Connect 2020: A Year Like No Other

The COVID-19 pandemic ensured this year’s annual Connect 2020 conference  at Orlando World Center Marriott was like no other.

Connect 2020

Elbow bumps. “Straight Outta Quarantine” masks. Pumpkin spice-scented hand sanitizer. This year’s annual Connect 2020 Marketplace was like no other. 

The most important conference we’ve ever hosted was also the most difficult event we’ve ever produced.

To say the circumstances were tough would be an understatement. Many of us were admittedly rusty. We hadn’t traveled or networked—let alone seen each other—in person since March. Everything required brand-new protocols. We were forced to change venues one month before opening day.

Canceling would have been the easy thing to do, but we were determined to get our industry back to business no matter what. There were more than 1,000 in-person attendees at Orlando World Center Marriott, and 175 virtual attendees at home, counting on us. 

"Fall-inspired hand sanitizer by SaniSigns"    

“Hotels coming back to life is inspiring to us at Connect and the entire industry,” said Derek Rodriguez, Connect’s vice president of sales. “The staff at the hotel was so grateful to work again. One person said to me, ‘I haven’t worked in seven or eight months, but because your group came in, I am here.’ … It was really emotional.”

There’s no denying virtual components at events are probably here to stay. Our show included virtual appointments featuring 175 virtual suppliers and a digital trade show happening simultaneously to the in-person event. But when it comes to producing a high economic impact, virtual events just won’t ever be able to compete with live gatherings. 

From attendees who went to Disney Springs to shop, to those standing in line at the hotel’s market or Starbucks every morning, the kind of business one conference can bring to a hotel, venue and city is why our industry needs to get back on track.  

We witnessed many attendees pairing off outside on the property to have a glass of wine and discuss business off the marketplace floor. Business was getting done all over the place, and plans were set in motion for future FAM trips. 

“I received three RFPs,” said one high-ranking CVB representative. “These planners have business to book.”

Adds Steven Schumacher, director of sales at Discover Dunwoody in Georgia, “A big thank-you to the team at Connect Meetings! [Our team] had over 80 appointments—face-to-face, masks on, while looking forward to our industry’s recovery in 2021.”

On the first night, everyone was so thrilled to see each other again that the enthusiasm and energy in the room was palpable. What was on everyone’s (masked) lips (aside from hellos galore)? The hotel staff. The conversations we overheard between bites and sips were about Orlando World Center Marriott’s staff and how grateful they were that our group was on-site at the hotel

“From the FedEx outlet to the hotel restaurant to the sweet housekeeping staff, I felt like I was in a Hallmark movie,” said Matt Johnson, president at BizBash, Connect’s sister company which held its own event concurrently. “They all had genuine appreciation.”

We hope that event professionals and those in the hospitality industry left inspired with a blueprint to safely conduct their in-person events in this unusual environment.

“I felt like a kid let out on the playground to play,” said Lindsey Kurtz, account executive at MC&A, Inc. “It was so wonderful to be back.”

Among the biggest lessons is that this week’s event proved, yet again, Connect is only as good as its partners. Fortunately, ours are the best. Yes, we had safety protocols up the wazoo, but working with our friends at CVBs across the country proved there was still a good time to be had. Consider these remarkable examples:

•    Visit Oakland kicked off Connect Marketplace with a “Mai Tai’m” virtual cocktail contest from the TVs in planner rooms. We all toasted the beginning of a great three days together! A huge shout-out to Visit Oakland Chief Sales Officer Rhanee Palma, CDME, for arriving two days early to set up the DMO’s activations.
•    Visit Tampa Bay followed with a Mask-erade opening reception. Masked attendees mingled with sloths, armadillos and snakes from ZooTampa at Lowry Park, and colorful human characters from Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.
•    CORT Events provided stunning seating in each of the four theaters that was oversize, comfy and socially distanced across large spaces. After all, if you’re going to social distance, you might as well do it in style.
•    Great Wolf Lodge and Experience Grand Rapids started the day off right with hosted breakfasts.

There were many other unusual steps we took to allow business to occur without concern:

•    In a new education setup, apropos for the times, sessions that would usually take place in the hotel’s smaller meeting rooms occurred in large ballrooms.
•    Tables for one-on-one appointments were set up lengthwise and conversations were had at 10-12 feet of distance.
•    Food stations were scattered throughout so long lines and logjams could be avoided. The same went for pre-made drinks, as well as White Claw Hard Seltzers that were set out for grab and go self-service to avoid crowding at bar stations. 
•    The trade show was spread out across the 39,000-sq.-ft. Crystal Ballroom. Many exhibitors noted their appreciation for the spaced-out booths and wider aisles so that large groups of attendees never felt cramped or congregated in one area. 
•    Connect staff and security were on guard for anyone without masks or for those wearing the coverings improperly. Happily, we can report most attendees gladly complied with our mask mandate to help create the healthiest environment possible. 
•    Plenty of masks were available on-site via swag bags, vendors in the trade show and a Connect mask giveaway, which donated $10 to either Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ organizations for every procured mask.

 

Does that mean everything went perfectly? Of course not. All of us who produce conferences and events know that complaints come with the territory. But we are grateful that feedback from attendees was primarily positive.

“For anything that might have been negative, you got almost 1,000 people there patting you on the back,” said Johnson. 

We hope event and meeting professionals take what Connect successfully and use it as a template for their own shows, hopefully in-person. Use any of our mistakes as lessons to avoid future missteps. We went back to in-person meetings first so you could see what the “new normal” will look like. Yes, there will be adaptations and corrections. That’s the fun of putting on shows.

It’s time to relaunch meetings in America. Let’s do this.