As meeting planners navigated the Covid-19 pandemic over the past year, concerns about attendee health and well-being have dictated nearly every aspect of how face-to-face events were held — or, in most cases, not held. In the Global Wellness Institute's latest "Global Wellness Trends Report," the authors explain that the pandemic has forced planners to reinvent their gatherings in a way that puts health at the center of virtually every decision — and that is likely to continue.
Although the threat of the virus is gradually receding, its influence on our collective attitude toward wellness activities at events will likely stick around: Collaboration with venue partners, a concern with mental well-being and a preference for outdoor spaces are some of the approaches that will continue to flourish.
"People are seeking ways to embrace wellness, and new models of thoughtfully choreographed events with wellness could be just the 'nudge' they need," states the report. It describes this trend of putting "wellness at the core" of events as a way to reinforce "the importance of what is now top of mind everywhere — health, safety, strengthening immunity and employing protocols and technologies that can mitigate risk."
Nancy Davis, chief creative officer and executive director of the Global Wellness Institute and Global Wellness Summit, says this is an important trend to keep in mind when planning new meetings.
"For travel or events — for everything — people are prioritizing wellness" she says. "They're not just going to hop on a plane anymore and go to China overnight for a meeting. When they do travel, they're going to do it much more consciously."
Last year's Global Wellness Summit, a hybrid event in November that welcomed about 100 in-person attendees to The Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., and hundreds more remote attendees from around the world, practiced what Davis is preaching. Former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, a board member of the Global Wellness Institute, served as the event's medical advisor. Illumination company Lighting Science provided Far-UVC lighting portals through which each attendee walked, utilizing technology that has been shown to remove 99.9 percent of the Covid-19 viral load on skin and clothing. Delos provided HealthWay air purifiers for all meeting spaces. And attendees could opt to sit on recumbent bikes or stability balls instead of chairs.
"We didn't want a ballroom that had a lot of empty space and felt weird," says Davis. "But when it's set up to look like a high-end fitness facility, that space looks like a natural distance."
While the number of wellness initiatives at a summit dedicated to wellness might exceed what a typical planner is likely to pull together, Davis expects the trend remain relevant for many.
Focus on Mental Well-Being
In addition to the acute dangers to physical health the pandemic presented, it also created what Davis calls "a parallel pandemic" of impaired mental health for many. Isolation has take a toll in a way that is only just starting to be fully understood.
"Mental well-being is going to be especially important as planners and attendees are heading back to events for the first time in over a year," says Hillary Cartwright, principal for event planning company The Event Ally. "Everyone's lives have changed dramatically one way or another over the past year, and there will be varying levels of comfort heading back into the world — especially at larger events."
Cartwright expects to see a rise in educational sessions focused on addressing the mental-health needs of attendees or their teams. She also expects to see more breaks built into gatherings.
"Fostering the well-being of attendees is a concern that event planners need to keep in mind more carefully than in the past," says Patrizia Semprebene Buongiorno, vice president of AIM Group international, which specializes in health-care events. "The perception of and approach to those who participate in face-to-face events have certainly changed, with important concerns about their health and stress and anxiety related to the pandemic."
That said, safe in-person meetings might also provide a host of emotional and mental benefits for attendees who are gathering with others for the first time in months. Davis expects that as attendees rekindle their connections, it will not only help them bring back business opportunities, but also provide them with a much-needed psychological boost.
"If you're used to seeing the same people each year for an event, it really makes a difference to see them again in person," says Davis.
Mindfulness was a legitimate meeting trend before the pandemic — but now it looks poised to take on greater significance, following a year of exceptional stress.
"To address mindfulness in a creative way, planners have been reserving meeting rooms and designating them as 'quiet spaces,' allowing attendees to utilize them for mediation, yoga or just a break from events," says Kelly Knowlen, executive director of sales engagement and special events for Hilton. "Quiet activities, such as reading, coloring books, modeling clay or knitting, can offer a momentary mental escape."
To help planners navigate the challenges of meeting again in person, Hilton introduced and continues to update the Hilton EventReady Playbook. Among the many topics it covers, the reference includes physical activity and nutrition recommendations, as well as mindfulness and medical resources.
Cartwright echoes Knowlen's sentiments, and says planners will be looking to provide "rest zones" like those many hospitals created during the pandemic: "a place with soft seating, cool lighting, candles, videos of the ocean, water — a place to take a mental break for a few minutes during a busy day," she describes.
"Gone are the days of working 20 hours a day and having conference attendees going just as long," adds Cartwright. "There will be more time needed for breaks, including time to eat a proper meal and get a full night's sleep — especially as we are easing back into the events environment."
Take a Hybrid Approach to Fitness
For the past year of primarily virtual events, group wellness activities have, for the most part, been conducted via screens: yoga sessions or breathing exercises on Zoom, guided morning stretches before a virtual keynote, workouts with Peloton.
Expect to see group workouts conducted for both in-person and at-home attendees, or recorded and made available on-demand just like an education session or keynote.
"Activities such as runs, linked to fundraising initiatives for charity, can be used as a way of socializing for those attending the congress — but also proposed to those who follow remotely, who can do it in their own city, with the t-shirt and gadget like the others — creating a virtual run," says Buongiorno. AIM developed a remote run for the Italian Society of Rheumatology last fall.
Embrace the Great Outdoors
We can expect to see an embrace of outdoor meeting venues and for planners to seek ways to bring their events outside wherever possible. Over the past year, that's been by necessity — but the adjustments that many venues have made to their outdoor spaces will ensure they remain an attractive option.
Prior to the pandemic, says Cartwright, "there were too many days spent inside convention centers, without ever seeing the sun."
Knowlen says that groups holding events at many of Hilton's properties have taken extended breaks outdoors, where fresh air, sunlight and plants naturally rejuvenate attendees.
"Beyond activities, planners are also looking to take advantage of unique outdoor spaces, where appropriate, as they focus more on the health and wellness of their attendees," says Knowlen. "For instance, Conrad New York Downtown is currently offering buyout options for our rooftop bar space, which will allow groups to have exclusive access to this location for the duration of their meeting. This option will be perfect for the group that feels more comfortable with fresh air."
After a year in which much of the world worked from home — enjoying greater freedom in terms of their schedules, workspace and office attire than they have likely experienced at any other time in their professional lives — attendees are likely to expect some flexibility when it comes to event activities, too, says Cartwright. She expects to see a move away from a single, large group wellness session toward smaller, more tailored activities, in which at-home attendees can take part as well.
"More than ever, event planners are realizing one-size-fits-all doesn't really work for events, and these smaller, flexible experiences will allow attendees to make the most of their time there," says Cartwright. "Experiences and events in general will be more customized, and there will be smaller groups of people doing different activities rather than one large group all watching the same presenter at once."
Collaborate With Venues
For those planners who have held in-person gatherings or even visited a property in this past year, it's been easy to see how seriously most venues have been taking guest health. The lengths most have gone to create a healthy environment for visitors will leave a lasting, positive impact on their standard practices, as well as the ways in which they can partner with planners on wellness programming.
Last year's Global Wellness Summit demonstrated how crucial a role the venue plays in creating the right environment. Davis applauds The Breakers' management for the way they "chose everybody's health and safety over their bottom line," helping the Global Wellness Institute enforce its many safety and social-distancing measures throughout the venue — not only in meeting spaces but also in bathrooms, elevators, staircases and guest rooms.
Casa de Campo Resort & Villas, a luxury property in the Dominican Republic, also takes a thorough approach to wellness. Its "Casa Cares" program not only offers PCR Covid testing at a private concierge lounge, but also provides event attendees with government-sponsored medical coverage and VIP access to the resort's on-site hospital, Central Romana Medical Center. The investment made by the property in new equipment, updated employee training and an app that allows for an entirely touchless experience were meant to address not only the immediate health crisis but also to pave the way for a healthy guest experience for years to come.
"Since we are a community of more than 2,000 homeowners as well as a luxury resort, having impeccable health and safety procedures in place has been a top priority for our company to ensure the well-being of our residents, guests and employees alike," says Jason Kycek, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Casa de Campo. "By working together with our clients and key partners to ensure we can all safely travel and meet again, we have been able to speed the recovery process that much faster and regain the confidence and trust again for people to travel."
Kycek adds that those groups that have stayed at the resort "have all felt safe, comfortable and appreciative of the strict protocols we have in place," and that he believes that will strengthen trust in the property over the long term.
Approach Wellness Proactively
Health and wellness measures created for events over the past year were made defensively for the most part, as planners reacted to the pandemic and did everything they could to keep the virus at bay. In the future, planners can take a more proactive approach — and bring wellness to their meetings in positive ways.
"Wellness activities will be integrated into the whole day of programming," says Davis. "It won't just be 'by the way, the spa is open from 9 a.m. to 10 at night.' Wellness practices will be incorporated throughout."
While Davis proudly declares that the November wellness summit had "absolutely no Covid" reported by any attendees once they returned home, she expects that in the months ahead, planners will not trumpet their "Covid-free events" so much as they seek out other ways to gauge the healthy success of their gatherings.
"Health and safety will be considerations for a long time to come," says Davis. "I don't think you're going to see anybody saying, 'That's over now, let's go back to sitting all day in a closed space with no fresh air.' People aren't going to accept that. This pandemic has really drawn such attention of how these health decisions can make a massive impact in every aspect of our lives."