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Lessons Learned from an In-Person Meeting During a Pandemic By Emilie Perkins CMP CAE CMM PMP CED

By: Emilie Perkins, CMP, CAE, CMM, PMP, CED | May 3, 2021

I just finished the book, “Think Again” by Adam Grant - which is really a book all about how that scrambling we did in 2020 to rethink everything, was actually a positive thing. One of the stories that he retells is about an assignment given to a class of juniors/seniors to write a letter to their freshman selves, where they share what they have learned along the way, and how it all works out in the end. This blog is dedicated to the planner I was before the Pandemic and how it is okay to unlearn everything, find better practices, and still find success in uncharted territory.


Hopefully you read Part 1 of the CFSA Annual Conference story that my colleague Emily Wrinkle wrote. I am picking up where she left off. She set up how we readied the staff, volunteers and participants for the first in-person event that they have had in over a year. One of the greatest pieces of advice that she shared is focusing on what we could control vs. what we could not control. And I couldn’t agree more. 


As I walk through some of our Lessons Learned, make sure that you are starting with your meetings WHY when you consider how this may apply to your event. Ask yourself - what is the true purpose of this meeting? Why does it exist? If you can’t answer that question with conviction, then it will be difficult to apply what I talk about (and as a side note - I can help you there. As a Certified Event Designer I am happy to chat with you on how to design your events with purpose).

 

Back to CFSA, the purpose of this meeting is to connect, network and do business. Which makes it tricky to translate to a virtual experience (more on this later), so we forged ahead in person. I have broken our lessons learned into a few categories to help tell the story. We begin with their first experience on-site with us:


  • Registration. Traditionally this would be a high touch situation - a warm welcome and meet and greet with staff and volunteers. Instead we eliminated volunteers from the mix and concentrated on minimizing risk. We created a flow of stations for picking up badges, collateral, etc., culminating in a spot for an anonymous survey for us to collect some data. Our survey showed 64% of attendees were Fully Vaccinated;  8% Partially Vaccinated; and 28% were Unvaccinated. Our total attendance was down from the last in-person conference by about 35%, which was actually better than we had anticipated. Overall we saw a small percent of cancellations and although we publicized that there would be no on-site registrations, we did accept a small amount under the condition that they read, signed and agreed to abide by the Attendee Code of Conduct.


  • Communication. There is a statistic that is shared in the Project Management world that says 90% of every project (read this as an event) is communications. And in the midst of a Global Pandemic, this is even more crucial. Emily shared the many ways we communicated in advance of the conference, so I will focus my comments on the in-person portion. We increased signage onsite, in addition to the reminders that were shared by the property we used catchy signs to remind attendees to stay 6 feet apart, when it was appropriate to wear masks and an enlarged version of the Attendee Code of Conduct. We also used verbal reminders from the podium on when it was appropriate to be wearing a mask and included a looping powerpoint with these reminders. As part of our Duty of Care promise, we had plenty of PPE on-hand, but we didn’t have to use it as attendees came prepared.


  • Room Set and F&B: Something to keep in mind as you plan your meal functions - the more eating, the less mask wearing. That may or may not influence your planning, but it wasn’t something that we had considered. Due to the flow of the event we wanted to keep with the buffet concept, but also wanted to accommodate any participants who may not be comfortable with that option, so we offered an option of a plated meal as well (although no attendees objected). We also reworked our floorplans multiple times. With a small trade show, food functions and program in the same room there needed to be an intentional design. We were in a large ballroom that would normally accommodate 1000 people, so we also needed to create a feeling of intimacy while maintaining a safe distance. We added some bar height Networking Pods set off to the side where participants could network, have some quiet time or simply catch up on emails.


  • Post-Con: Part of our Duty of Care and Attendee Code of Conduct was a reminder for participants to let us know if they had experienced any symptoms or test positive for Covid-19 upon returning home. Exhibitor/Sponsor sentiment was positive - although we were all disappointed with a lower turn out, they all agreed that we have to start somewhere. In fact, 100% of those surveyed would recommend this conference. This attendee’s comment sums it up perfectly “I appreciate that we got out and got back to seeing one another again. This of course was a tough time after the past year. I want to thank the staff and Board for moving forward with this.”


  • Digital Extension: Associations will continue to grapple with what Hybrid means to them, and honestly that will mostly be a budget discussion. For CFSA that meant we had to get creative. Because the purpose of this event is mostly networking we decided to create a digital extension of the event that we called Follow-Up Friday. This was held in an interactive virtual platform (Remo) and included networking time, virtual booths (the same ones that were at the in-person event) and fresh content with an industry insider. All those who attended in person were free and everyone else paid a nominal fee. In addition we live streamed the Awards portion of the in-person over Facebook Live and captured many photos and video snippets that will be packed into a wrap-up video for the entire membership.


Overall the biggest lesson we learned is to begin as you mean to go - remember, all eyes are on us, make sure that we are creating a safe and inclusive environment for our participants. Set the tone early and stress expectations. As Emily mentioned in Part 1 - the level of comfort is as diverse as your participants - do your best to meet them where they are. And stop trying to cram so much into your event schedules - allow more time for conversations (at a safe distance of course) and less distraction. Face to Face meetings are making a comeback, but let’s not forget all that we learned over the last year, nothing will ever be the way we have always done it, and that is ok.


Reach out to Emilie if you want to talk about Meetings, Events and Nonprofit Management!

 
 

Author

Emilie Perkins, CMP, CAE, CMM
Emilie Perkins, CMP, CAE, CMM, PMP, CED
Director of Client & Conference Services at Raybourn Group International

 
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