As meetings and events begin to gear up as the COVID-19 vaccinations are available, sights are turning to hosting very large-scale or city-wide events — think Coachella in Indio, California; Comic-Con International, in San Diego; and the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas. To make these huge meetings, conventions and events successful, there are key things meeting planners need to keep in mind as they begin planning for late 2021, and into 2022 and beyond.
Dena Lowery, chief operating officer for Opus Agency, a global agency delivering meeting and event experiences for 13 of the world’s top 20 most valuable brands, including Amazon, CES, Google, Microsoft, SAP and Salesforce, says that across these clients and more, the Opus Agency team has executed numerous large-scale flagship events that take over cities and get the industry talking. “We have not executed in-person large-scale events post-pandemic, but have several on the books starting late fall,” Lowery says. “The appetite for gathering is picking up steam. Humans are ready to connect, and brands are ready for large-scale engagement.”
Yet, for large-scale events, the “playbooks” need to be reimagined. As Lowery explains, by their nature, these large-scale programs grew over time — their strategies and experience design were evolving as the size of the audience grew. “These events are not starting from scratch; they are not facing a complete rebuild. Yet, for the large-scale programs that our teams are working on, we are still going back to the foundation to renovate our way back up,” Lowery says. This means event strategy and design are taking center stage. They are refreshing their understanding of audience segments. They are asking fundamental and big questions: Who will need and want to network? Who is the audience for the keynote? Is training better facilitated in a virtual environment? What is required for the sponsorships sold?”
Internally, there are also a lot of questions needing to be answered. The businesses behind these large-scale events are considering: Is it safe? Will people come? How do they manage budgets for the unknown? Is an event this large even necessary? “Our recommendation for planners of large-scale and city-wide events is to make sure they are asking big, provoking and often uncomfortable questions,” Lowery says. “Spend the time with those questions. Spend the time workshopping and exploring the answers. And, in the programs we are bringing back, we see that big questions are getting big answers — which is just what high-profile, large-scale events require in a re-emerging world.”
According to Steve Drew, assistant executive director of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), who helps plan various large-scale meetings for this association, when orchestrating large-scale or city-wide events, it is important to develop key goals and objects, including prioritizing the objectives of the event in categories such as “must have,” “nice to have” and “future idea.” The annual RSNA Meeting and Scientific Assembly is the largest medical imaging forum in the world, and attracts nearly 25,000 attendees worldwide. It is planned for late November to early December this year in Chicago. “You also want to evaluate the education program as part of the large-scale event — if applicable — and determine content format needed to reach the broadest audience via face-to-face or virtually,” Drew says.
Ryan Costello, co-founder of Event Farm, says the most important considerations meeting planners need to keep in mind while planning large-scale events in 2022 are safety and budgeting. “The pandemic altered large-scale events in a number of ways, from event infrastructure to attendee engagement to budgeting,” Costello says. “It has forced event planners to consider all aspects of planning with the primary consideration of attendee health and safety.”
Costello adds that planners need to show attendees how serious they are about their safety, and reassure them that they can come to the event with confidence. “This means building attendee confidence through an on-site communication plan, attendee code of conduct and added safety measures,” he says. “Planners need to allocate budget for new health and safety technology.”
Katherine Kirk Fenech, managing member of Chicago Is … LLC, a global DMC partner, says a trend that will be here to stay — at least for a while — are shorter planning windows with city-wide events. After 2020, planning something a year out seems daunting. Attendees will ask themselves: “What could happen in the next year after living through a chaotic and unpredictable 2020?”
“What will be here forever?” Kirk Fenech asks, answering, “Well, hand sanitizer. Cleaning protocol is here to stay. While we are burnt out on talking about washing our hands, the communication of what steps have been implemented to create a clean and healthy space will be a requirement. Social and environmental impact will be a new trend for the industry. Planners and attendees will ask, ‘How does this event impact the environment?’ as well as if this program is socially conscious.”
Lowery also sees large-scale, city-wide events being altered forever due to the pandemic in three ways:
While event teams, such as those at Opus Agency, have been building health and safety plans for large-scale events for years as venues have always required these types of plans, the health and safety plans post-pandemic will become more detailed. “The pandemic has created a need to think through the well-being of everyone, not just attendees, and make adaptable plans,” Lowery says.
Costello says planners can implement a variety of different tactics to help attendees feel safe at events, including the following:
Pre-pandemic content at large-scale events was delivered live to an in-person audience, with the keynote being broadcast to a virtual audience. That was the pre-pandemic version of a hybrid event. “Post-pandemic, large-scale events are offering various methods of content dissemination, including content that is delivered live, onstage and exclusive to the in-person audience; content that is simulcast to a hybrid audience; pre-recorded content that is included in the virtual experience; and content that is available on-demand for viewing post-event,” Lowery says.
The audience for city-wide, large-scale events going forward will be a mix of in-person and virtual attendees. “While the hybrid events allow for a broader audience reach, engaging two audiences requires a much more sophisticated strategy,” Lowery says. “Meeting planners will want to make the virtual audience feels as special and engaged as the in-person audience, while recognizing that those are two very distinct audiences that require different strategies and agendas.”
In light of the pandemic, large-scale events are offering hybrid options for attendees, as they have been doing so for years. Keynotes have been broadcast, sessions have been captured and cataloged, remote watch parties have been integrated and more. “Yet, now hybrid events are becoming more sophisticated as we figure out how to amplify the message, disseminate the content and engage both audiences,” Lowery says.
As such, A/V components will play a key role in future city-wide events. Tina Luppino, founder and president, The AV Firm, says meeting planners need to be sure they keep scalable A/V components based on size and local government guidelines in their destination city on their radar. If the government moves to another shut down or stricter capacity regulations, your technology partner needs to be able to offer a virtual meeting or a hybrid blend of both on the fly. These options should be outlined in the initial RFP and part of contract considerations. “Room diagrams need to allow for social distancing when meeting and exhibit space allows for a larger footprint,” Luppino says. “Larger-scale meeting space than what you typically book is ideal for accomplishing this, and also allows for better traffic flow, air flow, etc. If room capacity is limited, then add overflow satellite rooms.”
It also has never been more crucial to ask for crowd-flow management diagrams. Again, this needs to be a scalable consideration at the onset of your planning phase. Luppino recommends meeting planners consider the addition of signage to instruct crowd flow. This can be illustrated the same as the rules of the road — one direction on the left and the opposite direction on the right — with areas to pull off if individuals want to stop and have a conversation.
Touchscreens and high-contact technology also will need to be considered for large city-wide events. As Luppino explains, there is new technology, including a hover screen for iPads, roving UV lights, downloadable apps that will run hotel room TV remotes, capacity counters that monitor how many attendees enter rooms, and temperature-screening kiosks for high-traffic areas. There are name badges that transfer contact information without having to transfer a physical business card, and programs that can show ideal social distancing.
While large social events can be hybrid, let’s be honest, it is just not the same to watch something such as fireworks or a concert on a screen. Kirk Fenech says for large events focused on entertainment, the hybrid model will be an uphill battle to stand out and engage over all of the other streaming entertainment available. “On the other hand, large-scale meetings will find success in the hybrid space. This is because content and education are key drivers to their success, which can be successfully produced in a hybrid model,” Kirk Fenech says. “Guests who cannot attend a large educational meeting can now get the same education from a hybrid platform. It can provide a new pool of guests who may have scheduling conflicts that would have otherwise prevented them from attending. The experience will always be more engaging in person, but education can be effective virtually.”
Networking also will be redesigned, as the industry is moving to a new way of meeting like-minded people in large-scale events. Software is being engineered so meeting attendees fill out a pre-event survey, which will result in connecting attendees via an algorithm — fostering a quicker connection during an in-person or virtual meeting. “Most future large-scale meetings are going to need to allow for a hybrid approach due to comfort level and travel restrictions. The positive will be that we will now develop efficient ways to move our crowds,” Luppino says. “This next generation of planners are learning to adopt new ideas, and will be the pioneers of redirecting from a ‘We have always done it that way’ mindset.”
Of course, virtual conferences don’t have the same capabilities or experiences as in-person meetings, but it can certainly be executed in a hybrid format. These events can deliver content from general sessions, but the quality of the virtual experience is key in keeping people engaged. Virtual exhibit halls, where attendees can utilize an appointment-based model to connect with others, is a unique way to encourage networking and socializing, so you can still get some “face time.”
Dan Fenton, executive vice president & director of global tourism and destination development services at JLL Hotels & Hospitality, says hybrid events have also opened doors for many who may not be able to make the conference in person. In fact, some hybrid conferences and large-scale events have seen spikes in attendance due to the virtual capability. But the question remains on how to make operations seamless. “It’s important to establish a ‘plug-and-play’ model to help structure hybrid meetings or book venues/spaces with the infrastructure already in place for a virtual production,” Fenton says. “Some meeting centers and venues are now building production studios in their spaces to better support and enable hybrid events.” Incorporating the “plug-and-play” notion or leveraging already built-in production studios in meeting spaces can help streamline the process. That’s why Fenton says meeting planners also need to be realistic in the capabilities of a hybrid meeting, including what content you are able to share. In addition, it’s important to have access to a good online platform. Understanding what you need to be effective in your hybrid event is critical. “Sometimes meeting planners shy away from virtual meetings due to these technical complications and the potential costliness at venues,” Fenton says. Look for large-scale host meeting spaces throughout a city that offer progressive spaces that are adopting technology and have built-in production studios, as these places can help mitigate some of the challenges facing virtual meetings today.
As the various strains of the pandemic continue to emerge and wreak havoc in cities across the U.S., planners should familiarize themselves with the COVID-19 guidelines specific to the city and venue where they are hosting a large-scale event. Lowery suggests planners find larger spaces for fewer people to allow for social distancing. They should also think about how the food is being distributed — boxed meals that are grab-and-go being the ideal delivery method during the ongoing pandemic. Hand sanitizer should also be readily available. “And planners need to determine whether or not they’ll require attendees to test for COVID,” Lowery says.
Fenton says research has shown that people are hungry for social interaction, and have felt isolated during the pandemic. Now that many parts of the country have reduced COVID restrictions, it’s key that the industry continues to keep the improved health and wellness standards in place. “Reverting back to ‘old ways’ isn’t a good move for the industry, and in order to be strategic, it must listen to the needs and concerns of attendees that are now hyper-sensitive to cleanliness,” Fenton says. “Understanding how these viruses and sicknesses transmit is vital, and it will remain top-of-mind for attendees. Maintaining regular cleaning schedules and providing very accessible hand sanitizer and other cleaning resources for attendees will help them feel comfortable.”
And as Luppino alluded to, there are pre-event and on-site technologies, such as CLEAR, coming into play to help planners manage large-scale events. CLEAR has a product that links COVID-19 health information to biometric identifiers, such as your face, eyes and fingerprints. It will allow attendees who feel fine to pass quickly through checkpoints that screen for sick and infectious people. The idea is to automate a daily health screening task to make it easier, quicker and contactless. “The venues themselves are at the forefront in helping attendees feel safe,” Lowery says. “Soon, they’ll be able to do in-room testing. They will be the ones to push the technology for testing attendees and facilitating the needs of attendees that are not feeling well.”
A common mistake event planners make with city-wide events is underestimating the time it takes to move a large number of humans. It seems really simple, but it takes a lot of planning to figure out how to move large groups of people from place to place. But as Lowery explains, without a proper plan and budget to direct and facilitate movement at large events, spaces get clogged, confusion ensues and your agenda gets derailed. “Planners should consider the psychology of line movement. People are happy when they feel like the line is moving,” Lowery says. “And, now, with more attendees aware of their health and safety, the strategies and experience design for major movements are once again critical to assuring happy attendees and successful events.”
Making assumptions is another big mistake planners can make. As Kirk Fenech explains, every nook in this country has its own unique view on current news and politics. Assuming guests are ready to get out there, or vice versa, can create a disconnect. “As planners, we have to communicate to all backgrounds and ensure the messaging around the program or event goals are clearly stated with the inclusion of safety,” Kirk Fenech says. “It can be a tricky line to navigate making guests feel comfortable without infringing on their own personal decision making. Take the time to clearly craft your messages while not assuming everyone knows what is expected of them, or how the event will run. We are working with new rules in a very different social/political environment, so messaging must be inclusive.”
From those putting on flagship city-wide programs to those creating bespoke moments, the entire meeting and events industry is working through the changing strategies, designs and realities of what it means to bring people together. “More than ever, it is critical for event professionals to be curious, and tap into their vendor and partner networks,” Lowery says. “For our part, we are working through these realities now, and we find value in the open, two-way sharing of insights, inspiration and ideas. Because, together, with more communication than ever before, we will all be learning, making and delivering an unimagined new generation of events.” | AC&F |