The face-to-face attendee experience is generally regarded as superior to virtual, particularly for meetings where networking and relationship building are among the objectives. The lingering COVID-19 pandemic has made that heightened return-on-experience harder to attain, however. While in-person meetings made a comeback late last year and so far this year, there is still some hesitation among would-be attendees. People clearly have different COVID risk tolerances — both psychologically and physically — and it is not a planner’s place to aggressively push face-to-face attendance across the board. A better approach is to encourage that mode of participation by reminding attendees of its advantages over virtual, and by ensuring they know that all the right precautions against infection will taken.
The first step is to assess the overall comfort level among prospective attendees with regard to meeting in person. If just about everyone is on board with the idea, then no encouragement may be needed. But there will typically be a significant contingent that has reservations.
“About 70% of our people are excited to get back together, 20% are excited but still nervous and 10% lean more toward the more nervous than excited side,” says Judy Payne, CMP, director, meetings and travel, GameStop.
The comfort level assessment can be made through a poll, of course, but informal communications with prospective attendees can also yield insights.
“We didn’t do surveys, but we did have our attorneys reaching out and talk with our clients about where their comfort level was,” says Shana Hoy, CMP, CMM, senior event manager with Husch Blackwell LLP. The law firm’s client-facing events were conducted virtually during the pandemic. Beginning last fall, the company reinstated face-to-face for those events that were more focused on relationship building. “We were really mindful of [comfort level] as we looked at what programming it made sense to move forward in an in-person fashion, as opposed to groups that were maybe still wanting to keep more of that interaction or education time online,” Hoy says. “We recognize there are people from all across the risk spectrum because everybody has their personal story and things going on in their lives. So, we really want to be inclusive and respectful of where they’re at, whether they have a high or low risk tolerance, and be as inclusive as we can.”
Planners may be concerned that, even if prospective attendees have a high risk tolerance, the Zoom era may have reduced their desire to meet in person. Perhaps many have been seduced by the convenience of virtual meetings. But many planners give evidence to the contrary: Their prospective attendees are in fact yearning for in-person interaction with their colleagues.
For example, Sharon L. Schenk, CMP, director of conventions and event management with CCA Global Partners, notes that her company’s summer 2020 virtual convention only saw about 50% participation, and engagement was fairly low. In comparison, the summer 2021 hybrid convention at the Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center saw about 90% of the usual attendance.
“People were really hungry to get back together,” she says. A similar robust turnout is expected at this summer’s CCA Global Partners convention scheduled for the Gaylord Opryland, particularly since last year’s Winter Convention was canceled due to the Omicron variant. “We’re expecting our August convention to be full because it will be a year since people have seen each other,” Schenk says. “I think that the lack of interest for any of the virtual events, at least for our company, has proven that they really want face to face. We’ve been doing conventions for over 30 years, twice a year, and there’s nothing like shaking hands, bumping elbows and having those relationships in person. That’s where they thrive, and that’s what we try to provide.”
If that is attendees’ sentiment toward face-to-face events, a planner need not promote the advantages over virtual — attendees are already quite aware of them. But if there is any concern that interest in face-to-face meetings has waned, why not remind them of the benefits?
While attendance at GameStop’s events is mandatory, “We still want to excite the attendees to come, so you still need to have the same type of approach,” Payne says. In-person provides “better networking, better engagement, and quite frankly, most of our meetings are for our sales force in the field that don’t often get to interact. So getting together and being able to share ideas and best practices really helps the company as a whole and it moves us forward as one unit.”
Paving the way to that experience are the COVID safety practices the host organization has in place, beginning at the site-selection stage. Hoy’s team tracks destination safety “on a weekly basis. We have cities within our footprint that we track because we do a lot in those areas,” she says. “And as other cities get added that we’re doing programs in, we add them to our tracking document.”
However, she notes that “We use that data to assess decisions, but we’re not necessarily utilizing it to completely change direction. If we book something in Florida and the state went really crazy high [with cases], we wouldn’t necessarily change direction because their numbers changed. I think part of that is because all of this is changing so quickly that something that is true today [about COVID] is not necessarily going to be true two weeks from now.”
The new due diligence in site selection also involves assessing venues’ COVID safety protocols. “It has 100% become part of our RFP process,” Hoy says. “It’s indicated in our proposals and on the front end of any inquiries that we’re [partnering] with vendors that request vaccination status and require masking, and the safety protocols are important to us. So, we look for vendors that are going to work with us and that are like minded.”
And since her team focuses mostly on venues in warm-weather areas, Hoy says, “We’re really going to be able to utilize the outside for meals and group activities,” which she says can make social distancing easier, adding, “So, we’re really being mindful of event design and how we can use that design to create those layers of safety.”
Regarding vaccination and masking, the practices and policies vary across companies holding meetings. However, there appears to be an overall upswing in vaccination mandates for attendees, staff and contractors. For the 2022 Winter Edition of MPI’s Meetings Outlook, survey participants were asked, “Is your organization requiring (or do you think it will soon be requiring) proof of COVID-19 vaccination for attendees, staff and/or contractors?” Fifty-five percent said “yes” for staff and contractors, compared to 47% in the fall 2021 survey, and 51% said “yes” for attendees, compared to 41% in the fall 2021 survey.
Whether a company requires vaccination or encourages it of participants, perhaps the main thing is that concern is shown for attendees’ health and safety.
“Our firm does require all staff, attendees and vendors, both at our offices and events, to be fully vaccinated,” Hoy says. “So we do put that in our indication.”
In contrast, GameStop is not requiring vaccination, or wristbands to indicate vaccination status.
“We’re not going to wristband our attendees because we feel that is a personal decision that they have to make whether to be vaccinated,” Payne says. “We wouldn’t wristband them for any other type of vaccine, if they’ve received the flu vaccine or anything else, so we’re not going to wristband attendees or make it publicly known if someone is vaccinated or not. However, we highly encourage our attendees and associates to get vaccinated.”
If an employee chooses not to get vaccinated, they do have to inform Payne’s team and will then be required to wear a mask.
Some on-site planning teams take the approach of wearing masks not only for their personal safety, but also to make attendees feel less self-conscious wearing one in case many of their peers are not.
“My team wears masks at events, because we want the first people that come in to registration to see that somebody is masked,” Hoy says. “So, if they want to choose to be masked, but maybe wouldn’t with others not masked, they know somebody in the room is.”
The presence of masked venue staff achieves a similar effect. For instance, “all unvaccinated Gaylord employees — they call them Stars — are required to wear masks,” Schenk says.
Another advisable measure is having on-site COVID tests available for attendees. “We may provide free antigen tests that they could just pick up and take to their room, so they can test themselves on-site if they feel they have been exposed or if they start exhibiting symptoms. It’s inconvenient for them to go off-site to get tested, and now that these tests are more available and reasonably priced, we think it’s a smart thing to do for our attendees.”
With the prevalence of vaccination and masks, social distancing is not as prominent as it was in the early stages of the pandemic. Many planners have relaxed the distancing requirement, particularly since it is difficult to “police” attendees in that regard.
Payne’s team early this year had planned to do 3-foot distancing, which is more practicable, she thinks. “With 3 feet, we can still set classroom style, with two people per 6-foot table. So, my goal is not to double our space, but still make people feel secure in their surroundings,” she says. “I’d like for people to maintain their seat and not switch around throughout the week. That way, they’re staying within their own bubble the entire time they’re at the meeting and we’re seeing less crossing of fingerprints, less people crossing your path if you’re staying in your same seat. While you really don’t get to cross-pollinate when it comes to meeting different people, you are staying within your same environment and not getting other people’s germs. When we were brainstorming what the policy would look like, that’s one thing we came up with.”
Key to encouraging in-person attendance is to communicate whichever COVID safety practices the organization has chosen to put in place, thereby increasing the comfort level.
“We make sure people know what they’re walking into and what they can expect,” Payne says. “It’s going to ease their minds knowing that we’ve created a thoughtful safety plan and are executing it. We even announce it on the main stage during the opening general session.” Pre-meeting, her team sends out a “Know Before You Go” email to all attendees that includes GameStop’s COVID policies.
Hoy’s team communicates the health and safety practices in stages. “In our initial communications, we just talk about the safety precautions at a very high level, and then as we get to that ‘see you soon’ communication, we provide more detailed information,” she says. The details range from company vaccination and mask policies and recommendations to a description of the COVID safety practices at the meeting venue.
“Wherever we are, we follow local guidance and then also communicate CDC guidance, whatever that is at the time,” she adds. “So the other big thing we communicate is that this may change. We may have future communications come out that are different, and may need to alert attendees of an adjustment.”
Indeed, risk management when it comes to the pandemic is like taking aim at a moving target. But with mass vaccination and boosters along with well-entrenched safety practices among host organizations and venues, planners hopefully need not resort to cancellation and can deliver that valuable in-person experience they are promoting to attendees.
“As event planners, we’re in a place now where we’re going to continue to see variants and continue to see the cases increase, the ups and downs on these charts,” Hoy says. “So how do we start to move into a place where we are putting in safety procedures, precautions and communications so that we’re not having to cancel every time something comes up? We are two years [into the pandemic] and have more information, so we’re ready to start moving in the direction of continuing with our events and doing them in the safest way possible.”
For planners interested in learning the latest best practices, Hoy recommends an online pandemic meeting and event design certificate course offered by the Event Leadership Institute. The more versed planners are in this new area of event design, the more reassurance they can offer the prospective face-to-face attendee, and ultimately support the revival of in-person meetings. C&IT