By Sara Romo, CMP
When the entire nation shutdown in mid-March, the hospitality industry took one of the hardest hits due to the halt of travel, meetings, and events. However, as more information on COVID-19 became public, government health organizations established policies which reduced the number of cases, and hence, allowed people to slowly begin meeting again. In turn, the hospitality industry could get back to doing what it does best: serving others face-to-face.
Breaking Out of the Computer Screen
Although Zoom, Geniecast, and a plethora of other online platforms allowed associates to continuing meeting during the lockdown, none of these methods allowed them to feel the same sentiments which come from face-to-face interactions. The desire to see others up close and in-person is part of human nature. Luckily, we will not be trapped behind the computer screen forever.
Public venues have started re-welcoming guests to conduct invaluable social, recreational, corporate, and association events, and the new policies and practices they have adapted enable them to continue operating under the pandemic. Hospitality professionals from Cape Girardeau, St. Louis, St. Charles, Kansas City, and the Lake of the Ozarks were interviewed to determine just how events are coming back to Missouri.
Playing in Cape Girardeau
Even though most of the large events in the area are sports related, Cape Girardeau is excited to support youth sports activities, and thus, help bring back events. Cape began hosting tournaments in June as restrictions lifted and additional cleaning measures were implemented. Most teams came from states within driving distance, such as upper Indiana, Kentucky, Arkansas, and other surrounding areas, according to Brenda Newbern from the Cape Girardeau CVB. Sports ranged from softball, baseball, volleyball, and basketball. Volleyball and basketball tournaments often occurred every other weekend.
Newbern reported that “some [tournaments] were the largest tournaments for some of our promoters that they have ever had in our area”, such as the Reebok Series summer final which gathered as many as 500+ people. Economically, the area has greatly benefited from these events, and restaurants staying busy with their takeout service is just one example.
Functions in St. Louis and Kansas City
Once restrictions were clarified, eased, and lifted, businesses and families were able to begin hosting events again. Christie Pink from The Ritz Carlton, St. Louis reported hosting as many as 42 events since May.
Weddings, board meetings, and trainings were the primary types of events to come back, and the technology, infrastructure/logistics, and military industries make up some of the major contributors that are helping bring back business to the area. However, both sides of the state are still not seeing many Fortune 500 companies meeting quite yet.
Todd Hotaling from Lodging Hospitality Management indicated that these smaller companies may not have a large enough office space to accommodate attendees per social distancing guidelines, and thus, large hotel meeting rooms help meet this demand through their ability to space out attendees. While the need to maintain distance remains prevalent, hotels are well equipped with the necessary space.
Similar types of events are also occurring in Kansas City. Derek Klaus from Visit KC reported that many of their bookings involve corporations, associations, and sports groups. Although 152,000 room nights were lost due to cancellations, Kansas City has been successful in reclaiming this business. According to Klaus, “We have successfully rebooked 50 groups into the future that represents about 53,000 room nights, and about $37 million in economic impact.” Additionally, 27 groups were looking to reschedule their event in Kansas City when we spoke with him. This industry may have been hit hard, but the return of meetings is assisting with the recovery process.
Although fewer events are booked than previous years, the functions that are happening demonstrate the continued value of meeting in-person. These face-to-face interactions capture unique life moments, key decision meetings, and necessary training for certifications that tend to yield more impact than virtual gatherings.
The Return of Conventions and Tradeshows in St. Charles
The St. Charles Convention Center has hosted multiple events in the last few months, and they recently installed AtmosAir, an air ionization technology. They are the first venue in the region to invest in this purification technology which acts as a continuous disinfectant to reduce airborne and surface contaminants. Because St. Charles’ safety initiatives, this city has facilitated more than 50 in-person events since May.
From the leisure side, Main Street reopened on May fourth and has allowed visitors to enjoy their variety of restaurants and shops within this historic town. St. Charles looks forward to showing more of its charm as it continues to host safe events in the historic district. Main Street hosted its Legends & Lanterns festival in October and plans to host its Christmas Traditions outdoor events this December.
Accommodating Travelers in Lake of the Ozarks
Similar to St. Louis, social events such as weddings and family reunions were the first to return. Association events began its comeback by July. The Margaritaville Lake Resort, alone, reported 99 different groups meeting at its facility between mid-March and September. The types of groups included social, sports, associations, corporate, and government/military.
Although not every group involved a meeting room, this brought guests back to their facility, and many travelers came from surrounding states similar to Cape. The Midwest region has retained its significance because of it is easy drive and serves as a midway point for many states within the country. The Lake of the Ozarks and other areas look forward to bringing back more travelers.
Maintaining Safety as the Standard
Venues within each region continue to update their sanitation practices to ensure they are in accordance with local government and CDC guidelines. These facilities have a mask mandate in public, indoor areas of the hotel, in addition to multiple hand sanitizer stations placed throughout. Even more so, cleaning personnel walk throughout the hotel to re-sanitize high-touch areas. Most hotels do a temperature check on their employees before they start their workday, and staff are required to wear a mask the entire time. Signage is placed throughout facilities to remind guests of mask mandates, social distancing, and single traffic flow, and additionally, several venues have plexi-glass installed for an added layer of protection at front desk check-ins, meeting registration tables, and food counters. From talking with each of these hospitality professionals, it is evident that all of them have closely abided by government public health policies set from the local to the national level.
Overall, food service has changed to minimize contact without altering quality. For example, a server will now walk with a guest through a buffet line so a guest receives his plate after the server has plated it for them. This eliminates the self-service component of multiple people touching the same serving utensils. The most common meals these venues serve guests are also pre-packaged, designed for attendees to grab and go. For planners looking to add a higher level of service, plated dinners are still available. However, condiments and dressings are now served tableside by a server, rather than on the table. Each of these measures organized by venues demonstrates their attention to detail and ingenuity to find the safest ways of serving guests.
Keeping it Clean
New air filtration systems, cleaning mechanisms, and accreditations are helping venues set themselves apart in cleanliness. For example, the St. Charles Convention Center invested in AtmosAir, an air ionization system within the HVAC system to purify indoor air. Many sports complexes, airports, and hotels have adopted this system, which is known to reduce the risk of COVID by 99.92%. The convention center also invested in UV lights as an added layer of protection to remove microorganisms. Electrostatic sprayers are used frequently to disinfect high-touch areas such as doors, chairs, and tables, and a Powerbreezer, a fog type machine with disinfectant, is used to thoroughly sanitize a room overnight. Other properties have found other ways to enhance their cleaning measures as well.
Many extensive cleaning standards have been set by Marriott and Hilton brands. Properties managed by Lodging Hospitality Management, who have properties that abide by these standards, deep clean their meeting rooms and then seal the room with a sticker to ensure clients are the first to enter the room following disinfection. To further ease guests’ discomfort, one can expect to find a set of hand sanitizing wipes ready for use inside a guest room at the Ritz Carlton, St. Louis.
Proving their standards are credible, some properties are obtaining a GBAC STAR accreditation. The Global Biorisk Advisory Council created this evaluation to ensure a viable system is in place for cleaning, disinfection, and infectious disease prevention within a facility. Properties that achieve this accreditation have proved they have effective measures in place. The list of facilities with this rating are listed on the GBAC website.
Within Missouri area, Arrowhead Stadium and Overland Park Convention Center have achieved this rating, while several Hyatt properties throughout Missouri and Explore St. Louis have committed to reaching it. Venues want to keep guests comfortable, and these various measures demonstrate how diligent each property is being to maintain the highest level of safety and comfort.
Tips From a Local Planner
To see how these measures have impacted planners, we spoke with Morgan Mundell from the Missouri Limestone Producers Association. He shared some insight on how, within his recent event for the association, he added additional safety measures and modified plans.
First, attendees participated in a temperature check to establish wellbeing. The group used one ballroom for almost all meetings, and attendees had one seat where they were encouraged to sit every time, with no more than four people at a ten-foot round table. Masks were given out as necessary, and the Margaritaville Resort in the Lake of the Ozarks had hand sanitization stations set up throughout. The association offered more in-house meals to keep attendees within the facility, in addition to offering most meal functions outside.
To help members abide by their company’s travel restrictions, the annual summer meeting subtracted a day of its event since some companies did not allow employees to stay overnight in a hotel. In turn, the meeting started Wednesday morning and finished by Thursday afternoon so that, if a member was not able to stay, they could at least enjoy at least a full day’s worth of meeting. Mundell’s best advice to planners is “be aware of your membership attitude.”
By doing so, the association was able to implement appropriate cleaning and safety measures to make his members felt safe and had a desire to come. Overall, he and his members were happy with Margaritaville Resort’s support through their effective communication on guidelines and helping execute the event plan.
Bring Back Meetings
Whether your next event is social, recreational, or business, rethink hosting it online. Meeting spaces have adapted and implemented measures to help your guests feel as safe as possible. Who knows, by keeping it in-person, you may see an increase in attendance like the Limestone Association did. Screens may have come in handy while we looked to understand the virus, but it is time to get back to meeting face-to-face to truly have an impactful event.
Bringing Back Meetings with Safety and Optimism
“We want to make sure that everyone’s being safe, first and foremost; we want to take care of our guests and our ladies and gentlemen and make sure that we’re keeping everyone as healthy as possible.”
⁃ Christie Pink, The Ritz Carlton, St. Louis
“People want to get out of the office. People want to network they want to go to association meetings and senior colleagues and see their peers and engage in educational opportunities, and one of the things that was interesting, both for our golf tournament and our summer meeting was that we had greatly increased attendance.”
-Morgan Mundell, Limestone Producers Assoc.
“We’re really excited about this KC clean commitment, and the region coming together to this show that you know we’re behind and supportive of this industry.”
⁃ Derek Klaus, Visit KC
“I think that’s what is the big thing for us it’s just to ensure that they have confidence in what we’re trying to do for them, because then they have to obviously bring in guests and their clients if they’re having a meeting for people attendees that those people have to feel comfortable. We’re trying to create that comfortable environment and we’re willing to do anything to make them feel more comfortable.
We’re just really encouraged that your clients do want to meet still and they have these meetings and we’re, we’re excited to work with people to come up with an experience that exceeds expectations while keeping everybody safe.”
-Todd Hotaling, LHM
“We’ve had planners and destinations reach out to us and ask, what are you doing, and can you still hold meetings? We are still holding meetings and encouraging safety precautions within our destination and venues. Our destination has been successful in holding events and providing site tours safely since May.”
-Joanie Ohlms, St. Charles CVB
Sara Romo, CMP is a contributing writer in St. Louis and a meeting and event professional.