Across the country and around the world, live events are gathering steam while still following pandemic protocols to keep all participants safe. Temperature screenings, questions about vaccinations and on-site Covid-19 tests have been added to the registration process. Swag bags are stuffed with hand sanitizer and extra masks.
The number of conferences taking place is expected to rise significantly in the months to come. Northstar Meetings Group's latest PULSE Survey shows 80 percent of planners polled in the U.S. will hold their next in-person event this year. Another recent survey from Northstar's Britain-based counterparts, Meetings & Incentive Travel and Association Meetings International, found that meeting professionals in the U.K. and are Europe are also optimistic about the industry's recovery and 71 percent are planning in-person events for 2021.
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.
Destination Concepts, a destination management company headquartered in California, hosted nearly 20 in-person events throughout the country last year and is in the process of planning more than 40 for 2021. "There are a lot of people who are saying they'll wait until Q3 or 2022, but we do still have a fair amount that are willing to move forward," said CEO Brynne Frost. "We've shown them how to do it safely and get people back to being comfortable."
Following are details on face-to-face events that have taken place over the past few months, helping to establish protocols for in-person meetings as the pandemic continues to affect business and daily life. Recent additions to the list include gatherings in Arizona and New York.
In honor of Global Meetings Industry Day, a group of 120 industry professionals traveled to Tucson, Ariz., for Incentive Live: 2021 GMID Edition. The event, which was hosted by Northstar Meetings Group and held at the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort from April 7-9, included educational session and one-on-one appointments with top suppliers.
To ensure the highest levels of safety, all attendees were required to undergo a PCR or rapid Covid-19 test within 72 hour before traveling, or show proof of full vaccination. In addition, temperature checks were conducted daily and all guests had to sign a code of conduct confirming that they would wear a mask at all times, maintain social distancing, abide by the no-handshake rule, self monitor for any Covid-19 symptoms and report if they were feeling unwell.
While there were no outbreaks at the event, the planning team was prepared and had medical support available on site. Attendees also wore devices on a lanyard, which were provided by Volan Technology and tracked their movements for contact-tracing purposes.
Additional safety precautions included deep cleanings of the venue and socially distanced seating. The food-and-beverage program featured server-attended stations with plexiglass barriers, and attendees were treated to healthy meals and immune-boosting juices. The breakout sessions and group activities, such as a morning hike and socially distanced yoga, were held outdoors to increase airflow and minimize the risk of transmission.
"Communication and coordination with all partners and attendees are always key to successful events. However during this time, it’s even more imperative to be transparent in your safety plans," said Angela Cox, senior director of meetings and events for Northstar. "We are using multiple partners to keep attendee health data secure, keep attendees safe, and ensure that all safety and wellness protocols are met. This takes extra coordination over and above any events that have occurred prior to Covid. It’s not only the lead planner's role to ensure safety at events now, but the entire organizing team and all vendors are also involved."
The Empire State loosened its gathering restrictions in March and now allows for meetings of up 100 people indoors and 200 people outdoors. Before that, all events were limited to just 50 people — but this didn't stop organizations from hosting small, in-person gatherings earlier in the year.
The financial software company ION Group held its annual global sales kickoff meeting at Ease 1345, a new event space in Midtown Manhattan. The multiday event, which ran from Jan. 30 to Feb. 4, was held as a hybrid affair. Twenty people attended on site and the meeting was broadcast to an additional 279 virtual attendees in 22 countries. On the agenda were three half days of content, leadership presentations and an awards ceremony.
In-person attendees were required to wear face masks, and had to undergo daily temperature checks and health screenings. Capacity monitoring and directional signage were used to ensure social distancing. Touchless doors helped minimize contact, and hand-sanitizing dispensers were stationed in the entryways, conference rooms, reception areas, restrooms and exits.
To ensure food safety, all meals were served in individually boxed containers. In addition, meeting rooms and other high-touch surfaces were disinfected frequently.
"There’s a natural inclination for people to want to meet and interact in person," said Mark DePiero, CEO of Ease Hospitality, which manages the venue. "The most important consideration for event venues is to cultivate trust and create systems that will put meetings planners and their guests instantly at ease."
DePiero noted that clear communication about health protocols and easy-to-use technology, such as the touchless doors and thermal check points at the entries, made hosting the meeting as seamless as possible and will continue to high on the planner checklist for future events.
The Orange County Convention Center in Orlando was one of the first in the nation to become GBAC Star certified in coronavirus cleaning and prevention, and has hosted more than 50 events since March 2020. Among the most recent was a fashion event, which combined three trade shows that were relocated from Las Vegas and held simultaneously at the OCCC on Feb. 9-11.
Together, the WWIN Orlando Showcase, Magic Pop-Up Orlando and Offprice Orlando Market attracted thousands of attendees over the course of three days. The event was organized in accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
All attendees were required to wear face masks, undergo daily temperature checks and show proof of a negative Covid-19 test result before entering. The organizers provided on-site rapid testing, with results available in 15 minutes. Guests also had the option of taking a Covid-19 test within four days prior to the start of the event. Only those with negative test results were allowed into the show.
"Now, more than ever, it's important for our industry to work together to prove that we can return to the show floor and that our communities can reconnect in secure ways," said Kevin Thornton, vice president of operations at Informa Markets, which organized the Magic Pop-Up Orlando show. "Testing may be an important piece of that, but long term I think the value is really in our shared commitment to events that consistently value safety. Through our collective efforts, we have proven that live events are able to run with visitor health prioritized, signaling a real economic restart for the fashion community, the many other trade industries we serve, as well as the cities that host our events."
Deep cleanings of the venue were conducted daily and more than 100 sanitizing stations were set up throughout the space. In addition to signage, safety ambassadors reminded attendees and exhibitors to follow health protocols. A mobile app was used to provide a touchless check-in experience and reduce lines. The technology also allowed for contactless lead retrieval at booths.
"We were very proud to partner with Informa on this and one of the reasons we're proud is because we feel like we kind of bookended the pandemic in a meaningful way," said Jim Sharpe, CEO of the event technology company Aventri, which provided the mobile app and QR code technology that allowed attendees at Magic PopUp Orlando to check in and do business in a touchless manner. "We were the on-site partner for Mobile World Congress in Barcelona a year ago, when that one was one of the first big shows to be canceled and sent shockwaves through our industry. To be here and partner with them and provide some tools that drive both safety and attendee experience is something that we're very proud of."
Other safety measures taken on the show floor included widened aisles and reduced booth capacities. Guests were also encouraged to make booth appointments to avoid congestion. Early opening hours were offered for at-risk visitors.
In Columbia, S.C., the state's capital, the local convention center has hosted more than 70 events since reopening in late June. According to director of sales Sarah Britt, the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center has seen a significant uptick in traditional conferences over the past two months.
Although Gov. Henry McMaster lifted the 250-person cap on mass gatherings on March 1, this does not change anything for the convention center. According to Britt, the venue received approval in September from the state to hold gatherings above the 250-person limit. Events are, however, still limited by social-distancing capacities. In addition, anyone entering the convention center is required to wear a mask and undergo a temperature check.
Recent events held at the facility include the South Carolina Funeral Directors Association's Mid-Winter Conference and Expo, from Feb. 1-3. The gathering was attended by more than 200 people, down from the usual attendance of 300-350. But the group was able to include all of the elements of its traditional conference, including a general session, breakouts and a trade show. Roughly half of the attendees were vaccinated, as funeral home workers are among those eligible for inoculation in the state.
"One of the great things about this group is that, by essence, funeral directors are event planners. So, they're very familiar with this world because they've been holding safe events this whole time," said Britt.
Temperature checks were completed via thermal scanner or handheld device. Meals included server-attended food stations. Most rooms were set up classroom-style, with one attendee per eight-foot table. For the trade show, all booths were spaced at least six feet apart, or were separated by eight-foot-tall pipe-and-drape wall dividers. Vendors were required to have hand sanitizer at their booths. A capacity counter was used to monitor the number of people entering and exiting the trade show to make sure it never exceeded the amount needed for proper social distancing.
A few weeks later, the convention center hosted the 2021 South Carolina Governor’s Conference on Tourism. "It was a great moment of getting these hospitality leaders together in person, because we're all working towards helping the tourism industry recover right now," said Britt.
The annual event held for tourism and hospitality professionals from across the state drew 175 attendees. The agenda was shortened, with general sessions only. All seating was socially distanced and attendees were given name cards to mark their seats. Signage and floor markers also reminded attendees to remain at least six feet apart. Plated meals were served, along with individually portioned snacks.
The island nation of Singapore is gradually reopening, and has been accepting applications for MICE events since the fall. Approved gatherings must abide by the safe management measures outlined by the Singapore Tourism Board.
Following these guidelines, the Professional Convention Management Association hosted its Convening Leaders conference at the Marina Sands Bay hotel in mid-January. The two-day hybrid event, held Jan. 13-14, brought more than 300 in-person attendees to Singapore. Masks were required at all times, except when eating or drinking. Guests had to undergo daily rapid antigen tests, as well as temperature screenings when entering the hall. To limit mingling between attendees, participants were split into seven zones, with a maximum of 50 people per zone. Each zone had a separate area for registration, testing and lunch. An army of social-distancing ambassadors were on site to enforce the safety protocols.
"Knowing how there were so few cases in Singapore at the time, and that everyone in attendance had been tested each day, and that even still, the event organizers went to great lengths to ensure all attendees complied with the necessary protocols to safely distance and wear masks, I don’t think there was a safer place on the planet than in that convention center," said David Blansfield, executive vice president and group publisher of Northstar Meetings Group, who spoke at the event. "The program was timely and topical, and the technology was state-of-the-art. Add to that the excitement of being out and about after being cooped up for so many months — and being able to enjoy the sights and sounds of Singapore, to boot — and you can see why it was such an exhilarating experience.”
Singapore was designated as the "global broadcast center" for the conference. Remote participants from around the world were able to view the broadcasted sessions online. In addition, nearly 50 planners gathered at the Caesars Forum in Las Vegas for a blended program featuring livestreamed content from Singapore, along with in-person sessions and activities.
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.