By Kaitlyn Wallace
As the country watches newly reopened states with bated breath, every industry is scrambling to adjust to ever-changing health and safety measures behind the scenes. This is particularly true for the meetings and events industry, which has historically relied on large gatherings with high levels of interpersonal contact– all of which are inadvisable and even dangerous in the COVID-19 era. Showing admirable adaptability, however, meetings and events leaders have quickly shifted focus, developing new guidelines, new priorities, and new connections in order to keep our guests and clients safe. To this end, we have compiled seven of the most important considerations for meetings and events post-COVID-19 in hopes of promoting safe and good business practices for planners and professionals around the country.
1. Time and Space
As we all know, the number one challenge for meetings and events post-lockdown is social distancing. In order to follow guidelines, meetings and events must revise their traditional format. General sessions will need to be staggered and repeated for smaller groups. Breakout sessions might have to be broken down even further and broadcasted throughout several smaller rooms. Seating plans, too, will have to be revised and reimagined in order to spread attendees six feet apart, at least immediately post-lockdown. This could include a sparse theater-style arrangement, roundtables operating at highly reduced capacity, or a spaced-out circular arrangement. In general, meetings and events will have to be smaller, spread out, and will likely take more time in order to allow for smaller groups of attendees to cycle through the same sessions.
2. Food and Beverage
Another substantial challenge in establishing “the new normal” for meetings and events is the role of food and beverage services– meetings and events cornerstones such as buffet service and self-serve coffee breaks may be a thing of the past. But while food and beverage can be one of the most critical areas of disease prevention, it is also important to continue to support caterers and other food services that we have relied on in the past.
However, we certainly cannot continue providing food and beverage in the same way. As Chasley Bradbury, Vice President of Cosmopolitan Experiences, told me as we spoke over the phone, “[all aspects of] meeting and event planning will look different, indefinitely… Our entire world has changed, and new norms will be established in our everyday life and workplace.” For example, instead of buffet service and self-serve coffee breaks, she suggests meals and coffee breaks being delivered to guest rooms at hotel events, “French-style” service (including individual delivery of all food) from waiters wearing masks and gloves, or reducing table accessories such as condiments, bread plates, and other nonessential surfaces which may be touched by multiple guests.
No COVID-19 discussion would be complete without mention of the importance of sanitation. Particularly for meetings and events, which even under “the new normal” will likely have some of the highest concentrations of people anywhere, thorough sanitation is essential. This may further lengthen the timeframe of events by adding necessary sanitation time between breakout sessions and between general session cycles. In order to minimize this transition time, it might be necessary to decrease the surface area available for contamination. This might mean, for example, replacing roundtable seating with theater-style (removing tables will reduce sanitation time) or propping open doors in order to minimize contact with handles. But no matter how many measures are taken to minimize surface area, longer transition times will be unavoidable, and will need to be taken into account when planning a schedule.
One of our greatest tools for reducing contamination is technology. On a wide scale, many meetings may be held virtually (over Zoom or related platforms), recorded, or broadcast to select audiences. Guests may be greeted by recorded messages or might take home virtual business cards by email or AirDrop. Planners might use check-in apps to minimize lines, and hotels will likely start using touchless virtual key cards. The options are endless; as Bradbury reminded me, industry leaders are willing to explore “anything that can be live and engaging and can keep attendees accountable for their attention. It’s important that we engage as humanly as possible.”
5. Reinventing Promo Products
While it’s true that “going paperless” has been an increasing trend throughout the last few years for sustainable purposes, the current pandemic will likely force us to completely transition away from many traditional items such as lanyards and printed promotion. Planners and sponsors will have to find inventive ways to replace them, including exploring virtual options such as digital business cards, emailing or AirDropping flyers, or using QR codes to touchlessly navigate attendees towards relevant sites.
Another option for replacing traditional promotional products is to emphasize sanitation; once considered boring or easily forgotten merchandise, hand sanitizers, face masks, and tissue dispensers are now valuable safety products. Utilizing them as promotional products will work not only as effective branded content, but also as a way to show guests that safety is your priority– a message that will be essential for the entire meetings and events industry immediately post-lockdown.
6. Team Building and Socializing
Team building exercises, too, have traditionally relied on personal contact and close proximity, and will have to be reconfigured in the coming months. Bradbury suggested that while events such as cocktail receptions and happy hours may be a thing of the past, team building can still happen– for example, virtually, from inside an attendee’s hotel room. Other options include spoken exercises, which allow participants to be in the same room while staying six feet apart, or exercises that adopt a sanitation focus (such as making face masks as a group). This could also include building in time for socializing during the many hand-washing or sanitizing breaks that will likely become necessary in order to ensure that all events stay safe, healthy and virus-free.
The days of the corporate handshake might be on hold. Unfortunately, touchless alternatives such as the elbow bump or a simple wave have not taken off, so setting a standard for your meeting beforehand or during check-in might help attendees remind themselves to guard against old habit. Alternatives include a simple wave, the slightly more fun “foot tap”, or, for a more educational change, planners can incorporate simple sign language for “nice to meet you,” or “hello.” Either way, ensuring that professionals maintain their distance when greeting will help minimize contact and maximize safety at the first meetings and events post-lockdown.
As planners and events professionals, we are used to adapting and adjusting to client needs at the drop of a hat. But as Chasley Bradbury reminded me: “We aren’t held to the standard of Plan A and Plan B anymore. We have to constantly re-evaluate and be ready to pivot and react to undefined, unforeseen and sometimes unimaginable circumstances.” Meetings and events, at least for the near future, are no longer just about keeping clients and guests happy. They are now central to public health, and require flexibility, imagination, and adaptability from all of us. Though the industry is no doubt going through a historic change, it is our responsibility– both by following the tips above and by imagining our own new and innovative solutions– to define the meetings and events industry for the future, and to make sure that that definition is one of safety, accountability, and health.
Kaitlyn Wallace is a contributing writer from St. Louis.