Gather together financial and insurance professionals from diverse backgrounds, and it won’t take long for them to determine they share a common malady: The need for work-life balance that incorporates wellness opportunities in all facets of their professional lives. That’s why wellness programming within conferences — especially in light of the pandemic — are increasingly catching the attention of conference organizers and meeting planners who work within the financial and insurance industries.
Many of today’s companies are interested in investing time, resources and energy into building better teams with fun, interactive, relaxing, health-focused and creative conference wellness events. According to Chris Chan, founder and CEO of the event planning and management firm, 3C Strategies, wellness programs during conferences are a great way to incorporate a relaxing outlet during a busy conference and are ideal for building camaraderie amongst conference guests. And these activities are more important than ever as the first wave of conferences slowly return to in-person meeting formats, which may be anxiety-causing for some participants who are nervous about the coronavirus. “Wellness programs are important because they give opportunities for conference participants to take a break from the fast-paced conference schedule that has become the trend in the industry,” Chan says. “Wellness programs give attendees the opportunity to not only recharge, making them more attentive in sessions and presentations, but they also provide that opportunity for casual relationship building that’s critical to substantive networking.”
For those hosting in-person events, providing an opportunity to reduce anxiety on-site is equally important as many people will be nervous about traveling to and from the conference, as well as being in indoor settings with large crowds. “Allotting extra time to calm the senses for your audience will create a better experience for all involved,” Chan says.
Amaia Stecker, managing partner and meeting planner at Pilar & Co., points out that the average attendee has a substantial number of demands on their time and attention. “Conferences aren’t supposed to be vacations. Yet, they are multiple, full-day events that require attention and focus away from professional responsibilities, and physical distance and time to attend; time away from personal responsibilities,” Stecker says. “These additional layers of stress, on top of other inherent wellness risk factors — large groups of people intermingling with colds, poor dietary offerings, packed schedules that do not allow for adequate rest — often result in compromised health of attendees.”
Stecker says conference events should have a complete wellness strategy with the following components:
• Realistic Scheduling — Start times, end times, breaks, and overall numbers and types of sessions; take into account that you have humans attending, not robots. We need time to be social, stretch and refuel, and our brains can only take so much information in a given day.
• Balanced food and beverage options — Regular water or flavored waters infused with fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy snacks that include fresh fruits and vegetables, entrees that aren’t just cheap carbs, mocktails and nonalcoholic options at the bar.
• Clearly defined purpose — Does this event achieve an organizational goal that benefits the organization or the attendee, or both? Ideally, it’s not just about the revenue. Look at the “whys”, the intention behind the event for opportunities to create win-win scenarios.
• Appropriate attendee targets based on your purposes — Who is attending and how many people are invited to attend? If you’re simply looking for the maximum head count, then you’re doing your organization and those attending a huge disservice. Rediscover why you are hosting this event, and what you want to accomplish from it, and narrow the list. Smaller, more intimate events allow for attendees to actually connect and build relationships with the organization and other attendees, rather than being an anonymous statistic to pad your sponsor prospectus.
“While your purpose and attendee profiles may not seem like traditional ‘wellness’ elements, they are critical to having productive conversations and engaged participants in sessions, which are directly linked to the mental wellness of everyone involved,” Stecker says.
Experts agree that wellness/mindfulness is something that we should all incorporate into our daily lives. Between meditation, yoga, and the power of gratitude and positive thinking, these things set us up to have the best and most focused days possible. “During conferences especially, many of us reject our traditional morning routines and mindfulness in favor of getting to the event on time or early, networking or traveling to the event itself,” says Beth Lawrence, CMP, chief experience officer at Beth Lawrence Meetings & Events. “Incorporating these wellness programs allows for a moment of stillness and reflection, which helps attendees to get even more out of the day’s sessions and activities.”
Types of Wellness Programs
Undoubtedly, wellness programs will now have to incorporate standard meeting planning modifications like masks and social distancing to succeed. As Chan explains, beyond that though is the consideration of how to truly lower anxiety and provide that opportunity for building relationships. Consider developing more outdoor activities, such as a running group or outdoor yoga, to provide people comfort that they are in the open air. Bring in humor through comedy shows or a trivia night to lighten the mood. Make sure to plan extra time for people to shower or clean-up to ensure they feel both comfortable and safe to re-enter your conference environment. “Interactive activities like yoga or other forms of a workout are great for stress release for participants,” Chan says. “Just make sure to not fall into the trap of planning an interactive activity like workouts without planning enough time for people to shower, and come back to the conference in professional attire, otherwise people may not want to take part.”
Fun wellness programs come in many formats. As such, Chan suggests reading participants accurately. Taking a group of boomers to an eSports tournament might miss the mark. Taking others to a high-intensity, super-active wellness program, such as spinning or running, might exclude some people who have health conditions that simply won’t allow them to participate in this level of activity. “Humor is always a great stress reliever,” Chan says. “Finding a fun comedian or doing an activity that incorporates humor via a great emcee or comedian can help a great deal. Whether it’s playing live ‘Jeopardy’ or a karaoke night, it’s always great to see people laughing and enjoying themselves.”
Lawrence adds that having a livestream of a meditation, for example, and separating attendees into socially distant formations while broadcasting throughout the building of the conference is another great way to feel the effects of mindfulness without endangering your attendees. Also partnering with platforms such as Calm and Headspace, and giving attendees either a year’s subscription or a free trial, is a great way to give the gift of mindfulness. And depending on where your conference is located weather-wise, giving attendees access to trail maps and places to walk, ride and bike around the destination city serves not only to encourage health and wellness, but to encourage exploring as you travel, which reverberates into the tour and travel industry.
However, be cautious. The wellness programs need to be safe, otherwise it completely defeats its purpose. Emma Guo, co-founder and CEO of Offsyte, Inc, says meeting planners should work with the individual vendors of different wellness programs to make sure they have all the safety measures in place. For example, if you are planning a yoga break in an in-person conference in the coming months, consider having it outdoors and have participants wear masks.
The COVID Effect
The pandemic has certainly increased the need for wellness program incorporation into conference programming. As Chan explains, virtual programming doesn’t provide the opportunity for people to step away for that casual cup of coffee or to take a walk around the grounds of a conference hotel, as people are often inundated with personal responsibilities if they step away from the computer, such as caring for children. “Providing a safe space to relax and unwind can be a welcome respite from the hectic day in a virtual setting,” Chan says.
According to Guo, wellness programs are important for in-person conferences, but even more important when they are remote. Zoom fatigue is real — to run an engaging remote conference with different keynote speakers and sessions can be tiring for both the organizers and the attendees. “It is more important than ever to make an effort and plan these remote wellness programs for any organization and conference,” Guo says. “We cannot ignore what’s going on in the world, but rather, we should focus on providing solutions to help employees cope with the stress in 2020, whether that’s monthly virtual wellness events or simply some time off. There’s no reason to stop doing this when the world goes back to normal either.”
It’s important for meeting planners to ask the following questions as it relates to wellness programming for virtual conferences: How do you keep people engaged? How do you attract more attendees to your remote conferences? How do you replace the normal hallway conversations and end-of-day happy hours at these conferences? “That’s exactly what remote wellness programs can help with,” Guo says. On Offsyte, one can find short wellness events that can be attached to a remote conference agenda — anything from virtual yoga classes to kick off the day, to remote lunch hour ramen-cooking classes, or a group meditation and stress management class as a mid-afternoon break, and many more.
Chan does think wellness programs will see increased emphasis thanks to the pandemic. Until a highly effective, widely distributed vaccine is available to the world, conference attendees will be less inclined to spend hours upon hours in an indoor setting. “Gone are the small side rooms with a yoga instructor,” Chan says. “People will expect some level of social distancing being planned and executed on their behalf.”
As as increasing number of conference planners are incorporating wellness programs into their conferences, professionals say that trend will stay. “These wellness programs not only help attract more conference attendees, they help keep the audience feeling refreshed and engaged, and keep the conference sessions productive, too. Our overall attention to wellness, health as individuals will also continue — and that’s a good thing,” Guo says.
The key is to find virtual wellness events that are logistically easy to incorporate into the virtual conference agenda. Guo suggests:
• Making sure they are engaging. For example, if you are planning a virtual yoga session as a mid-afternoon break during the conference, you should find an event that’s suitable for a large audience where the instructor knows how to keep the remote attendees engaged.
• Being creative. Instead of adding yoga or meditation to a four-day conference, consider a few different options for your audience such as remote ramen-cooking classes, virtual animal sanctuary tours or online escape games.
And, for virtual conference wellness programs, engaging people in fun activities or interesting things to watch that you normally don’t get a chance to participate in are key to the success of virtual wellness programs. “With limitations in space and equipment, focus less on workout wellness and more on emotional wellness,” Chan says. “Levity and stress relief are key. Interactive trivia or at-home scavenger hunts can be engaging ways to get participation in a virtual setting. Live cooking classes are great as well. If your budget permits, send a gift bag to all participants of DIY items and people can make them together.
Stecker is hopeful for more inclusion via virtual and digital components to events. She says an attendee should be able to gain the desired outcome/takeaway from an experience, regardless of the experience’s method of transmission. “If you are a virtual attendee or an in-person attendee or a ‘watch the recording later’ attendee, you should get the same ultimate conclusion,” Stecker says. “And, if your organization isn’t fully offering that yet, then I encourage you to do some redesign and rethinking of the execution.”
Stecker also says there are a myriad of opportunities to include wellness aspects from the ever-popular yoga video, to more direct inclusion via virtual step challenges, reminders to drink water by the emcee, keynote or head of the organization, healthy cooking demonstrations, a focus on mental health by speakers, meditation sessions, etc. “The planning organization simply needs a commitment to wellness that is executed throughout the virtual experience,” she says.
Lawrence has found that the mindfulness sessions at events are the highest in attendance, especially when positioned at the beginning of the day. Many of us have lost our routines and the things that we did each day to prepare ourselves for what’s ahead. Additionally, especially for women, household management can take up added time and stress. So, having a break to relax, focus on breathing, and lower the anxieties of this pandemic is crucial to having an engaged audience.
A ‘hot’ spot
One place high on the list of planners seeking a wellness destination is Tucson, Arizona. There, dozens of hotels and resorts offer a multitude of programs and activities geared toward healthy minds and bodies. Popular resorts include El Conquistador Tucson, A Hilton Resort, which offers water aerobics, hiking and cycling; Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, which offers yoga and sculpting classes; and Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa, which offers the La Paloma Spa & Salon as well as a jogging/fitness trail.
What the Future Holds
The concept of wellness programs at conferences will be forever altered due to COVID-19. “With platforms like Namastream, YouTube and even Instagram, there are countless ways to incorporate wellness into events,” Lawrence says. “Offering a time slot each morning where attendees are encouraged to log on and participate in a yoga class, meditation, boxing class or even HIIT workouts are a great way to build community, while focusing on the health and wellness of your attendees.”
Allie Magyar, CEO and founder of Washington-based event tech leader Hubb, says COVID has made wellness programming even more important, because at in-person events people naturally get up and move to go from session to session, from booth to booth. But when conference attendees are stuck at home in front of a screen all day with no breaks, they need wellness programming to break up the monotony. She says it’s all about the environment and intentional design. Meeting planners have to look at how long people are learning before they need a break, what time of day it is for them, and when you need them to focus and when they don’t need to focus. Planners need to look at the agenda and include the right number of mental breaks and bio breaks. “I could never have predicted COVID-19 and the way it would change our industry, and there is no way I could predict the future,” Magyar says. “But it’s our job to ask questions, to push the bounds, to be agile, and to adapt to our new environment as we focus on the same thing that we always have — creating an experience and an environment that allows people to succeed.” I&FMM.