Early this year, CES, the annual trade show organized by the Consumer Technology Association at the Las Vegas Convention Center, was expecting more than 150,000 attendees, and wanted to ensure that everyone felt safe — especially with the rising number of COVID-19 cases at the time due to the Omicron variant.
So, the organizers required that everyone at the convention be vaccinated — with proof — and that attendees received a negative test result 24 hours before entering the convention floor. Free rapid COVID tests were presented to all as well, so there could be no excuses.
Actions like these are becoming the norm, as associations, convention facilities and meetings planners are looking to bring people back to live meetings and events. In the beginning of last year, things were still iffy in the meetings planning world. Safety at this time last year meant not having a meeting at all or holding it virtually. “As we moved through 2021 and vaccinations became more prominent, and in-person or hybrid meetings became the norm, safety became social distancing, mask requirements, hand sanitizer everywhere and proof of vaccination or negative COVID tests,” says Kim Becker, CMP, DES, SEPC, MBA, and president/owner of Emerald Meeting & Event Planning. “We were hoping to be through this and get back to some form of normal, and then came Omicron, so we must all continue to be diligent, mask up, get vaccinated, get tested, etc.”
The Albany Capital Center (ACC), located in the heart of downtown Albany, N.Y., is directly connected to the Empire State Plaza Convention Center, The Egg Performing Arts Center and the Times Union Center arena via an enclosed walkway. Together, these spaces create the Capital Complex, the largest meeting space in Upstate New York at more than 159,000 sf of meetings and events space. With many meetings canceled over the last two years due to COVID, the ACC devised a series of safety actions to get people back. “We take safety measures very seriously,” says Ana Messina, senior sales manager at the ACC. “We have conversations with our clients daily about this. With information and state mandates constantly changing for us here in New York, we must be as flexible as possible with our clients and proactively create several plans just in case. As a facility, we ensure safety measures are always in place and strive to provide the best possible experience for our clients.”
The key to a smooth event is to have a clear set of safety regulations that are passed on to all attendees before the meeting. This includes any local and federal regulations associated with the event. Steven Walker, CEO of Spylix, a service facilitating online legal employee monitoring services, held a meeting at the end of last year and took numerous safety precautions, including doubling the seating capacity for social distancing, replacing all the cloth napkins with paper napkins, and providing sanitizer for every employee. “The safety measures proved successful as no one got infected with the virus after the meeting,” he says. “Looking at the threat created by COVID-19, we have given a lot of thought to the safety procedures.” The company has also tried to keep only crucial people involved at the in-person meetings and have arranged virtual accommodations for other employees.
Ryan Costello, co-founder of Event Farm and CSO at MemberSuite, has noticed that when events formally announce safety plans that include requiring vaccination verification and/or negative test results for all attendees, registration rates immediately spike. “We fully expect vaccination verification and negative test result validation to become industry norm,” he says. “Events need to convince attendees they will be safe, and they need to do it very loudly and confidently. Second, there’s an execution issue. Just announcing your safety plans isn’t going to cut it. I’ve heard countless examples of attendees getting all the way to the door and then deciding to turn back when it became clear that the event wasn’t going to be as safe as it advertised. There are lots of eyes on your safety execution. You need to go the extra mile.”
Stephanie Scheller, founder of Grow Disrupt, is a TED Talks speaker who has been a part of the meetings industry for years. She thinks it’s important to recognize that COVID-19 and viral transmissions are not going away anytime soon, but it shouldn’t spell the end of in-person events and meetings. “One thing crucial is a briefing strategy to ensure the staff working the event understand the safety requirements and why they matter,” she says. “We must enlist quality controls to ensure the sanitization and cleaning protocols are followed.”
Scheller notes she has managed 10 major in-person events since the pandemic started, with no viral spread at any of them. That comes from safety standards, including masks, vaccine card checks and rapid COVID tests. Having a checklist to follow and policies clearly laid out, in writing, is the key component in getting in-person events back successfully. The processes necessary, Scheller says, are a pre-event and post-event cleaning routine; screening procedures for event/meeting entry; and contingency plans if health parameters are not met. “We will continue to maintain an elevated level of cleaning and sanitization,” she says. “We will also continue to limit or eliminate on-site handouts as much as possible. We will continue on-site screenings. And most importantly, we’ll continue booking venues that are larger than expected attendance to ensure space to spread out is amply available.”
As a convention center, a major selling point for the ACC is having the ability to offer virtual and hybrid event hosting services, with full streaming capabilities on all platforms, and the ability to find creative solutions and tailor an event to suit a client’s specific needs. But, Messina notes that it’s the safety features that really draw attendees to a convention. After all, if the client feels comfortable, it helps them increase the comfort level to their attendees. “We have confidence in guest safety due to the installation of Bipolar Ionization Technology, an air-purification system which improves air quality and reduces airborne and surface contaminants, including viruses, to ensure a safe experience for every guest,” she says. “Additionally, our ability to provide clients with the most up-to-date state mandates, and rules and regulations regarding safety measures we have in place for both our facility and food and beverage, sets us apart.”
When searching for a venue, Walker chooses one that enforces a cleaning protocol efficiently in their hotel. “I try to book the earliest event at the venue so that I don’t have apprehension about the people who might have been in the same room where I am planning an event,” he says. “I ensure the whole place of the event has enough sanitizers and disinfectants. There will be two employees at the door to check the temperature of all the attendees and sanitize them properly. There will be round tables at the event, and only three people will sit at one table.” He also looks for a venue that has a strict cleaning protocol and has a flexible cancellation policy.
The ideal venue, Becker says, is one that has its own set of COVID policies, has its own cleaning protocols in place, and is supportive of any additional policies the planner wants to implement. “If a venue doesn’t have any of its own safety measures in place, I don’t think it should be considered as viable in today’s world,” she says. “I also think city/state [regulations are] important to review as well. For instance, selecting Chicago, where a mask mandate has been in place throughout the city since summer of 2021, shows a level of safety consideration is being heeded in all aspects of planning.”
Recently, Becker was in charge of The Festival of Faiths in Louisville, Kentucky, which took place late last fall at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. “A special communication was sent out to all attendees prior to the event, as well as approximately four days before the event, reminding them of the COVID protocols as well as traditional security measures of going through a metal detector as you enter,” she says. “The Festival also limited the food and beverage area so that actively eating and drinking occurred in one location and not throughout the venue. No reports of illness have occurred, and attendees, staff and venue employees were all respectful and followed all safety protocols during the multiday event.”
Grow Disrupt’s health-and-safety protocols require the company to not top 30% of venue occupancy for any of its events. “Pre-COVID, we tried to keep it to no more than 60% just because it creates a better event experience,” Scheller says. “Now, we try and keep it to 20-25%, so if we have an event of 50 people, we select a space that can hold 200-plus.” Additionally, the company works to ensure there are gardens and outdoor spaces that attendees can relax in during the breaks to increase airflow and circulation.
While not every state requires a mask mandate, most facilities are requiring their employees wear masks to comfort those attendees who feel they are necessary. For instance, at the ACC, the venue has been following the New York state mandates, adapting to new rules and regulations as they come out. But even though New York doesn’t necessitate indoor masks right now, at meetings, all staff and attendees must wear them. “Our staff is required to be masked for every event, adhering to our safety protocols,” Messina says. “We have extra masks on hand always. As a facility, we make sure we communicate to the client ahead of time on how to notify their attendees of the masking policies, so no one is surprised by any rules or regulations when they arrive.”
For any event with more than 15 people, Grow Disrupt offers options for masking policies, such as requiring attendees to take a COVID-19 test at the door, which must come back negative, providing a copy of a fully completed vaccination card or wearing a mask for the duration of the event. “We are also continuing to complete verbal screenings along with temperature checks,” Scheller says. “Mostly, we are in regular contact with our attendees leading up to the event to be aware if an exposure happens so we can plan livestream options as a replacement.”
Most venues follow the stringent cleaning standards of the ASM Global Venue Shield program, a comprehensive and industry-leading program that provides protective protocols and procedures that lead to the highest levels of safety, security and consumer confidence. Naturally, high-touch areas are important — elevators, restrooms, restaurants and dining areas. At the ACC, there are signs throughout the facility reminding people to socially distance and wash their hands. “We also have hand sanitizers located throughout the building,” Messina says. “Restrooms are cleaned and wiped down regularly, as well as the entire facility before, during and after events. In addition to the restrooms, event spaces are wiped down and sanitized in-between sessions or breaks. High-touch points have been identified and are focused on when patrons are in the facility. We want to make sure our patrons feel comfortable entering our facility and have the best and most safe experience they can have.”
In an effort to keep things clean, provide the attendees with fun ways of safely greeting and interacting. Throughout all cultures, people greet one another as a sign of recognition, affection, friendship and reverence. Now, people may be scared to greet each other or not know how others in attendance will greet one another. Things such as waving, leaning in or the Namaste sign are all signs of respect where hands aren’t required to be touched.
When it comes to food, buffet-style food options should no longer be an option, most planners agree, as this is an optimal way for germs to spread more easily.
The ACC communicates all state mandates and its own facility rules and regulations to clients over the phone and via email regularly to ensure the client has the proper and most up-to-date information to share with their attendees. “Communication is key always, but especially in the current climate, because anything can change at any second,” Messina says. “Additionally, we utilize our social media platforms, website and our monthly e-newsletter to announce all safety protocols for the building and any new state mandates.”
The best way to get meetings back successfully this year starts with reminding people that everyone is in this together, and we all need to be respectful of the decisions that need to be made to keep everyone safe. “You must make it as easy for people to do this as possible, providing hand sanitizer, masks, in some cases on-site testing,” Becker says. “Communication is vital — not just as the planner on what is expected to meet in person but from the attendee perspective as well. Just as we would want to know if someone is ill with a heart issue or some other situation, we need to know if someone gets sick during or after the meeting.”
Ideally the COVID policy is in place before event registration opens. However, new variants might mean that things must change daily or weekly in the world again, so event websites should be updated with the policy and perhaps a note that organizers are monitoring the situation daily and will make updates as often as necessary. “It’s important that any communication that goes out from the organization talk about the policy and what it is, and what is expected of attendees, so use e-newsletters, blogs, websites, registration confirmation, etc.,” Becker says. “They need to outline the policy and let attendees know where to check for updates. Signage and printed materials at the event need to state the policy as well, so that it is always visible to the attendee.”
Grow Disrupt provides a copy of its Health & Safety Manual, so everyone can also see the escalation procedure on the off chance that an attendee might want to challenge one of the policies, as well as outline the options available for participation in the text of the email. “Some of our procedures have been adopted because they make for a better overall experience, but I think that the measures we’re taking in addition to those are going to continue to be important,” Scheller says. “While we’ll re-evaluate them at least once a year to determine what needs to stay and what can be relaxed, I don’t think we’ll ever reach a point where they will be completely done away with for the event world.”
While masks being required at all times unless actively eating or drinking has been the standard for most places, policing this can be a challenge. “It takes everyone to do this. All staff need to be reminded that we may have to go up and ask an attendee to put a mask on or to wear it correctly, and our venue partners need to be involved in this process as well,” Becker says. “I want them to know that it’s OK to tell one of my attendees that he or she needs to be wearing a mask. Making sure the mask policy is communicated ahead of time to attendees and that it will be enforced is essential, so every communication we have with attendees needs to emphasize the policy.”
It’s recommended to have multiple layers of protective security, such as cameras and security guards, to ensure that people are behaving and following the rules. For smaller meetings, a simple closed-circuit TV setup might work, while a larger conference would require scanners/security guards at the entrance points.
There’s no question that attendee and event staff safety is the most important issue on planners minds in this post-pandemic era. “It almost becomes comical when we start to think about things like decor and food,” Costello says. “They’re just so much less important right now. If we can’t convince attendees they will be safe at our events, they won’t even come, regardless of how great our venue looks or how tasty our cocktails are.” | AC&F |