Best Practices for Healthy Meetings

Lessons on keeping attendees healthy from planners who dealt with the Ebola scare

Jennifer Ashton

An Ebola scare was the last thing Linda C. Lewis, executive vice president and chief American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) officer, thought she'd be dealing with while hosting her organization's National Magnet Conference. But there she was in Dallas on Oct. 8 of last year with 7,000 nurses arriving on the same day that Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the United States, died at the city's Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.  

The week before the conference, shortly after Duncan was diagnosed, Lewis and her staff posted a note on the ANCC conference website alerting conference attendees that they were aware of the situation and were providing as much assistance as possible. "We believe that nurses are very competent in handling infectious diseases and we did not want to play into the media frenzy," says Lewis.

During the event, ANCC took extra precautions to ensure the safety of attendees: restrooms were monitored at all times during conference hours -- no bathroom monitors reported any sign of illness. Health rooms were staffed and routinely checked during the conference -- there were no reported instances of fever, cold, or flu-like symptoms. A touching moment occurred when Lewis offered words of support for Texas Health Presbyterian Chief Nursing Officer Dr. Cole Edmonson and his team during the conference, and he received a standing ovation.

On the broader front, the organization and its parent organization, the American Nurses Association, distributed a series of communications during the event and in the aftermath to keep its members informed about the evolving situation. These included email messages sent to all members, two quickly prepared webcasts, and an Ebola resource webpage that was accessed by 30,000 unique visitors.

Ebola is not a new disease. It first emerged in Sudan in 1976. "As a society, we fear the things we don't know very well. Ebola has been around a long time but we didn't see it in this country until this year," says Dr. Jennifer Ashton (pictured), a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist and ABC News senior medical contributor with Good Morning America and World News Tonight with David Muir. She is also author of several books including her most recent one, Your Body Beautiful -- and a popular corporate speaker.

"Casual travel contact will not result in Ebola -- influenza and the GI norovirus should be greater worries. These diseases kill more in the U.S. than have died of Ebola thus far in this current outbreak. Viruses and bacteria are smart -- they are always evolving, always changing. Although infectious diseases can be scary, we can't live in a plastic bubble." (see Dr. Ashton's tips for staying healthy.)

While most health risks faced by events are much less dramatic than the ANCC situation, industry experts agree that when dealing with big and small health scares at meetings and conferences, it is most important to be practical -- not fearful. Here are the best practices that some meeting planners use to prevent illness from wreaking havoc on their events, as well as their tips for keeping attendees healthy.


Be Proactive, Not Reactive
When dealing with health scares and meetings and conferences, facts about prevention and risk controls should be readily available so attendees understand how to respond to an outbreak.

Dr. Robert Quigley, senior vice president of medical assistance, International SOS, lays out the following scenario: A Chicago-based company is having an annual meeting in the Caribbean. The fact there are many mosquito-borne viruses in this part of the world is never mentioned. A mistake, he says.

What if someone has a heart attack or moped accident? "It's imperative that proper planning include participant risk mitigation," he explains. He recommends companies require eLearning or webinars about risk mitigation that employees must take before meetings and events. For example, TravelTracker is a product that not only helps organizations act immediately during critical events by identifying travelers at risk but also shows who has participated in preparatory webinars and who has not.  

"Meeting planners, as well as those who make decisions to send employees to these events, play a critical role in safeguarding travelers and other VIPs," says Dr. Quigley. (See some of his best practices for keeping attendees healthy, safe, and secure when planning and executing a meeting.)




Dr. Ashton's Commonsense Tips to Stay Healthy

By Andrea Doyle

Dr. Jennifer Ashton, a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist and ABC News senior medical contributor, offers some straightforward tips for staying healthy.

"There has been a lot in the news recently about influenza and the germs that are present on airplanes -- for good reason. It's appropriate to be proactive -- not hysterical or panicked," she says. "I follow a few commonsense tips."
  
Travel With Disinfecting Wipes
"Before I leave my house, I fill a Ziploc bag with Lysol or Purell sanitizing wipes. When I get onto the plane, with the risk of embarrassing myself although I don't get strange looks anymore, I wipe down the whole area I am going to be spending several hours in -- I wipe down the seatbelt, armrests, headrest, food tray, button for light. I do this not only because these areas are dirty but viruses can live on dry surfaces for several hours to several days. The people who clean the planes are not blasting them with bleach. They are vacuuming and picking up trash."

Hand Sanitizer at the Ready
"I always travel with hand sanitizer and I use it regularly. There is a lot of handshaking at conferences and events, which is really not that good for avoiding germs. That's where hand washing and hand sanitizers are important."

Get Enough Sleep and Exercise
"This may be difficult while attending meetings and events, but it's important. I encourage people to make these two things a priority as they definitely improve immune-system function."

Eat Healthy
"There are studies that link excessive alcohol and sugar to the weakening of the immune system. Microbes love sugar."

Wear a Scarf
"Medical workers protect their face and hands from exposure. It would be ridiculous to travel in a hazmat suit, gloves, and a mask, but I do travel with a scarf on. If someone next to me is coughing and sneezing, I put the scarf around my face."

Carry a List of Your Medications and Medical Conditions

"If you are away and have a medical emergency, have a plan in place. Not only should you have a list of the medications you are on but also the contact information for your doctors. If you do have to see a doctor or go to an emergency room or a hospital, get copies of all your reports and tests to bring to your doctor back home."




Health Strategies
Andrea H. Gold, president of Tucson, AZ-based Gold Stars Speakers Bureau, a company that has provided organizations with professional presenters, entertainers, and celebrities worldwide for more than 26 years, says health should be kept in mind when planning the hours of a conference. "I am alluding to the fact that some meetings continue to late-night hours, such as ending at 10 p.m. Meetings that continue until late leave no downtime over a period of days. And if you are crossing time zones, that 10 p.m. time can equate to 1 a.m. By the time you get to sleep, you're lucky to get enough of it," says Gold.

Most planners have their own strategies for keeping attendees healthy. A common tactic is having hand sanitizer and bacterial wipes on hand. Packets of vitamin mixes like Emergen-C and Airborne are also popular.

Studies have shown that sugar can raise the risk of cold and flu. Healthy food and beverage choices have become a must. "Many times when you go to meetings, all that is available is bagels, pizza, cookies, candy, and soda. Eating too much of this leads to susceptibility to catching colds. I like to put out bags of nuts, fruit trays, veggies, and some cheese and meat platters so attendees can eat as much or as little as they like while still being able to get protein and nutrients into their system," explains Laura Petersen, chief operating officer of Student-Tutor, a Phoenix-based company that works with students around the U.S. "I also make sure water is available at all times."

Carol Galle, president and CEO of Ferndale, MI-based Special D Events, a meeting, conference, and event-planning firm, says health is a focus at her company. "It's part of our people/planet/profit mission," she says.

A few things Special D Events does on a regular basis include:

 Offer workout sessions, yoga, or runs

 For events in dry climates, provide lip balm and eye drops

 Bring basic first-aid kits and incident-report forms to every event

 Make sure all A/V and IT cords are taped down to avoid trips and falls

When running a meeting, Karen Auld, a senior consultant with Ewing, NJ-based Environmental Resources Management (ERM), a global provider of environmental, health, safety, risk, and social consulting services starts with an announcement similar to what one hears on an airplane.

"I encourage participants to locate the nearest emergency exit. The banquet areas of some hotels can become a maze when they configure those temporary walls. It is important that attendees know how to quickly and safely exit the building," she says. "I end my briefing with the name of the nearest hospital and locations of restrooms." Auld adds that she does this not only to ensure the safety of the attendees but because going over this type of information helps to remind people that they are there at the meeting. "They feel more present because they now know and understand their surroundings," she says.



Questions or comments? Email [email protected]



This article appears in the February 2015 issue of Successful Meetings.


Anticipate Unfavorable Occurrences Before They Happen
Yvonne Szikla, founder and president of San Diego-based Affairs with Flair, a full-service event planning firm, says the key to keeping attendees healthy is anticipating unfavorable occurrences before they happen and making sure they are part of an overall risk plan. A former corporate event planner, Szikla has produced executive development programs for top management from the U.S. and abroad. Szikla offers 10 tips to protect the health of your attendees at your next event:

1. Know the location and phone numbers for ambulance services, urgent care centers, emergency rooms, and hospitals close to your event.

2. Have a list of numbers for taxi and other transportation companies on hand with hours of operation. Don't assume taxis operate all night -- situations vary by city and country and it is worth checking. In some instances, it might be better to have a town car company informed of your event and on standby as a town car is more upscale and generally provides a more comfortable ride.

3. Know your attendee demographics and, if possible, collect an emergency medical information card with pertinent information. Be aware of any special needs they may have such as a wheelchair before they arrive.

4. Depending on the size, demographics, and location of the event, consider having a nurse or emergency medical technician on site. At the very least, have a first-aid kit with basics such as bandages, sunscreen, and aspirin. It is not uncommon at overseas events to have an ambulance on hand when certain attendees or executives have potentially serious health conditions such as heart issues, which could be fatal.

5. Provide signage at food stations noting ingredients in dishes. Allergies, gluten, and lactose intolerance are common issues today and can cause severe reactions needing immediate attention. If a dish has nuts in it, indicate this.

6. Alcohol: Make sure bartenders are certified. Certification provides bartenders with training to handle and cut off intoxicated guests. Many a client has been relieved to know that he won't have to be the one to confront and deal with an intoxicated guest. Have your staff and vendors also keep an eye out during the event for general problems.

7. Outdoor events. Keep attendees informed on weather and appropriate attire needed to be comfortable. (Szikla provides a basket of flip-flops, towels, shawls, sunscreen, parasols, hats, and other amenities for outdoor events.)  "There is nothing worse to mar an outdoor event than feeling cold from an unexpected breeze or forgetting to bring a hat. And no one wants a sprained ankle from navigating stilettos on sand or soft grass," she says.

8. Have a chain of command for communicating issues. Discuss all of the above points with your client and how each item will be handled.  

9. Gather your vendors and staff and make sure they are all well briefed on what to do and who to go to with any concerns during the event.  

10. Communicate closely with the venue and keep them abreast of possible needs and concerns before and during the event. Keeping them in the loop should be part of your strategy for a successful event.

An Ounce of Prevention
At the Sibos show, the Swift International Banking Operations Seminar held in September at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, the 7,338 attendees included financial professionals from 140 countries including West Africa, where the Ebola outbreak is widespread. Thermal scanners were set up alongside metal detectors to check for elevated body temperatures as a possible sign of Ebola and other infectious illnesses. This health screening strategy was developed in partnership with International SOS, the world's leading medical and travel security services company.

"We were asked if there was anything we could do to mitigate the risk of transmission," explains Philadelphia, PA-based Dr. Robert Quigley, senior vice president of medical assistance, International SOS. "We put a crisis management team in place and met with executives from the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. We looked at entry and exit sites and decided to couple the metal detectors with walkthrough temperature scanners. Each unit was staffed with medical and security personnel. A red light indicated a person may have a temperature and was discretely pulled aside by healthcare professionals. If we felt this person was a risk, there was an ambulance on standby, and a properly attired team and triage set up at the hospital." This procedure didn't interrupt the flow of traffic and no one had to be taken to a medical facility. Attendees were notified about this additional screening before the conference.




Health Strategies
Andrea H. Gold, president of Tucson, AZ-based Gold Stars Speakers Bureau, a company that has provided organizations with professional presenters, entertainers, and celebrities worldwide for more than 26 years, says health should be kept in mind when planning the hours of a conference. "I am alluding to the fact that some meetings continue to late-night hours, such as ending at 10 p.m. Meetings that continue until late leave no downtime over a period of days. And if you are crossing time zones, that 10 p.m. time can equate to 1 a.m. By the time you get to sleep, you're lucky to get enough of it," says Gold.

Most planners have their own strategies for keeping attendees healthy. A common tactic is having hand sanitizer and bacterial wipes on hand. Packets of vitamin mixes like Emergen-C and Airborne are also popular.

Studies have shown that sugar can raise the risk of cold and flu. Healthy food and beverage choices have become a must. "Many times when you go to meetings, all that is available is bagels, pizza, cookies, candy, and soda. Eating too much of this leads to susceptibility to catching colds. I like to put out bags of nuts, fruit trays, veggies, and some cheese and meat platters so attendees can eat as much or as little as they like while still being able to get protein and nutrients into their system," explains Laura Petersen, chief operating officer of Student-Tutor, a Phoenix-based company that works with students around the U.S. "I also make sure water is available at all times."

Carol Galle, president and CEO of Ferndale, MI-based Special D Events, a meeting, conference, and event-planning firm, says health is a focus at her company. "It's part of our people/planet/profit mission," she says.

A few things Special D Events does on a regular basis include:

 Offer workout sessions, yoga, or runs

 For events in dry climates, provide lip balm and eye drops

 Bring basic first-aid kits and incident-report forms to every event

 Make sure all A/V and IT cords are taped down to avoid trips and falls

When running a meeting, Karen Auld, a senior consultant with Ewing, NJ-based Environmental Resources Management (ERM), a global provider of environmental, health, safety, risk, and social consulting services starts with an announcement similar to what one hears on an airplane.

"I encourage participants to locate the nearest emergency exit. The banquet areas of some hotels can become a maze when they configure those temporary walls. It is important that attendees know how to quickly and safely exit the building," she says. "I end my briefing with the name of the nearest hospital and locations of restrooms." Auld adds that she does this not only to ensure the safety of the attendees but because going over this type of information helps to remind people that they are there at the meeting. "They feel more present because they now know and understand their surroundings," she says.



Questions or comments? Email [email protected]



This article appears in the February 2015 issue of Successful Meetings.






Dr. Ashton's Commonsense Tips to Stay Healthy

By Andrea Doyle

Dr. Jennifer Ashton, a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist and ABC News senior medical contributor, offers some straightforward tips for staying healthy.

"There has been a lot in the news recently about influenza and the germs that are present on airplanes -- for good reason. It's appropriate to be proactive -- not hysterical or panicked," she says. "I follow a few commonsense tips."
  
Travel With Disinfecting Wipes
"Before I leave my house, I fill a Ziploc bag with Lysol or Purell sanitizing wipes. When I get onto the plane, with the risk of embarrassing myself although I don't get strange looks anymore, I wipe down the whole area I am going to be spending several hours in -- I wipe down the seatbelt, armrests, headrest, food tray, button for light. I do this not only because these areas are dirty but viruses can live on dry surfaces for several hours to several days. The people who clean the planes are not blasting them with bleach. They are vacuuming and picking up trash."

Hand Sanitizer at the Ready
"I always travel with hand sanitizer and I use it regularly. There is a lot of handshaking at conferences and events, which is really not that good for avoiding germs. That's where hand washing and hand sanitizers are important."

Get Enough Sleep and Exercise
"This may be difficult while attending meetings and events, but it's important. I encourage people to make these two things a priority as they definitely improve immune-system function."

Eat Healthy
"There are studies that link excessive alcohol and sugar to the weakening of the immune system. Microbes love sugar."

Wear a Scarf
"Medical workers protect their face and hands from exposure. It would be ridiculous to travel in a hazmat suit, gloves, and a mask, but I do travel with a scarf on. If someone next to me is coughing and sneezing, I put the scarf around my face."

Carry a List of Your Medications and Medical Conditions

"If you are away and have a medical emergency, have a plan in place. Not only should you have a list of the medications you are on but also the contact information for your doctors. If you do have to see a doctor or go to an emergency room or a hospital, get copies of all your reports and tests to bring to your doctor back home."