‘We’ve got to find a way to do it’

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‘We’ve got to find a way to do it’

By Blair Potter | Sep 14, 2021

Myra Starnes is a founding member of the International Live Events Association (formerly known as the International Special Events Society) and started Leisure Time Unlimited Inc. in Myrtle Beach, S.C., 47 years ago.

She recently planned two events at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center (MBCC) during different stages of the COVID-19 pandemic: the Dickens Christmas Show (her 39th year) in November 2020 with about 14,000 total participants (approximately 75 percent of the pre-pandemic total) and the Hotel, Motel & Restaurant Supply Show of the Southeast (her 45th year) in March 2021 with about 5,000 total participants (approximately 50 percent of the pre-pandemic total).

Starnes says that in summer or early fall of 2020, a Christmas Show vendor called her crying.

“We’d heard a bunch of stuff, but this one really got to me,” she says. “She’d had 30 shows close. She’s scared she’s going to lose her house because that’s how she made her living. So, I said no, we are going to go ahead, but we’ve got to find a way to do it.”

Starnes says planning a first pandemic-era event was kind of like walking down a strange road in the dark.

“Did we know what we were doing? No. But my business triangle is: It has got to work for my vendors, the attendees and my company—and if that works, then it works for everybody and it’s strong.”

“All you can do is feel the cement. It was really, really scary,” she says. “Did we know what we were doing? No. But my business triangle is: It has got to work for my vendors, the attendees and my company—and if that works, then it works for everybody and it’s strong.”

And when it comes to getting people to adhere to COVID-19 protocols such as wearing masks, social distancing, etc., Starnes found that they had to be incentivized.

“We told them ahead of time about temperature scanning, distancing and masks for all, but we didn’t rub their faces in it,” she says, noting that there were signs all over the convention center thanking everyone for doing their part.

“I spent thousands of dollars on signs, and you could have been thanked 25 times,” Starnes says. “Thank you for coming and making it so that the vendors can keep their houses. Thank you for wearing a mask so that the people that have been stuck at home can feel comfortable enough to come out. If you don’t like doing something but you get thanked that many times, you’re going to feel good about yourself.

“The convention center let us put signs on the floor. The signs said things like ‘Don't get your tinsel in a tangle, wear your mask and do a jangle;’ ‘Santa’s teaching the reindeer how to distance six feet—he thinks you can learn, too;’ or ‘Thank you for being a caring human being.’ Just funny stuff. People would read those dumb signs, and if it was about distance, you’d see them distance from people. If it was about a mask, you’d see them touch the mask.”

‘The convention center—they were spot on’

Starnes says proactive health and safety efforts by the MBCC—including adoption of GBAC STAR accreditation and an HVAC system that circulates clean air—helped ensure a comfortable environment for anyone apprehensive about attending an event during the pandemic.

“The convention center—they were spot on,” she says. “I did not have to beg them to do what they’re supposed to do. I did not have to push them. They had handwashing stations all over the place. I can’t say enough about what they did. They were a partner as was my staff [and] vendors. Even my vendors behaved.”

Director/General Manager Brian Monroe says the MBCC was one of the first convention centers to attain the GBAC STAR accreditation.

“We continued to practice the best standards of cleaning and sanitation,” he says. “Planners should feel comfortable in our ability to host their event as safely as possible.”

Starnes also employed a clicker device at entrances to record entry and exit so that the number of building inhabitants could be known at all times. It took her three months to find reliable temperature scanners that she was comfortable with, since earlier in the pandemic there weren’t vetted answers to many of the new challenges meeting planners faced. She left the scanners with the convention center so that they could use them for other events.

“They don’t do me any good sitting in the closet,” she says.

Monroe says the proactive maintenance in the earliest days of the pandemic helped the “fresh and clean” MBCC start welcoming events back in summer 2020.

“We owe much to our many loyal customers who rescheduled their events instead of cancelling altogether,” he says. “Once the vaccine became a reality, our event schedule has returned to normal, and it has been an incredibly busy summer.”

Large events such as the South Atlantic Well Drillers 2021 Jubilee, Phi Beta Sigma National Conclave and the South Carolina Environmental Conference all experienced great attendance in recent weeks, says Monroe, noting that many events relocated to Myrtle Beach over the past year from states where their gatherings weren’t permitted under pandemic restrictions and that they went on to book multiple events.

Starnes’ message to other planners navigating the pandemic is simple: We can do this.

“You can’t have a government mandate,” she says. “Incentivize people and show people them that it’s not about them. It’s not about our opinions. It’s about making other people feel comfortable and safe, and you can do it, but you’ve got to have those partners.”

Dickens Christmas Show, courtesy Leisure Time Unlimited Inc.
Myrtle Beach Convention Center, courtesy Myrtle Beach Convention Center



Blair Potter
Blair Potter

Blair Potter is managing editor for The Meeting Professional. He likes toys and collects cats (or is it the other way around?).