Healing the Meetings and Events Industry: Reopening Post-COVID-19

By Kaitlyn Wallace

As I’m sure we are all tired of hearing, the COVID-19 pandemic that has swept through much of the US and globe at large has caused an unprecedented lockdown of businesses and nonessential services in most states. However, after weeks of readjusting, struggling, and turmoil, one by one, states are beginning to lift stay-at-home orders. With this change, businesses everywhere must find new ways to adapt to the post COVID-19 world that we will soon be living in.

This is particularly true for the meetings and events industry, which has previously relied heavily on gathering in large groups and interpersonal interactions. And though formal social distancing guidelines will eventually come to an end, we must reconcile ourselves with the new awareness (and sometimes, fear) of large gatherings that is likely to last for some time in the post-lockdown world. To this end, we have compiled some suggested guidelines for beginning to navigate the new landscape for large-scale meetings and events in a post-COVID-19 world.

Acknowledging Experiences

The first step to re-opening for large gatherings is to understand the wide variety of viewpoints and experiences that will be brought by your attendees. Many will have strictly followed guidelines– working from home, supporting local businesses from a distance, wearing masks in public, and doing a lot of thorough sanitization. Though many of these potential attendees will have made it through the pandemic relatively calmly, others– particularly those who are vulnerable or who have close friends or family who are vulnerable– will have been through an experience of extreme stress, which will at the very least, decrease the likelihood that they will feel comfortable easing back into “normal” life.

Other workers, particularly in the medical field, will have been deemed essential. While their lives might have in some ways been less affected by the pandemic by keeping a regular work schedule, they too might have faced extreme conditions of stress due to increased risk of infection.

Still others might have gotten sick, or had family or friends spend time in the hospital. Perhaps they are dealing with grief or financial fall-out from the crisis. Perhaps they have gotten used to limiting non-essential outings. Or perhaps they are ready to celebrate the new, post-lockdown opportunities to get out and experience life again the way they used to.

This wide variety of circumstances will bring with it a wide variety of comfort levels attending large scale events. From people ready to jump back in to a highly social lifestyle to those who are determined to continue to self-quarantine, the post-lockdown viewpoints of potential attendees will affect their willingness to attend events, and must be considered carefully in order to properly accommodate the needs of all guests.

Taking Protective Measures

The second step is to carefully tailor your event information to make attendees feel as comfortable as possible. This means emphasizing protective (and practical) safety steps. Of course, these include commonly-cited measures such as frequent and thorough sanitation measures, requiring or providing masks, and, at least for events immediately post-lockdown, finding ways to spread attendees six feet apart, such as creative seating configurations and limiting numbers of guests. But they also include industry-specific measures, like providing a virtual option for attendees who are either vulnerable or still too stressed to attend mass gatherings or making a recording available. Other options include breaking up attendees over multiple break rooms rather than a single conference hall and having a refund option available for attendees to stay home if they begin to develop symptoms.

For meetings and conventions specifically, offering education and training on business sanitation, recovering from economic shock, and more COVID-related content will both draw attendees and be of great help to businesses which have been hurt by the economic effects of the pandemic. If possible, events such as concerts and sporting events can advertise and provide COVID-19 relief by lowering prices for attendees, making or matching donations, or committing to several smaller events rather than one large gathering. These measures will both help draw attendees and contribute to the communities which have supported events in the past. In a similar vein, all meetings and events should be conscious about the use of vendor services; where possible, planners should try to continue to use caterers, lighting and sound, security, etc. and provide them with safe working conditions (providing masks, sanitation equipment, and space). This will both help relieve community hardship and strengthen the relationships you have already built with vendors. All of us rely on large-scale gatherings, and we can only reignite interest and attendance in these events together.

Following Through

Perhaps most importantly, planning and coordination must be tighter than ever. We are living in a time where the stakes in every industry are higher than ever; mismanaging space considerations and numbers of attendees, in particular, will not only create confusion and annoyance at events, but also could now constitute a public health hazard. Particularly for events such as concerts and sporting events, which can under normal circumstances gather crowds of thousands of people, it is worth hiring extra help or taking extra time to double check every planning item on your list.

Following through on anti-COVID procedures to the letter is of the utmost importance as well. There will certainly be undercurrents of tension and fear in the back of every attendee’s mind, which can either be assuaged or heightened depending on success or failure of anti-COVID measures in the first large scale events. If these events encounter problems with sanitation and/or attendee numbers, it will reflect poorly not only on the planners, but also on the industry as a whole; a few early disasters, and the meetings and events industry could be blacklisted as “too dangerous,” and face a much slower re-opening than other industries. Therefore, returning well on any anti-COVID promises made in the event information is of the utmost importance in this uncertain time.

Understanding and Optimism

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is important at this stage to keep expectations low and hopes high. We must acknowledge that it will take time to heal our industry; many of our potential attendees will have faced high stress and heavy financial burdens, and will be focused on keeping their heads above water rather than spending additional funds on events. But as we show, slowly, that we as an industry are taking precautions seriously, and that safety is our top priority, people will begin to funnel back into the events that they have always loved to attend. We must operate under the assumption that slowly, but certainly, our industry will begin to recover, provided we are able to reassure our attendees of safety. With every planner, every hotel and convention center, with every attendee, too, taking the situation seriously, we can collectively begin to build confidence in our industry and in each other, and we can begin the journey towards returning to normal.

MM&E

Kaitlyn Wallace is a contributing writer/editor from St. Louis.

About the author

Joe Clote

Joseph W. Clote is owner of Publishing Concepts, LLC a communications and marketing firm based in Saint Louis, Missouri. Mr. Clote is Group Publisher of MeetMed™ and Missouri Meetings & Events™ (MM&E) magazine, a quarterly publication read by thousands of meeting and event professionals, and producer of the St. Louis and Kansas City trade shows under the MM&E name. Mr. Clote has extensive sales and marketing expertise in the travel, tourism, fine art, insurance, and software development industries.