How Live Events Can ThriveApril 1, 2021

In-Person Events Are Possible With Proper Precautions By
April 1, 2021

How Live Events Can Thrive

In-Person Events Are Possible With Proper Precautions
All live events held in the next few months must make sure all attendees feel safe and secure.  Associated Luxury Hotels International (ALHI) held its 2020 Leadership Summit at Sea Island, Georgia in October 2020. Photo Courtesy of Katie Bohrer

All live events held in the next few months must make sure all attendees feel safe and secure. Associated Luxury Hotels International (ALHI) held its 2020 Leadership Summit at Sea Island, Georgia in October 2020. Photo Courtesy of Katie Bohrer

Writing last fall on, Roger Dow, U.S. Travel Association president and CEO, stated, “Unfortunately, the meetings and events industry has been — and will continue to be — uniquely impacted by the pandemic. Meetings and events will likely be one of the last segments of the travel industry to reopen . . .”

While in-person events are not yet booming, there is forward progress. Last year, Beck’s Hybrids, the largest family-owned seed company in the United States, kicked off its annual sales event at the JW Marriott Indianapolis with more than 600 people in attendance. Deep relationships and detailed planning made the live event possible. “We have a great, long-standing relationship with the JW Marriott Indianapolis,” says Brittany Street, CMP, travel and events lead for the company. “Both parties have each other’s best interest at heart. When we were planning the event, we often were on conference calls together and would walk through what the attendee would be experiencing from pulling up in their vehicle to leaving in their vehicle to head back home.”

Adjusting on the Fly

Given how fluid the situation is, what worked in Indianapolis may not work for everyone. But Street says navigating the changing landscape of events in the time of COVID-19 has positives. “We’ve obviously gained a lot of knowledge since executing our meeting in Indianapolis. Normally, we would be designing and planning our event months in advance, but [last] year we were changing things up to a week in advance based on our state’s executive orders. While COVID made us create new procedures to keep our people safe, it also brought more ways to creatively host an event. These new ways of thinking generated new ways to better serve the needs of our people. We’re planning to keep some of them in place for our future in-person events.”

Street credits her industry with making it possible to rise above the challenges. “We’re blessed that we’re part of the agricultural industry, which has a reputation of being very resilient. Every year, the people involved in agriculture are faced with challenges, [such as] drought, excessive rains or the latest derecho in our western marketing area. I believe, because of our ability to be resilient, it has taught us to think on our feet and problem solve at a fast pace.”

The success of the meeting proves her point. “Our event is voluntary, so to gauge attendance, we sent out a survey to our potential attendees to see if they would attend an in-person event. The results: An overwhelming number of people were wanting to proceed with the event. We made sure to communicate with our attendees the steps that we and the hotel were taking in order to make the experience safe and keep a learning experience similar to what they were accustomed to in the past. The event was an astounding success and the attendees even thanked us for hosting an in-person event.”

Indianapolis has been working hard to ensure safe meetings, investing more than $7 million in health and safety improvements inside Indiana Convention Center. Photo Courtesy of Chris Gahl

Indianapolis has been working hard to ensure safe meetings, investing more than $7 million in health and safety improvements inside Indiana Convention Center. Photo Courtesy of Chris Gahl

Indianapolis has also been working hard to ensure safe meetings. The city has hosted many in-person groups and thousands of attendees, invested more than $7 million in health and safety improvements inside Indiana Convention Center — including hospital-grade air filtration and deep-cleaning machines — and has been offering zero hotel attrition for groups, a major planner concern. The city is also using Concept 3D, allowing planners to visit the city via their own computer.

Chris Gahl, senior VP of marketing and communications at Visit Indy, points to some of the city’s current initiatives. “At the convention center, we’ve found a safe rhythm of conducting a temperature check, stamping an attendee approved to enter and circulating each person inside to outside the building. We’re working with hotels connected to the center to increase the space each convention can access and working with hotels to provide pop-up, grab-and-go food options from their individual ballrooms.”

Among the trends he’s seeing are a preference for driving over flying, and lower/uncertain attendance making ROI especially challenging for in-person meetings. As for planner/CVB communication, Gahl says transparency is paramount. His team encourages planners to speak with the city’s health department directly, for example. “We’re all in the meetings industry,” he says, “both CVBs and planners. Sharing insights and takeaways during this difficult time will help us all recover in a meaningful way.”

Safety is No. 1

Katie Bohrer, CMP, VP, meeting design and experience, with privately held global sales organization Associated Luxury Hotels International (ALHI), has worked on several conferences since COVID began. All had a live component of about 50 attendees and two added another 150 virtually. The ALHI Executive Women in Leadership 2020 event was held at Naples Grande Beach Resort in Naples, Florida. “The safety and well-being of our attendees is of the utmost importance, Bohrer says. “Ensuring that every partner on the event would adhere to the strictest CDC guidelines was paramount. In addition, it was very important to communicate with attendees that, by attending our event, they were committing to a shared responsibility to doing their part to follow the personal guidelines. Controlling the meeting environment and the experience for the individual was what our team focused on. Second to the safety and health of our guests were the meeting objectives and goals. Could we accomplish what the meeting was intended to do while ensuring that every guideline was followed?”

The answer was yes, thanks in large part to the resort. “Naples Grande Beach Resort was our first partner in hosting a face-to-face event [during the pandemic]. About 60 days prior to the event, we got on a call with their team and confirmed that we were all committed to being one of the first face-to-face events to be hosted since March [2020]. The hotel detailed the protocols they had put in place since reopening, then we went through the specifics of the meeting and how we were going to achieve our goals.” Bohrer added, “One of the most important things that Naples Grande did was allow us to ask all our questions, and then they spent dedicated time answering them or researching if they didn’t know the answer. Planning right now is all about planning together and ensuring that we’re working as a unit between the hotel, airline, transportation company and event organizer to create the safest meeting environment possible.”

ALHI’s Executive Women in Leadership 2020 was held live at Naples Grande Beach Resort. Photo Courtesy of Melinda HutchinsALHI’s Executive Women in Leadership 2020 was held live at Naples Grande Beach Resort. Photo Courtesy of Melinda Hutchins

Bohrer thinks communication regarding the facts and safe meeting protocols is key to success. “There’s a lot of confusion out there, and with each state and city reopening differently, attendees understandably have a lot of questions,” she says. “The most important thing a planning team can do is to over-over communicate the intended plan for the meeting, and take the time, like Naples Grande Beach Resort did, to answer any and all questions your group may have. The questions may spotlight something that you haven’t thought of. That’s why we talk so much about the partnership and vendors all working together.”

Her group learned a lot during the process and the meeting, and perhaps the biggest takeaway was this: “The most positive thing I can share is that, even with distancing, masks and modified breaks, meal set-ups and schedules, meetings can still accomplish the goals and objectives — and can accomplish them with bravado and joy. People,” she continues, “are so resilient — and we need face-to-face meetings at the core human level. Watching our group navigate new safety measures and still enjoy meeting new people, networking and open sharing was one of the highlights of these experiences for me.”

Going forward, she says her team will continue to over-program and “force” connection more in this current environment. “Meaning, in the past where we may have hosted a networking reception and just trusted people to meet one another, now in its place is a seated small-group networking time with more facilitated questions and guided discussion time. We’re assigning seats to ensure people get to meet everyone at the event. Some of the organic nature of our meetings is more programmed now. However, we’ve seen such positive feedback on that experience that I still feel we’re accomplishing what those events set out to do.”

Bohrer gives a lot of credit for the success of the events to her team. “Meeting planners, and my team especially, are very gifted at checking the boxes, following guidelines and then innovating within the parameters of an event,” she says. “I encouraged my team to look at what we could do differently to innovate and create something special versus feeling like we were focusing on what was not possible. It was a mindset change for us and rising to the challenge of accomplishing networking, learning, sharing and peer-to-peer exchanges in this world felt like an opportunity rather than a roadblock. We worked closely with the hotel to check each other’s work. And we frequently referenced [the World Health Organization], the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines for groups and followed the [Events Industry Council] APEX committee on their findings on safe meeting guidelines.”

Permanent Changes

Although no one can predict how the pandemic will ultimately play out, Bohrer thinks meeting planning will see some long-term changes. “I think we’ll have a permanent continued emphasis on cleanliness, sanitation and very clear safe meeting protocols for all future meetings. Our hotels, airlines and partners have been cleaning and keeping us safe this whole time — and now we’re asking them to explain the ‘how.’”

That means more of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ pieces are on stage today, and Bohrer says that’s a positive thing. “Again, our partners have been doing all of this for a long time as an industry. We’re now just getting the education on the how and what has been happening this whole time. In addition, I do think personal travelers are going to consider more about how they can keep themselves healthy as well. I think they see their role and importance in keeping the travelers around them safe.”

Like Street, Bohrer says her events were received very positively. “The feedback for all our events has been overwhelmingly positive. Some of our highest meeting scores as a company were seen at these most recent events. With that said, worry and concern is a very prevalent part of our culture right now. While our attendees did express that they were pleasantly surprised at how safe they felt, I still think it’s the responsibility of a meeting planner to ensure that we address each and every attendee’s concerns.”

They do this by thinking differently about the attendees. “We start from the ground up right now on each meeting and we encourage our teams to treat each group like they haven’t traveled before. How would you explain everything to someone who hasn’t been on a flight in six months? While some of us have started traveling again and are accustomed to the new way of meetings and travel, we have to take care of the individual who is essentially leaving his or her house for the first time since March [2020]. We do this through increased pre-event communication, more staff on-site to answer questions, open dialogue with attendees to hear questions and concerns, and a constant reminder to the group of the protocols we’re following and are committed to following.”

Indianapolis has been working hard to ensure safe meetings, investing more than $7 million in health and safety improvements inside Indiana Convention Center. Photo Courtesy of Chris Gahl

Indianapolis has been working hard to ensure safe meetings, investing more than $7 million in health and safety improvements inside Indiana Convention Center. Photo Courtesy of Chris Gahl

The Naples Grande has hosted several live events since last March. The corporate meetings have mostly been fewer than 100 people. Melinda Hutchins, director of sales and marketing, echoes Gahl, noting that with the constant changes, planners want transparency in terms of where the city and the hotel are in terms of health and safety protocols. “Our goal is to welcome back meeting planners and attendees with a feeling of safety and security, while still providing them with the comfortable Naples Grande experience and hospitality they know and love. We’re fortunate to have ample large meeting facilities to accommodate the new setups that require additional space for social distancing, as well as ample outdoor function space.”

Referencing the pre-event virtual call before the ALHI event, Hutchins says, “The call was scheduled in conjunction with the group organizer, airline representative, hotel representative and destination rep to be a ‘panel’ of live resources to answer, or clarify, any pending attendee concerns. It was scheduled shortly after the planner sent out all the protocols for each travel partner and noted that if they wanted any further information or specific questions to participate in the call for direct and live responses. This provided an open and personal communication by the attendees to ask direct questions to the subject-matter experts and ultimately alleviate any pending concerns.”

As long as COVID-19 remains a threat to public health, Hutchins says, “We’ll continue to implement strict health and safety procedures to keep our meetings and events safe for all. The upgrades made in technology during these last few months, such as livestreams of meeting sessions and the development of hybrid meetings, will continue to shape the client’s needs and future of the industry.”

Large Events Possible

Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort hosted a multi-month event last summer. Major League Soccer (MLS), a single-entity corporation that, with investors, owns its teams and player contracts, bought out the resort. At peak, there were approximately 1,500 attendees. The success of the event proves that larger conferences can be safely executed during COVID. Not surprisingly, how to prevent transmission of the virus was a huge concern. “To mitigate risk,” says Jen Maurillo, SVP, events with MLS, “we implemented a comprehensive testing operation that included a rigid testing cadence for our players, club staff, management staff and others interacting with players. Health and safety protocols were required to be followed by all staff and players on-site.”

In addition to following the hotel’s protocols, MLS developed its own health and safety protocols with the league’s infectious disease doctors, which Maurillo says provided a level of confidence to proceed with the event. Swan and Dolphin, Maurillo adds, was a great partner. “We brought 26 teams into the Orlando market and it was important to give each team adequate space to social distance in meal rooms, meeting rooms, club lounges and performance centers while also providing our players and club staff the opportunity to relax indoors and outdoors when not on the field. Swan and Dolphin was able to accommodate those needs.”

“Our protocols are tried and tested now, so we’ll be more prepared and experienced if we do another in-person event during this pandemic.” — Jen Maurillo, SVP, Events, Major League Soccer

To ensure safety, Maurillo says off-property dining wasn’t permitted. “Each team had its own meal room and banquet staff. Individuals arrived at staggered times and tables were set so diners were socially distanced while eating. The buffet was served by banquet staff wearing PPE [masks and gloves] behind Plexiglas. All meals were served in disposable containers and each utensil set was wrapped in plastic for single-use. There were also four restaurants on-site that accommodated our clubs with private dining areas set up for socially distanced seating, servers in PPE, etc. Takeout was also available.”

In terms of transportation, MLS provided charter flights for the teams, but many staff took commercial flights. “They were required to test prior to travel and when they arrived. There were some members of our group who chose to drive due to safety concerns, but the majority were comfortable with airline carrier safety protocols.”

MLS used its own transportation agency on the ground, which sourced all vehicles through local providers. MLS then customized the buses. “We installed Plexiglas between the driver and the rest of the bus,” Maurillo says. “The buses and drivers were assigned to the same team for the duration of the tournament. Buses were at half capacity [every other seat was used] and seats were assigned. Dispatch staff and drivers were not allowed within 6 feet of any member of the group. All were required to wear masks.”

Even with meticulous planning and adherence to stringent safety protocols and procedures, Maurillo acknowledges it wasn’t possible to plan for every challenge. “We were unable to predict many challenges we faced on-site and were required to react and modify our medical and safety protocols as new information about the virus surfaced every day.”

Contingency Plans Are Key

Moving forward, Maurillo thinks, contingency plans will be more established across the meetings industry to address virus and health-related issues that might arise during planning or on-site at an event. “I also believe you’ll see more medical professionals contracted for events. They might be brought on-site for real-time evaluation, and assessment of situations, or available remotely.”

To other planners considering a live event, Maurillo says, “Do your best to plan for the unexpected, knowing it will be impossible to plan for everything. Give your team the flexibility and the ‘forgiveness’ for a pre-event plan to fail and to create a new one on the fly. And ensure that you’re working with great partners. Pulling off an in-person event during this pandemic requires collaboration, creativity and trust.”

Face-to-face meetings are coming back. Fortunately, the successes already achieved provide a blueprint for planners making their first return to live meetings. Although no one knows how this will all play out with the vaccines being administered, everyone agrees that open communication between planners, hotel staff, CVBs and attendees is more critical than ever before.

Hutchins’ advice is something all partners should keep at the top of their pandemic best practices list: “Collectively meet often, collaborate ideas, challenge each other, and do more advanced planning than you think necessary to ensure the most successful execution.” C&IT

Back To Top