Here’s one thing we know: The recent pandemic has forced businesses of all types to alter the way they are doing business for the safety of their employees, patrons and other partners. And the meetings and events industry is no exception. As the industry continues to evolve as the pandemic brings new restrictions throughout the country, more and more association planners realize that the “show must go on.” So they are turning to creating safe outdoor events that will keep attendees coming back for more.
Tammy Dickerson, CMP, founder and lead meeting planner at The Baker Group Events (tbg), oversees various affairs for clients — from installations and social galas to fundraisers and corporate conferences. According to Dickerson, due to COVID-19, many planners are looking at options to host meetings and events outdoors. But, there are many key things that association planners should consider when selecting outdoor venues. For Dickerson, the first thing to consider is the weather. “While there are many things in our control as event planners, the weather is definitely not one of them. Having outdoor events is not something new, but prior to COVID-19, a back-up plan to undesirable weather conditions was to go to plan B, which was to move everything inside,” Dickerson says. “These days, we do not have that luxury due to the virus.”
So, the key thing to consider when selecting an outdoor venue is if that venue has alternate, outdoor accommodations if the weather goes south. Some of the questions an association planner must ask are the following: Does the venue have ample space for durable tents? Does it have a lot of outdoor power sources? Does it allow for fire pits or gas heaters? Does it have enough drainage in case it rains?
Aside from the weather, other things to consider are name recognition, whether it is in a central location with easy freeway/ street access, and if there is adequate parking for attendees, plentiful adequate restroom facilities, reliable outdoor internet and ample lighting. “If the venue isn’t perfect, you need to have plans B, C and D ready for any mishap that might present itself,” Dickerson says.
Minimalism is Key
Holding a meeting outdoors is pretty similar to the feeling that you might have gotten as a student if a teacher ever decided to hold class outside on a nice day: There’s just some novelty to that event that isn’t there when you’re indoors. Lee Gimpel, meeting planner and founder of Better Meetings, says holding events outdoors might give meeting planners a pretext to do things differently and try new approaches that they might not have been able to get away with in a normal conference center. For example, it’s not unthinkable that a planner could make an argument that lugging all kinds of projectors, microphones and tables out into a field is too difficult or costly. “As a result, the event takes on a more minimalist approach to connecting people — at a safe distance, of course,” Gimpel says. “We can do away with a lot of the artifice of indoor events where the setup makes it easy to add stuff. Hosting outside may force people to look at ‘What’s important at an elemental level?’ rather than ‘What else can we add because it’s easy?’”
One of Meeting Expectations’ most successful and creative outdoor experiences demonstrates how creative thinking can enhance a conference by integrating an outdoor experience. For OATUG’s COLLABORATE, an Oracle User Group conference, Meeting Expectations refreshed and reinvigorated the education component by creating Rivertalks, mobile classrooms set in 30-person tour boats. “We took attendees onto the San Antonio River for selected sessions each day,” says Liz Klostermann, CEM, senior exhibit manager at Meeting Expectations. “The unique learning experiences were so well-received, we ended up having to add additional Rivertalks to accommodate the demand.”
More recently, MPI Georgia, one of Meeting Expectations’ clients, hosted its Fall Classic event, featuring a bocce ball tournament at Georgia’s Barnsley Gardens Resort. Everything was outside, with additional safety protocols including temperature checks, required masks and social distancing. Hand sanitizer and wipes were also abundantly available, and they limited attendance to 50 people. “We enhanced the dining experience while still keeping it safe,” says Tara Zeravsky, CMP, senior association & conference manager at Meeting Expectations. “We created it in a separate area where masks could be removed, with seating safely spread out.”
The benefit to hosting meetings outdoors is that we can all still do the things that we need to do while following federal regulations to slow the spread of the virus. The challenges to hosting meetings outdoors are that, most likely, it is not a controlled environment, which means you have to take into consideration more factors that would not come into play if the meeting were indoors. In essence, the “great outdoors” may not be so “great” when it comes to meetings and events.
As Gimpel explains, a really big challenge to taking events outside is that “you often don’t know what you don’t know until it’s too late.” In a building, if you need running water, working Wi-Fi, or a stable, level place to set up booths or tables, you’re almost guaranteed to have it. “There are a lot of aspects of events that are hard to know or predict when they are outside,” Gimpel says.
In addition, the budget allotted to a meeting or event may not go as far to do an event outside. Things that planners would take for granted inside all of a sudden take a lot of staff time to arrange and require extra fees. This may include bathrooms and trash cans.
Gimpel points out that perhaps the key thing to remember about doing events outside is that the environmental factors are indeed just that – outside your control. “Even the ugliest, most out-of-date hotel or convention center does a pretty good job at blocking wind and rain,” Gimpel says. “And, of course, we’ve built facilities for events to make our lives easier.” The place in the building where the event is being held is right next to a kitchen and bathrooms, and all the power and the connectivity options are already right there. “When you leave those safe confines, it can add an awful lot of uncertainty and logistical complexity,” Gimpel adds. “When you hold an event in a building, you don’t have to spend any time thinking about the logistics of bathrooms; when you do it outside, somebody definitely better be spending time thinking about that.”
Environmental and accessibility challenges aside, there are various ways to ensure that an outdoor meeting meets COVID-19-compliance standards. The first thing would be to make sure the placement of the tables and chairs are significantly distanced from each other. If there are too many chairs at one table, then the guests won’t have enough space to distance themselves from each other. Dickerson recommends that if a table is meant to seat six, only place three to four chairs at the table. And make sure that hand sanitizer is provided at each table. The hand sanitizer can be disguised to match the decor for a personalized touch. “Furthermore, providing masks for the guests is a great way to ensure everyone’s safety,” Dickerson says. “You can also personalize the masks with the company or association’s logo for an added touch. Signage is another way to customize and brand your outdoor space to ensure you are COVID-19 compliant. You can create floor stickers and place them 6 feet apart for guests to stand. There are many companies that provide these services for reasonable prices.”
Anneliese Glaubitz, event producer of experience design at Entire Productions, says the benefits of hosting outdoor events is that it is obviously safer, and can offer new and unique spaces, and opportunities to be creative. “However, in addition to weather concerns, the sound is often not as good for conferences, it can be harder for catering companies outside, the electrical/power has to be brought in and people might not be as careful about COVID boundaries since it’s outside; they may not social distance as much or they may remove their masks,” Glaubitz says.
Mistakes That Hinder Success
One of the most common mistakes today’s association planners make, as it relates to creating safe, outdoor meetings is not taking space into consideration, not having a map of the space or creating a blueprint. As Dickerson explains, to plan a safe event, you have to first know how many people will be on the attendee list. You can multiply that number by six and see how much square footage of space is necessary to throw an event where everyone can keep a safe distance away from other guests. “Another common mistake that some planners make is not having an adequate exit plan,” Dickerson says. “You must always have an emergency/exit plan for both indoors and outdoors for all events of any size. Make sure your team and client understand all these emergency protocols, and how to effectively and calmly communicate to your guests.”
Glaubitz also stresses the importance of continuing to take the same safety measures that you would inside: wear masks at all times, avoid shared-food options, take the temperature of those in attendance — including staff — have attendees fill out questionnaires, keep distance between attendees, and pick a space with room to move around and spread out.
Other considerations include accessibility. “For instance, ensuring your outdoor location is sufficiently separated to avoid foot traffic by others outside of your function, and, if not, determine if security is needed to maintain the perimeter of the event,” Klostermann says. “Planners should also do thorough site visits at times when the venue might be most affected by vehicle traffic, to make sure the event won’t be negatively impacted by outside noise.”
Indeed, Kate Levenstien, CEO and founder of Cannonball Productions, agrees that fencing and/or borders may be required to secure an event. “If the venue is in a park, for instance, it can be difficult to control the border, and might require additional security staffing or a fence,” Levenstien says. “And when producing recent outdoor events for clients, we also work with all municipalities and states to ensure they are following all local policies.” In some locations, even a tent is considered a room, and thus held to the same health guidelines set by the local or state government.
In these times, a lot of meeting planners are changing how and where they’re doing their events. This might mean taking an in-person conference and making it virtual, transferring an event from a convention center to a park, or taking a hybrid approach that may draw on both of these. “A common mistake seems to be starting with the original event as it was planned to be in-person, safely ensconced in a building, and then trying to impose that plan on a new environment, be it online or outdoors,” Gimpel says. “And it doesn’t really work. They’re different.”
So, while a meeting planner doesn’t have to throw everything out and start completely from scratch, it’s still important to think about how to best use the different outdoor environs that are allocated as opposed to trying to stick to the original plan. “For example, you may originally have had someone speaking from a stage, presenting a slideshow, to a seated group of guests having dinner. Yes, you could replicate all of that outside or even online, but I might start instead with asking what that session or the event is really trying to achieve and how best to use the environment to deliver it,” Gimpel says. “You might not need to set up a lectern, speakers, a screen and tables in a field. There might be a different, better way to do what you want to do that’s more suited to the space and may actually make for a better event.”
In light of the continuing pandemic gripping the nation, many meeting professionals agree that outdoor meetings will continue to be popular even after the pandemic. As Klostermann points out, this industry is filled with some of the most creative people in the world, and we are seeing so many examples of the industry pivoting to be able to bring people back together. “One of the opportunities that the pandemic has given us is the chance to flex our creative muscles even more,” she says. “Combined with the overall trend toward health and wellness, and the research that shows the benefits of more time spent outside, we believe that, moving forward, outdoors won’t just be a consideration for lunches, receptions and cocktail parties; but can be done creatively for education too.”
Dickerson also thinks people will be more aware of issues of public health, so personal space and cleanliness will be something people will start to consider more during public meetings and events. “Because meeting planners are adjusting to this, I think everyone would have gotten so used to this way of life that outdoor events and meetings will become the norm,” Dickerson says. “Everyone will become outdoor event experts, all the kinks will be worked out, and more people will want to have more outdoor meetings, for their safety and the safety of others.”
While many industry experts think outdoor events are growing in popularity, Gimpel would bet more on online and hybrid events getting a boost in interest, even after we’re able to go back to the in-person events. “It seems like there’s a clearer case that online events offer new and different advantages, but needed critical mass to gain acceptance,” Gimpel says. “On the other hand, I don’t know that people are going to see outdoor events with brand new eyes and lasting enthusiasm when they’re able to go back to in-person spaces that make events easier to run. A lot of places will only afford a very narrow time of year when it’s going to be workable to do outdoor events because of cold or snow, or rain or heat, or humidity. If outdoor events were such a great option, no one would have built convention centers in the first place.” | AC&F |