says. “We did touchless registration that flowed through the whole concourse. We had line-busters to make sure people were keeping their distance.”

Unger let people know what to expect in the know-before-you-go: no handshakes and always wear a mask.

“We used more space and that helped people stay apart,” she says, noting that with the additional space between education stations she also adjusted the width of the aisles in the exhibit halls and the flow of the event, with much longer breaks than in past years. “I knew giving people time to get where they were going would be key.”

As a result, Unger says, attendees were very respectful.

Other emerging event protocols include temperature tests, rapid testing, onsite physicians and badges that include contact-tracing technology. On the venue side, Dr. Tyra Warner (MPI North Florida Chapter), an attorney and hospitality professor at the College of Coastal Georgia, says specific cleaning clauses are beginning to pop up in contracts, which are unique to each hotel. Clifford says each of her properties, sports arenas and convention centers have their own “COVID” clauses.

Related Article: Planning for the Return of Modified In-Person Events

Vito Curalli (MPI Toronto Chapter), executive director of Canada, Latin America and international sales for Hilton Worldwide, says we are in the early stages of meetings and events recovery.

“What we’re seeing in North America is smaller-size meetings, lots of domestic and drive-up meetings,” he says.

The benefit of these smaller-size meetings, Curalli points out, is they make contract tracing easier and they have more space to spread out in.

“We’ve got a different playbook. We have to take photos and help people feel comfortable doing this,” he says. “Luckily, there’s a lot of smaller meetings.”

Clifford says citywide events that once brought 12,000 to her convention center now attract 1,500. A mask mandate is in place. But things are busy.

“Conventions have been happening [in the Knoxville/Pigeon Forge, Tenn., area] since the first weekend in June,” she says. “We’ve been jamming since then.”

“There’s got to be collaboration and communication.”

Unger recommends meeting and event professionals pay careful attention during sourcing to finding partners who share the same approach to duty of care.

“We need to hold the suppliers accountable,” she says. “You need to know that you’re working with someone who’s buying into the same sense of social responsibility themselves. The facility needs to adhere to the same rules. There’s got to be collaboration and communication.”

Boelhouwer says that, in some ways, suppliers are better prepared for the return of live events than planners. But meeting and event organizers and suppliers need to work together to convince clients and CEOs to book events again.

“Showcase that from a supplier perspective that there are a lot of possibilities,” he says. “Think through: What will you do if you have an outbreak at your event? How do you properly take care of people?”

From hybrid event inclusion to safe room sets, meeting and event professionals are welcoming attendees back.

“But from a professional event management perspective,” Boelhouwer says, “recovery won’t happen until the C-level executives who decided not to have events decide to start back up.”

For more information on community resources and education MPI offers meeting and event executives, click here.

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Kristi Casey Sanders

Kristi Casey Sanders, CMM, CMP, DES, HMCC, is the former director of community for MPI.