Meeting planners already had a multitude of responsibilities that needed to be fulfilled promptly and efficiently, but the COVID-19 pandemic added an entirely new dimension that demands unparalleled flexibility.
“We have to be more agile in planning and have more contingency plans during a pandemic,” says Melinda Burdette, CMP, CCM, HMCC, senior director, events for Meeting Professionals International (MPI). “The ever-changing environment, closures and travel restrictions pose the most challenges for planners these days. You have to be nimble and plan for multiple contingencies.”
This situation has created some dilemmas for planners as they seek to find the most appropriate venues for their meetings and events. “The ever-changing rules make it really hard, particularly if your group or client has any strong positions on the [pandemic health and safety] issues,” says Julie Ann Schmidt, CMM, CMP, C19CO, founder and CEO of Lithium Logistics Group, a global event and logistics firm that manages programs worldwide and provides hotel and venue-sourcing services. “That can be on both ends of the spectrum — those who are worried and want lots of safety precautions, and those who do not want masks, for example, and are frustrated with any restrictions. It is hard to choose a venue when you do not even know what you can do at an event. This makes it hard for both the sales teams at the venues and the planners. You are not sure what you can sell and what you can buy.”
Amid the uncertainty, many resources and tools have emerged to help planners navigate through new, pandemic-related problems they encounter. By utilizing these new resources, as well as traditional site-selection guidelines, planners can continue to hold successful, well-attended meetings. Mark Cooper, CEO of IACC, contends that planners generally have managed to navigate successfully through the turbulent waters triggered by COVID-19 during the past two years, just as they have been capably addressing technological and other developments. “The acceleration of changing meeting environments has been rapid over the past seven years, and meeting professionals have become comfortable with rapid change, I believe,” he says. “Thank goodness, given the last two years and what may come in the next few years. I am confident we will be well-versed in changing our meeting dynamics over the reopening phase.”
One of the most critical keys to success in planning a meeting during the pandemic was to stay informed. Since launching an agency-wide response to COVID-19 in 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta has been issuing information and guidelines — and occasionally legally binding orders and regulations — for managing the pandemic. The World Health Organization, based in Geneva, Switzerland, also has posted COVID-19 developments and advisories, on an international basis. Several meetings industry organizations, such as the Events Industry Council (EIC), Meeting Professionals International (MPI) and Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), also offer helpful information. Planners also need to check the state, county and city guidelines for their prospective meeting locations.
“Right now, this is an ever-moving target,” says Nancy J. Zavada, CMP, CMP Fellow, founder and president of MeetGreen. “Following CDC guidelines can change daily, and responding appropriately requires diligence. Different areas of the country or world have local mandates that may be different than where attendees live. Planners should be striving for the highest level of health and safety. We ensure our clients have the support of health and safety experts from a beginning assessment through on-site protocols and post-event reporting.” Some groups employ specialists to assist in the process. MeetGreen utilizes the services of Arrive Management, which specializes in event safety, security and emergency management.
Specialized, certified pandemic training also is now available for planners. MPI offers the Pandemic Meeting & Event Certificate online course, which helps planners “navigate the next normal for event strategy in a post-pandemic world.” The program, which awards 20 CMP clock hours upon completion, focuses on participants rethinking their event strategy for maximum adaptability in an increasingly disrupted global environment, developing checklists for safer event design, and establishing and deploying event tactics to reduce COVID-based risks based on current circumstances, primarily in North America.
Health Education Services (HES), based in San Carlos, California, offers two COVID-related online courses for professionals: “COVID-19 Compliance Officer” and “Pandemic Compliance Advisor for Meeting Professionals,” both of which provide a certificate of completion upon passing an exam. Additionally, the latter class is available for up to 3 CE Credits through the EIC. Another HES course, “COVID Compliance for Live Events,” outlines protocols necessary before and during live events, including health screenings, social-distancing parameters, proper personal protective equipment use and sanitization regulations.
Schmidt received a COVID-19 Compliance Officer (C19CO) certification during the early stages of the pandemic so that she could understand contact tracing and testing, as well as the other aspects of how the events world was impacted. “I was providing training about how to get back to live meetings in early 2021 for my peers,” she says. She emphasizes the need to constantly keep aware of changes in coronavirus policies and other information, as well as the value of networking. “Find colleagues who have held or are holding live meetings and cultivate a peer group that can serve as a sounding board, and that will share what they have done,” Schmidt says. “By staying on top of what’s going on and what other people are doing, you can then be sure you have the best information to make good decisions for your group or event.”
Once planners have become well-educated about health and safety issues surrounding coronavirus and developed a strategy to keep informed about subsequent developments, they will have a clearer understanding of how to choose a venue that matches their priorities. Many planners recently have found that the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) can be a valuable resource. GBAC helps organizations and businesses prepare for, respond to and recover from biological threats, biohazards — including pandemic and infectious disease outbreaks — and real-time crises.
The organization offers education, training, certification, crisis counseling and response management for situations where environments require a much higher than normal level of cleaning, disinfection and restoration. The GBAC STAR Facility accreditation is awarded to facilities that have satisfied the following requirements:
“IAEE [International Association of Exhibitions and Events] continues to work closely with the Global Biorisk Advisory Council for infectious-disease scientific expertise for our pandemic-related resources,” says Scott Craighead, CEM, IAEE’s vice president of exhibitions & events. “GBAC certifies venues that meet health and safety requirements that provide optimal risk mitigation for COVID-19 spread. I recommend that planners seek venues that have GBAC or equivalent certification.”
Burdette agrees that a GBAC STAR Facility designation can provide the planner with assurance that the venue is meeting health and safety standards, but offers additional advice. “If the venue has received the GBAC STAR designation, then you know that it is meeting industry standards,” she says. “Also, ask the venue how many like-sized meetings and events it has hosted during the pandemic, and ask for the contact information for the lead planner. You can then call the planner and ask how the venue responded, among other things. Another option is to ask any partner who participated in events at the venue how they felt during the event about such things as communication, health and safety and duty of care.”
Plenty of meetings industry organizations, convention and visitors bureaus, venues and meeting magazines provide helpful online information, including health and safety policies, about meeting facilities. “Venue salespeople are the best resources,” Schmidt says. “They have a vested interest in selling their space and making sure planners know what they are offering. Also, their CVBs are selling everything in the city or state, so they are good resources. There are also great tools for sourcing, such as Cvent, that have a lot of data on the property. That can help you decide if the property is for you before you send them a lead.”
MaryBeth Powers, CMP, president of Planning Powers LLC, a full-service meeting and event-planning company, says that once a site has been selected for a meeting, it’s critical to remain in contact with it about health and safety issues. “Get updates regularly from the venue,” she says. “Check with your local CVB and/or your hotel or venue partners about the COVID protocols in place.”
Zavada contends that, ultimately, it’s the planner’s responsibility to assure that health and safety measures are met. “While the venues can assist with the health and safety measures, it is up to the planner to determine their guidelines and protocol for the event, and communicate it with the facility,” she says. “Too often, we are seeing planners relying on the venues to provide these measures, which is an unfair burden.”
Schmidt asserts that dealing with COVID-19 now is the major challenge for planners. “I have been doing this [event planning] for more than 20 years, and in that span of time, the main challenges that planners face has changed a lot,” she says. “In recent years, the main challenge has been working around COVID and the restrictions that can place on a meeting or on the venue. Navigating that has been a challenge for the past two years and I think it will continue to be a challenge for another year.”
The amount of time planners now devote to health and safety issues cannot be overestimated, but planners can’t simply shift their attention to addressing health and safety issues. They need to devote generally the same amount of attention — or more — to other responsibilities. Craighead says that not only health and safety, but digitalization of events, must be factored into all phases of planning.
Planners need to keep aware of the new digital tools available, both for holding remote, virtual and hybrid events, and for site inspection. “Most venues have moved to virtual tours of their space during the pandemic, which is extremely helpful to planners who may be facing travel bans and unable to conduct in-person site visits at this time,” Burdette says. “In addition, I have seen a number of planner-focused Facebook groups pop up where planners are asking for experiences at particular venues.”
Cooper is excited about the new site-inspection technology. “I believe the investment in remote venue-evaluation technology, born out of travel restrictions to visit venues, will help us better evaluate live meeting venues in the future,” Cooper says. “I see some fantastic examples of virtual site-inspection platforms developed in the last two years. XplorIt is interesting as it brings the destination into the virtual tour as well as the venue space, giving you a full destination perspective. Allseated advanced its capabilities off the back of its ExVo virtual conference platform, so venue staff and multiple client representatives can meet in the virtual venue space online, to hold a meeting and tour, with full interaction.”
Allseated’s Vision offering provides 360-degree venue scanning, a website widget, save templates, smart floor plans, virtual walkthroughs and Allseated Connect, a virtual meeting platform that enables planners and others to explore the layout with access via a tablet, laptop, desktop or virtual reality headset. Powers contends that virtual site inspections, while valuable, aren’t always as productive as in-person visits. “If you are unable to do a site visit, you can’t always ‘experience’ the property and the space,” she says. “Virtual tours are a good option; however, while virtually you may see one thing, your own eyes may see an entirely different space, such as thin airwalls and bad lighting, which can affect your meeting.”
Inspections are important, but only a part of the venue-selection process. Many organizations and companies — including IACC, Lithium Logistics Group, MeetGreen, MPI and Planning Powers — offer excellent site-selection services.
Before checking into possible venues, however, planners need to establish the preferences of their group. “Planners need to know their audience and the goals and objectives of their meeting or event,” Burdette says. “Some questions they need to ask are, ‘Is my audience willing and able to travel?’ ‘Will my meeting or event fit within the venue?’ ‘What unique spaces can be utilized within the venue or city?’”
Zavada recommends that planners first determine destination options based on where the main attendees are located. “These days, minimizing travel and time away from home is important,” she says. “It is also possible to determine which location has the lowest carbon footprint. Once the destination is selected, research venues that accommodate your program — as well as dates and rates — and survey for environmental certificates and initiatives. These decisions are the most important part of the process for the success of the meeting.”
Depending on the location, finding available venues can be a challenge, requiring the shifting of meeting dates and short-term rebookings due to the pandemic. “An RFP process is the best way to overcome this, by identifying what a particular market location has to offer for space and dates,” Craighead says. “During these times, it is also important to identify a venue that will extend flexibility in the planning process, with changes and uncertainty caused by the pandemic.”
Cooper advises planners to look at each meeting as a new experience and to scrutinize venues against the variables that have the greatest impact on the event. “Do not be tempted to roll out the same RFP questions you did for the last meeting if success for the new meeting is born out of different things,” he says. “Thinking about the impact of the venue failing in each area of delivery will help you focus your evaluation on their capabilities in the areas that count the most. Will a faltering internet infrastructure cause havoc to a technology-laden event? Of course it will, just as an event that needs deep relationship-building needs attractive social spaces and quality food and beverage, [which] will prove to be the glue that bonds people.”
Schmidt emphasizes the importance of clear communication in choosing a venue. She says that if venue personnel don’t have accurate or complete information, they often make a wrong decision. “This shows up when I hear a planner say, ‘Why didn’t I know that?’ or the client say, ‘If I had known that before, I would have made a different decision,’” Schmidt says. “Sometimes, this comes from a planner or sales person making an assumption about what the other person knows. I had a client who was surprised when she did not have all the space contracted that she needed. She did not look at it. She just assumed, ‘I gave them my agenda, so why didn’t they ensure they had my space set?’ She assumed it was their job to check the space, not hers, as the client, to ensure what she was buying.”
Everyone interviewed agreed that perhaps more than ever, it’s critical for planners to work with like-minded partners, including venues, that they can trust. “Assuring the new health and safety requirements are met requires planners to have a strong mix of partners to collaborate with, and constant and clear communication among the partners,” Craighead says, adding that key partners include the venue, the DMO, local health and safety officials, service contractors, and the health and screening processor for the event. A communication plan with all stakeholders and participants before, during and after the event is key, he says.
“It boils down to establishing trusting relationships with your venues and partners so that you are all truly invested in the process,” Burdette says.
Cooper warns that planners’ challenges sometimes arise because they didn’t give full responsibility to the venue to design the components of the event that they control and in which they have expertise. “’Trust thy venue,’ is my mantra,” he says. As an example, Cooper asks why planners would choose to create their own event menus when the executive chef and their team know menu planning better than anyone. This also saves time and resources, he adds.
“Always remember that your venue is a valued partner in producing impeccable events,” Zavada says. “Enroll them as part of your team early in the process, communicate and work together hand-in-hand.” | AC&F |