Paper menus have been replaced with QR codes. Swag bags are now stuffed with hand sanitizer and extra masks. All seats are spaced six feet apart. After coming to a complete halt in mid-March, the live-events industry is back.
"We're so happy to be in-person again," said Amanda Veldman Doyle, director of regional sales for Prestige Global Meeting Source, who attended Northstar Meetings Group's Reconvening for Recovery event at the Mohegan Sun casino and resort in Mystic County, Conn., this fall. "Live meetings are at the core of what we do, and it's great to be able to experience it firsthand so we can tell colleagues and clients what it's like to go to a meeting now — and feel safe doing so."
Pulling off a safe and successful in-person event right now is possible, but it requires a lot of planning, as well as active communication with attendees and ongoing collaboration with vendors.
Following are details on a handful of face-to-face events that have taken place over the past few months and could help establish protocols for in-person meetings as the pandemic continues to affect business and daily life. Recent additions to the list include gatherings in Connecticut, Georgia and Louisiana.
"We're back. We're officially back!"
Those were the first words spoken onstage at "Reconvening for Recovery: Live," a hybrid event produced by Northstar and Mohegan Sun Oct. 13-14. The in-person event brought together 75 meeting professionals, marking for many their first face-to-face meeting since the pandemic struck in March. In addition, more than 1,000 attendees participated in 3.5 hours of educational sessions on a custom digital-event platform. (The program is available on demand here.)
This was an ideal venue for putting new health and safety protocols to the test, says Angela Cox, senior director of meetings and events for Northstar Meetings Group. "They have their own health-care providers on property, so we had a doctor on call for us. They also have a manufacturing plant, so they had plexiglass for registration shields and buffet shields."
Owned and operated by the Mohegan Tribe, the resort is a sovereign nation, and thus not held to the group-size restrictions imposed by the state. The property was closed in the spring, but reopened to guests on June 1, and began serving groups later that month.
Here, planners can easily meet or exceed all safety protocols recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources. At this event, all in-person attendees were required to sign a code of conduct, pledging to allow temperature checks, adhere to social-distancing guidelines, wear face masks and other measures.
Thermal scanners were used to check all attendees' temperatures daily, and signs and floor decals were used to direct traffic flow and remind guests to keep their distance. PC Nametag provided wristband technology as an option; the bands buzzed when wearers came within six feet of each other.
"You have to overcommunicate with your attendees," said Cox. "We needed to make sure everybody coming to the event knew they were expected to wear their masks over their nose and mouth, not just on their ears, and that they needed to respect social distancing. Without putting that out in advance, some people weren't going to be comfortable coming to the event. But since they knew what was expected, that helped set their minds at ease.
Guests were seated at 72-inch banquet tables, with a maximum of three people per table. All attendees were provided with tent cards to mark their seats at a table. Couches in lounge areas were set with pillows in the middle to ensure proper distancing between guests. The same safety standards were applied to the food-and-beverage program, which consisted of plated meals and server-attended buffets with plexiglass dividing the staff from the attendees.
The Orange County Convention Center hosted its first exhibition since COVID-19 in late July. The Together Again Expo, held on July 24, was attended by 1,405 people in person and 8,225 people online.
Safety protocols included temperature checks at the door, socially distanced sponsor booths, increased sanitization and a no-handshaking rule. The exhibit halls were kept at 50 percent capacity and all attendees were required to wear masks.
"People were incredibly enthusiastic because, like me, this was the first industry event or convention center that they've walked into in the last five months," said David Dubois, president and CEO of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events. "But more importantly, it helped to breed positive momentum that our industry can produce a safe and comfortable event with physical distancing and sanitation protocols. I felt very comfortable. As long as you have your mask on and everything, it's safer than driving a car.
To keep guests safe, the hotel has implemented a "25 Points of Care" cleaning program, which includes mandatory face coverings for employees, plastic dividers between guests and staff at check-in, frequent disinfection of lobby doors and high-touch areas and more. Adjustments have also made to the meeting room layout and procedures.
"It's very different… [Guests] can't get anything themselves anymore, so we have to serve them everything," said Moore. "We had a buffet at one event, but we had to have servers behind the buffet serving them food and somebody had to walk around and get them coffee."
Other changes include a socially distanced layout, linenless tables and a thorough sanitation of the meeting rooms at every break.
"They were very happy with everything and we got great feedback," Moore continued. "We kind of went above and beyond for them and I think they felt very comfortable."
Meanwhile, the Margaritaville Orlando Resort in Kissimmee, Fla. reopened on May 15 after a temporary closure and hosted its first group meeting on June 4. The event, an annual board meeting for the local Osceola County Tax Collector's office, had originally been scheduled to take place in April but was cancelled due to COVID-19.
The rescheduled June event was attended by 26 people with additional board members dialing in. As a government group, the meeting needed to adhere to all guidelines from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
"For the Tax Collector's event we had a number of opportunities to overcome, not the least of which was how to make sure this government entity could conduct their required business while staying safe and providing a productive environment," said Jason Johnson, regional director of sales and marketing for the Margaritaville Resort Orlando. "Our team jumped at the task and immediately began to diagram the room setup while consulting resources that helped lay out the CDC's recommended distancing."
For the event, attendees were seated at individual tables which were spaced at least six feet apart. Hand sanitizer was placed on each table, as well as at all the entrances. The CDC guidelines were quoted in the meeting notice sent out prior to the event and all attendees were encouraged to wear masks.
According to Bruce Vickers, an Osceola County tax collector who organized the meeting, attendees followed the guidelines and the board meeting was an "absolute success."
"Everyone was very pleased that we had gone through with it and were able to have this meeting and follow the guidelines," said Vickers. "We have been under quarantine and shut down for a couple of months, so we had all only had some conference calls with each other. It was really good to see people, even though we had to socially distance… In these trying times, it is difficult, but possible to meet as long as you follow the guidelines."
In late August, the Georgia Society of Association Executives held its 2020 Annual Meeting at the Hyatt Regency Savannah. A total of 113 people attended the two-day event.
"We worked with the Hyatt staff to walk through everything the attendee would experience and make changes to our room sets, food-and-beverage service, registration and how the sponsors and exhibitors were set up," said Wendy Kavanagh, CAE, president of GSAE. The planning team completed a site tour two months prior to the event and made a number of adjustments to ensure the gathering was as safe as possible.
"We went from putting 50 people in a room to putting 20 people in a room. We actually switched ballrooms to make sure that we were using one that was accessible via elevators, stairs, as well as escalators to keep crowding to a minimum, and to avoid any kind of bottlenecks," she noted.
Extensive pre-event communications told attendees what to expect. Among the resources provided in the weeks leading up to the meeting were Covid-19 guidelines from the CDC, safety procedures from both the GSAE and the Hyatt Regency Savannah, and articles on how to wear a mask properly and navigate social spaces safely. A video from the Hyatt team walked guests through the entire hotel experience, including what to expect at check-in and checkout, parking areas and F&B outlets.
Upon arrival, all attendees received a safety kit with masks, disinfecting wipes and a no-touch door opener. Temperature checks were offered daily and masks were required at all times, except while eating and drinking. The event app included a Covid-19 assessment that guests had to complete each morning.
"You can't learn if you're uncomfortable or you don't feel safe," said Kavanagh. "I think we did a really good job of preparing people for what to expect. Most of our attendees had not traveled up until this time. Few of them had ventured outside of their communities."
Meeting rooms were set to less than 25 percent capacity, with thorough room-cleaning between sessions. All A/V equipment was disinfected between speakers. In order to minimize crowding, identical food and coffee stations were set up in each meeting room, with service lines color-coded by corresponding table linens. Each station was staffed by masked and gloved attendants behind plexiglass. Prepackaged items were served for a grab-and-go lunch.
Speakers were GSAE's biggest challenge. Of the event's nearly 30 presenters, eight had to be replaced due to travel restrictions or potential exposure prior to the event. But Kavanagh said the team had "backup plans to backup plans," with a number of standbys ready to go. No cases of Covid-19 were reported at the event and in an anonymous survey conducted two weeks afterward, no one reported they experienced Covid-19 symptoms or tested positive.
GSAE is compiling a toolkit outlining how the organization safely executed the event, including a site-visit checklist, sample communications, and must-have health and safety policies. The organization plans to hold another meeting and awards show as an in-person or hybrid affair in December.
MC&A, a global destination management company, hosted its first event since the pandemic began, an outdoor event that was held in early July at the Sugar Beach Estate on Maui. The Social Spacing Soiree was designed to recognize Maui's first responders, including medics, doctors, surgeons, nurses and EMTs.
Fifty first responders were invited to the event, along with a few of MC&A's clients and industry partners. Masks were required for all guests and temperature checks were conducted upon arrival. Hand-sanitizing stations were posted at the entrance and throughout the venue. Shelving units broke up the space and enforced social distancing. In addition, plexiglass dividers were used at the food stations and the linenless tables were cleaned regularly. An aerialist provided entertainment from a distance.
According to Jamie Gold, director of sales for MC&A, the company hired additional staff who were dedicated solely to ensuring everyone was following the safety guidelines at the event. All staff members and guests reported they were healthy two weeks after the event. A video of the Social Spacing Soiree can be found here.
"It was important to show our clients how a real event with people can actually work, operate and look moving forward," said Gold. "It certainly wasn't easy, and even in doing all of this, we still took a big risk. With first responders as our guests, we thought what better way to truly put this, and ourselves, to the test. If anyone would call us out for not following guidelines, it would be them."
About a month after the gathering, capacity restrictions for events in the state were once again lowered to 10 people. Click here for the latest updates.
In a span of 40 days, Indianapolis hosted 18 events that drew a total of 40,000 attendees. Of these events, 13 were corporate meetings and five were sporting events.
The state's gathering restrictions currently limit events to 250 people or less, but planners are finding creative solutions that allow larger events to go on. For example, a bio-life-sciences corporation was able to hold a three-day, 1,000-person event at the JW Marriott Indianapolis in late July by dividing the group among different meeting rooms throughout the hotel.
"They needed to keep to 250 people or less, and have their health and safety plans inspected, stamped and approved by the Indianapolis Health Department," said Chris Gahl, senior vice president of marketing and communications for Visit Indy, the city's convention and visitors bureau. "By working with the corporate planners and the hotel, we were able to map out how the meeting rooms and general sessions would break out. The groups were kept in separate rooms and the keynotes, although they were in person, were broadcast throughout the individual meeting rooms to keep no more than 250 people in one place."
Safety precautions included a face-mask requirement for all attendees, prepackaged meals and a contactless check-in experience. A similar plan was used to host a medical meeting of 600 attendees in mid-August.
According to Gahl, the city's tourism partners have also signed on to a new "Hoosier Hospitality Promise" to inform guests of the safety protocols in place. The promise includes properly training staff members on cleaning and disinfection practices, conducting health checks of every employee before their shifts and providing hand sanitizer at all entrances.
"All of the downtown hotels and restaurants and everyone associated with the tourism industry has taken that hospitality promise to first and foremost protect the health of our visitors and residents," said Gahl. "It is not a superficial promise. It is the fact that they will truly enforce masks, which are a municipal mandate, and conduct health and safety practices recommended by the CDC."
Helping to return in-person events to the Big Easy, the Roosevelt Hotel New Orleans hosted a regional meeting for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America in late August.
The group originally had planned to bring together its members for one national meeting in Las Vegas. But restrictions, which at the time limited that city's gatherings to 50 people, necessitated a change in plans, so the organization held smaller regional meetings at 24 locations across the country.
For the two-day event at the Roosevelt, 110 attendees arrived from central southern states for a dinner reception on Aug. 21. This was followed the next day by a lunch meeting that connected attendees at the hotel by videoconference with participants at the other 23 locations for a larger hybrid national gathering. In total, nearly 1,500 people from around the country participated.
"We were constantly monitoring the restrictions and any changes that were coming through at the city, state or even federal level," said Denise Ferrier Mavor, senior account executive at MC&A, the destination management company that planned the dinner reception. "We were in constant communication with the client as well as the hotel and, of course, our vendor partners to make sure everyone was in sync."
The meeting rooms were sanitized and sealed prior to the event, and even décor elements were cleaned before attendees arrived. All guests were required to wear masks, and seating was limited to three people per 72-inch round table.
Taking the meals touchless, all food and beverages were delivered by servers wearing gloves and masks. QR codes were placed on the tables so attendees could access menus from their phones.
This was the second event MC&A has helped produce since the pandemic began. In July, they hosted a Social Spacing Soiree for 50 first responders on Maui in Hawaii. The DMC worked on several gatherings in October and has two more planned before year-end.
"Where there's a will, there's a way," said Ferrier Mavor. "It does take some more planning and time to put on an event now, but there's a lot that can be done safely."
In the Empire State, events are currently restricted to 50 people are less, with smaller meetings happening, particularly in Upstate New York. Author and leadership speaker Sharon Burstein hosted a three-day women's empowerment event at the Wiawaka Center for Women in Lake George from July 31 to Aug. 2, which included a variety of talks, workshops and outdoor opportunities. A total of 17 people attended. According to Burstein, 24 people had registered but seven stayed home because they were from states on New York's quarantine list.
To ensure guest safety, Burstein and her team met three times with the venue to walk through the property and review safety protocols. All guests were required to wear masks and attendees were asked to sign waivers at check-in. Each participant also was given their own bottle of hand sanitizer, dining was split into two time periods to minimize crowding, and all seating was measured to maintain proper distancing.
Burstein plans to host another event this fall in the state capital. The fifth-annual Leadership Summit America will be held at the Desmond Hotel Albany in late October, with strict social-distancing and safety protocols in place. Attendance will be limited to the state-mandated 50 people.
"Both people and resorts are clamoring to have events return safely," said Burstein. "Rather than huge gatherings, events can be broken down or even repeated with several smaller groups at a time. We need to think outside the box and work together to make it happen."
Quorum, a meetings venue at the University City Science Center in Philadelphia, held a training event for the U.S. Census Bureau on June 25 for 48 people, all of whom were seated at social-distanced tables and were required to wear masks. A staff member was positioned at the entrance to ensure that everyone had proper face coverings and knew where they were going. Arrows on the floor also helped to direct attendee flow, and extra masks were available onsite for anyone who did not bring their own.
High-touch areas of the meeting room were sanitized before, during and after the event. Other safety precautions taken by the venue include installing no-touch door handles and placing social-distancing stickers on the floors.
"The management was very cognizant of our mutual concern for public safety," said Anthony Thornton, field operations manager for the U.S. Census Bureau. "The director of the facility and her staff arranged our requested meeting area in a way that emphasized social distancing. The facility takes cleanliness and sanitation in very high regard and requires all visitors to wear protective masks. The Census staff and attendees were very impressed with the venue's atmosphere."
In-person meetings are also happening in Virginia. Colonial Williamsburg Resorts hosted its first corporate meeting in early June at its Williamsburg Lodge, an Autograph Collection property. The two-day meeting for a senior-management group was attended by 45 guests.
In order to ensure guest safety, plexiglass barriers were installed at all contact points between guests and staff, such as check-in, reception bars and coffee stations. All staff members were required to wear masks and gloves. Attendees were also required to wear face masks.
Meeting rooms were sanitized daily, including all chairs, tables, pens and microphones. Social-distancing signs were posted throughout the venue, along with floor markers at all line queue areas and directional arrows in hallways to keep traffic flowing smoothly. Separate entrance and exit doors were used for the meeting rooms, and one guest was seated per every six-foot table.
Attendees were served plated meals and were encouraged to go outdoors during breaks, with direct access outside from the dining room. According to Joe Barrow, director of hotel sales for the Colonial Williamsburg Resorts, the venue staff did a thorough walk-through a few days before the event took place to view the meeting space from the attendee perspective and address any potential concerns beforehand.
Barrow noted that the main issue they encountered was a quick turnaround on the planning, as Virginia had entered phase two of reopening the week prior. This allowed gatherings of up to 50 people to take place and meant the Williamsburg Lodge had just a few days to get everything ready for the 45-person meeting.
The other issue was the limited staff on site. According to Barrow, the lodge was forced to furlough 95 percent of its employees at the height of the pandemic. The corporate meeting was therefore staffed largely by management and a few hourly employees. But all went smoothly on the day of the event.
The Williamsburg Lodge also hosted a 10-day, in-person meeting for a legal group in mid-July. All 28 attendees were required to wear masks. Other safety precautions included seating one person per six-foot table, creating dedicated exit and entrance doors and hosting the opening and closing receptions outdoors. Housekeeping was adjusted to only come a few times during the stay, although many guests decided to forgo housekeeping entirely. According to Barrow, the venue has a handful of in-person meetings scheduled throughout 2020.
"I think if you do it right and you follow the guidelines and if the attendees are willing to follow the guidelines, then you can have successful meetings," said Barrow. "That's not the only one that we've held. We've held meetings since early June and we're getting better and better at it and much more efficient at it."
Meanwhile, the Boar's Head Resort in Charlottesville welcomed its first group at the end of June. The hybrid event for medical professionals was held June 24-26 with 13 in-person attendees, most of whom traveled two to three hours from the Washington, D.C., area. An on-site webcast studio enabled additional attendees to join via video.
New health-safety practices implemented for the group included a no-contact check-in option, sanitization of high-contact surface areas and fixtures every two to four hours, touchless hand-sanitizing stations installed around the property and the requirement that all staff members undergo mandatory temperature checks before each shift. In addition, all meeting rooms were fogged daily with disinfectants, and sneeze guards were added to the all the buffets, which were serviced by an attendant. All members of the resort team were required to wear personal protection equipment.
According to Mark White, director of sales at the Boar's Head, the event went so well that the group is already planning to return. The resort also hosted another meeting in early July.
"We were well prepared and did not face any challenges based on our new protocol," said White. "We had very positive feedback based on new standards. All went well, so much so that the group is committed to return for possibly four additional dates."
The Meetings Mean Business Coalition held its 2020 summer board meeting at the Grand Hyatt Washington hotel in the nation's capital on July 28. The one-day event was attended by 35 in-person guests. An additional 50 people joined via Zoom.
"It was important for us to meet in person because we are the Meetings Mean Business Coalition and we advocate for the value of face-to-face meetings," said Nan Marchand Beauvois, who serves as senior vice president of the U.S. Travel Association and oversees the Meetings Mean Business Coalition. "We have about three to four meetings a year and our meeting in March was digital. But we polled our members and over half of them said, 'Yes, we should meet face to face in July.' So it was a group decision and we decided to hold a meeting for those who could travel to D.C., and then have the rest participate on Zoom."
Face masks were required for all in-person attendees. Guests also had to undergo a temperature screening and complete a liability waiver at check-in, where plexiglass screens had been installed for added safety.
Three people were seated per roundtable in the meeting room. Each was given their own microphone. For presentations on the main stage, the podium was wiped down and the microphone top was replaced between each speaker. The food and beverage program consisted of healthy, tasteful meals that were prepackaged and safely served to guests from behind a plexiglass barrier.
"The hotel did a great job onsite to ensure everyone's safety and that people were socially distancing. We even had floor markers, so you could stand as a group of three or four and network at a distance," said Beauvois. "We also did a lot of work up front to make sure our members felt comfortable traveling and that they knew what to expect when they got there."
According to Beauvois, the event exceeded expectations, with positive feedback from both in-person and virtual attendees.
"What surprised me the most is the level of engagement and how easy it was to engage with not only those in the room, but also those on Zoom," she said. "You want to make sure that those who have called in feel as if they're part of this meeting as well. Because of how we had set the technology up, it was really easy to answer questions from virtual attendees as they came in."
More details on the event can be found here, where Northstar Meetings Group's own vice president and group publisher David Blansfield documented his journey traveling from New York City to Washington, D.C. to attend the meeting. Safety protocols from the event, hotel and airport are all featured.
The Meetings Mean Business Coalition plans to hold another in-person or hybrid meeting in November.
This summer, the American Club Resort in Kohler, Wis., hosted a month-long gathering for 150 people from a financial institute in Chicago. The company wanted to bring 100 of its top interns together, so they could meet with their mentors face to face and leadership could better identify which candidates should be given job offers. The company also hoped that this time together would increase their job offer acceptance rate.
The gathering included 100 interns, 30 managers and 20 event staff members. The group did a complete buyout of the property, which offers 241 guest rooms and 22,000 square feet of meeting space. A bubble environment was used to keep everyone safe for the duration of the program, which lasted from July 18 - Aug. 16. During this time, all attendees stayed on-site. Only the resort staff members traveled outside of the bubble to go home at the end of the day.
All American Club Resort employees were tested twice for Covid-19 before they were allowed to enter the bubble, and then were tested on an ongoing basis throughout the program. Staff members were also given a handbook with a social contract outlining the health and safety expectations they were expected to abide by.
The attendees were flown into Chicago on July 5, two weeks prior to the start of the program. They spent two weeks quarantining in a hotel room and had to undergo two Covid-19 tests before they were allowed into the bubble. As with the resort staff, attendees also underwent continual Covid-19 testing during the program.
According to Justin Gephart, director of sales for the American Club Resort, only two people tested positive for Covid-19 during the entire month. The first was a staff member who tested positive during the first round of tests before the bubble began. The second case was a staff member who tested positive during the first week of the program and was removed from the bubble. There was no spread and the group did not report any positive cases post-event.
To ensure proper sanitation and disinfection, the American Club brought in a third-party cleaning service which applied a fogging disinfectant throughout the hotel, including in the guest rooms, bathrooms, dining areas, public spaces and back-of-house areas. A bioprotect surface spray was applied afterwards. The second spray is designed to create a protective layer that prevents the growth and spread of bacteria and mold for 90 days. Beyond this, extensive cleaning was conducted daily and audited to ensure the highest levels of safety.
Workstations were spaced six feet apart in the meeting rooms. Individual containers were used for food-and-beverage service, and a contactless lunch was provided to minimize touchpoints between attendees and resort staff. Activities, such as golfing, biking and canoeing, were held outdoors with thorough sanitization of all equipment. As an added precaution, the American Club Resort had a nurse available on-site and set up an isolated section of rooms for quarantining, although they were never used.
"We had two positive tests, but we had absolutely no spread," said Gephart. "We had extensive cleaning policies in place, we had PPE in place; and physical distancing is such a critical piece. The ethos we asked everyone to conduct themselves under was, 'assume you're asymptomatic and so is the coworker next to you.' With that mindset in place, it was a highly successful program."
If you know of a live event that has happened or will take place in the coming weeks, we want to hear from you. Please email us with updates.