In mid-July, the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police gathered in Savannah for the Savannah Convention Center’s (SCC) first large meeting since the COVID-19 outbreak.
Georgia has been making national news for its handling of the pandemic, with critics saying perhaps it closed too late and opened too soon. So naturally, planners around the Southeast were watching to see how the event would be handled.
To increase safety for the estimated 450 people who attended, the SCC “installed a new air purification system, hand sanitizer stations and displayed appropriate signage to remind convention-goers about the proper protocols needed to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” according to the Savannah Chamber website. In photos from the event, the attendees also appear to be spread out more than 6 feet apart in the enormous convention halls, with plenty of room in the cavernous spaces.
While the conference industry waited with bated breath, Jeff Hewitt, SVP of Visit Savannah and Visit Tybee’s Convention Sales, reported that “three weeks later, no cases of COVID-19 were reported,” adding that “safety protocols were effective.”
We’re hearing similar comments more and more as meeting and event planners step out to see what creatively can be done to safely bring people together again. For instance, on July 23, event producer Ryan Choura hosted a 90-attendee live event at his company’s headquarters in Torrance, Calif. The story was first reported on our sister site, BizBash. Yes—a live, in-person event in Southern California, one of the area’s hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dubbed “The Future of Events: A Call to Good,” the Choura Events-planned two-hour outdoor gathering featured three panels with 13 of the area’s top event professionals. Speakers discussed the status of the event industry today, ways to address issues of inequality, strategies and predictions for the future, and much more.
“We just wanted to tell the world that you can do it,” explained Choura. “You can gather; you can figure this out.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the event drew its fair share of skepticism beforehand, and even prompted a visit from Torrance city officials. When they came, “I walked them through the entire experience, and they were fine with it. They never came back,” noted Choura.
A large reason the city was OK with it, he adds, is because every attendee was given a drive-through rapid COVID-19 test—for free. (Choura is the president of We Are Lifeline Health, which runs one of the country’s largest testing centers. The company can be hired to administer tests at other gatherings, he noted.)
“Temperature testing, candidly, is just not enough,” Choura said. After being tested, every attendee was instructed to wait in their cars until they got a text message confirmation that they were negative. They had to show those results before entering the event; all attendees were also required to wear masks and maintain six feet of distance at all times. Food and beverages were prepackaged, and subtle plexiglass displays separated panelists on the stage.
Panelist Cara Kleinhaut, founder and CEO of AGENC Experiential & Digital Marketing, was happy to take part in the gathering. “All the best practices were adhered to. I felt safer there than the grocery store,” said Kleinhaut, who also noted that the event was in no way a party. “It was a group of professionals actively finding solutions on how to get thousands in our decimated industry back to work, responsibly. And if we don't show how to properly do this, who will?”
ALHI soon followed suit in early August. The 14th annual ALHI Executive Women in Leadership went ahead as planned at Naples Grande Beach Resort. With 50 invite-only attendees, the meeting was designed with safety in mind by ALHI and GlobalWorks, and executed by the hotel’s staff.
Some of the COVID-19 safety precautions implemented were impressive: Prior to the event, COVID-19 protocols for each vendor (airline, transportation, hotel) were given to all attendees. They were then presented with a PPE amenity kit, supplied by Boundless, upon arrival, which included two masks, two thermometer strips, hand sanitizer and the APEX Meetings Code of Conduct.
With function setups designed to follow social distancing of 6 feet apart, only three guests were allowed at each 72-inch round table, masks were required at all sessions and in the hallways, and, unlike ALHI’s pre-COVID-19 conferences, there were no network reception events held during the conference.
When it came to creativity with the F&B component, all bar service was provided table-side; meals were individually packaged in grab-and-go style; and attendees were required to form lines with 6 feet of distance in between each other.
One of our favorite considerations? Group photos. It’s hard to keep attendees apart who want to take photos, but ALHI’s group shots were staged so all attendees could remain in their safe spaces and be photographed at a wide-angle from the stage.
Of course, additional protocols were implemented from the resort’s Safety and Well-Being Promise. Naples Grande Beach Resort launched the program in March and continues to update its practices based on guidance from the CDC and state and local officials.
“The groups and meetings market is so crucial to the entire travel industry,” said Melinda Hutchins, director of sales and marketing for Naples Grande Beach Resort. “As we enter this new age of travel, the detailed precautions and practices we put in place at this conference—from amenity logistics to special floor plans and seating arrangements—can help drive the next year of meetings and events, and ultimately continue to shape this new, constantly evolving meetings industry.”
Of all the recently held events, one of the largest and most anticipated was Together Again Expo at Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) in Orlando. The hybrid event, with virtual and in-person components, brought 1,405 people together in person and received 8,225 virtual views.
Alliance Exposition pulled together the event in 47 days. Director of Account Management & Design Jessica Pratti, along with VP of Sales Nicole Unger, helmed the efforts. Some of the most well-received safety precautions were temperature and thermal checks, express touchless registration process, PPE kits, strategic traffic flow and larger spaces for movement, ambassador programs for social distancing and sanitization, a mask mandate, easy access to sanitizer stations and distanced seating.
“There were many measures implemented by the OCCC, from surface disinfection on regular intervals and sanitizer stations to public announcements on a loop throughout the common areas to remind folks to distance,” said Pratti. “They had also received their GBAC Star Facility Accreditation prior to the event.”
So how did Unger and Pratti pull this off in 47 days? “There were many challenges to hurdle in the narrow window we had to work with logistically, but also in terms of solidifying speakers, education and marketing,” said Unger. “It was definitely a collaborative effort among the invested teams from Alliance and the OCCC to ensure no stone was unturned, and every decision was made with the utmost consideration for the safety, wellbeing and comfort level for all in-person participants.”
“While time was not on our side, even if in normal circumstances,” noted Pratti, “all planning initiatives took a considerable amount of additional time. At every corner we were collectively analyzing guidelines and scenarios, and developing a new playbook to approach all the details that are poured into hosting a live event.”
Add to that the sensitivities of navigating a new and foreign environment that had not been put into motion in a real “live” scenario to date. Pratti and Unger reported that there were numerous industry partners that came forward to get involved and support Together Again wholeheartedly. “The time and resources they invested in the success of the event, particularly during these trying times, showcased the passion and unification to bring face-to-face events back to the forefront, and demonstrate that it can be done safely and responsibly,” said Pratti.
Their biggest successes had more to do with camaraderie and attendee attitude than execution. “There were several homerun moments from both the planning stage and onsite execution,” said Pratti. “However, the electricity and positive energy that engulfed the entire space when the doors opened each day for set up, exhibitor move in, attendee registration and the kickoff on the main stage spoke to the fact that all were there for a common purpose: to showcase a live scenario of how we can bring people together safely. That was by far the most evident sign of success.”
If you’re wondering if anyone contracted COVID-19, there were no transmission cases reported post-event.
With that in mind, Alliance Exposition has been actively engaged with several cities to bring Together Again Expo to multiple regional U.S. markets this September through November.
Hotels are anxious for events to get going as much as planners. Take The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, which completed construction of its 125,000 square foot Exhibit Center just in time for the trade show and meetings business to come to a screeching halt in the spring of 2020. While larger events have been cancelled, such as the 36th annual Space Symposium, the planet's largest space trade show, The Broadmoor has continued hosting smaller groups. Think corporate board meetings from around 12 to 20 attendees, corporate training groups that were 40 to 60 people and continuing-education groups to provide certifications that brought 65 to 100 people together—all spread out across the Exhibit Center.
Curtis Robison, The Broadmoor's director of national sales, sees the space as the ultimate option for social distancing. "We are using the space now, and probably will be for the near future, as an expanded function area versus a true trade show and exhibit hall," he explained. "Because we have so much square footage, we're able to really spread out our groups and make everyone feel more comfortable as social distancing continues to be the norm."
For the groups that have been meeting at The Broadmoor, bento box meal options have been immensely popular. “The presentation is beautiful, it’s very nutritious and you don’t have to unwrap anything!” said Director of Sales Pepper Dombroski. The hotel has also moved as many meal functions outside as possible to let the guests enjoy the beautiful Colorado weather. One corporate group made large posters as a way to greet each other (with images of “air” high fives, bowing and foot tapping). “They used fun graphics and it helped the attendees break the ice and find new ways to greet each other,” she added.
The hotel also seals each guest room after it’s been fully sanitized, prior to each guest’s arrival. The Broadmoor reported that attendees have commented they appreciate knowing they are the first person to enter the newly sanitized room. For now, The Broadmoor can only host 250 people outside and 100 people inside, while the brand new 125,000-square-foot Exhibit Center sits there just waiting to host an event. “We do see the inside numbers increasing up to 175 at some point,” added Dombroski, “with proper social distancing, of course.”