After months of shutdowns and social distancing, many planners are preparing for their first in-person meetings in the post-pandemic world.
“This is the year of forgiveness,” said Madeline Brown, communications manager and event planner for Louisiana Travel Association, which will hold the Lt. Governor’s Travel Summit in November after rescheduling it from August.
Though the event will look different this year, “it’s going to be a good conference,” she said. “People are just happy to be in a space together; everyone is excited to be coming.”
As planners prepare for their first major live events since the COVID-19 crisis began, they’re navigating the new normal to mitigate risks and make attendees feel comfortable and confident.
“We’re still learning and changing every minute,” Brown said.
Virtual, Digital, Live, Hybrid
Many organizations are offering a virtual option to help attendees bridge the gap from virtual gatherings to their first post-COVID, in-person meeting.
Meeting Professionals International (MPI) will hold its first large-scale conference, WEC Grapevine, November 3-6, at the Gaylord Texan Resort in Grapevine, Texas.
For the conference, MPI crafted an entirely different digital experience than the live one, so the event basically has two simultaneous but separate programs because “they are distinct audiences,” said Melinda Burdette, MPI director of events.
MPI shortened the day for the digital agenda; they concentrated opportunities for the digital audience and found synergies to have both remote and in-person attendees together, like during the general session or for high-profile speakers.
To accommodate digital attendees, MPI will have live general sessions bookending lunch. While in-person attendees are at lunch, MPI will provide digital attendees with exclusive opportunities, like back-of-house interviews with speakers.
For concurrent education, instead of placing a camera at the back of a room, MPI instead will have speakers present twice: first to the in-person audience and then in front of a green screen for digital attendees to give them an opportunity to do a fully live question-and-answer session.
Though it takes more planning to create an immersive experience for the digital audience, “we want to show that it can be done,” Burdette said. “Does it take more work? Absolutely it takes more work, but at the end of the day, if it’s not going to be MPI, who’s it going to be?”
LTA’s Travel Summit will also be hybrid, offering the virtual event for about one-third the cost of in-person registration. Virtual attendees will be able to log in to watch breakout sessions of their choice, although they won’t be able to interact or participate. Organizers will also share links to all recorded sessions with all attendees after the summit.
But not every event is offering a hybrid option: The Dakota Credit Union Association didn’t for its annual meeting in October at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls.
“The thought was if you do offer the virtual, you won’t have anyone come; you won’t be able to do an in-person one,” said Ranel Smith, vice president of relationship management for Montana’s Credit Unions. Smith also contracts with other associations to plan their events, including the Dakota association, whose annual event usually draws about 250 guests; registration was at 100 about a week before the event this year.
Change the Program
In a post-pandemic world, the program is ever-changing. The speakers are ever-changing. Everything is ever-changing, and planners are rolling with the punches.
“As goes COVID, so go the speakers,” Burdette said.
Some speakers don’t feel comfortable attending events in person, so some groups plan to livestream speakers’ presentations. Smith will have four in-person speakers and one remote.
MPI is figuring out whether to stream in remote speakers for the live audience or move those speakers to the digital experience.
LTA decided “that if people are paying in-person prices, they should have an in-person speaker,” Brown said. The group told speakers who couldn’t attend to keep their deposits for a future event and then set about reworking its lineup.
LTA’s summit also usually includes a travel fair — a tabletop trade show with CVB and attraction booths — but the group decided to cancel it because many of the travel counselors, who visit booths to learn about destinations, are older and won’t be attending. The event will still include a showcase for media partners, though LTA expects fewer exhibitors.
Instead, the association extended the entire schedule to provide longer breaks and more free time; doing that allows for more networking and gives partners a chance to set up their own meetings.
LTA’s event also includes an annual fundraising auction, but it will be 100 percent online for the first time this year.
Revise and Reconvene
The only thing that will be the same for in-person attendees is that a lot will be different. The LTA will be meeting at the Golden Nugget in Lake Charles, Louisiana, which already has strict safety and sanitation protocols in place from reopening in May. The casino has sanitizer stations, plexiglass shields and signage in place and will just shift that over to the meeting spaces.
Masks are mandatory at most conferences, though not all, depending on the group and the local regulations. The Dakota Credit Union Association is following social distancing protocols, providing hand sanitizer and encouraging mask-wearing, but not requiring it, Smith said.
MPI’s mobile app will ask attendees to answer questions every morning about possible symptoms, like fever, cough and loss of taste or smell, before coming to the event. When attendees arrive at the conference, their temperatures will be taken at the door. Each person will then get a wristband that signals that they answered the app questions and passed the temperature check before entering.
MPI will also provide 24/7 health care, with medical staff at an on-site clinic that can provide COVID-19 testing.
LTA normally holds its opening reception in a ballroom because Louisiana is hot in August. Pushing the event back to November allowed organizers to hold the opening reception outside around the pool, which also provides plenty of fresh air and room to practice social distancing.
LTA will also spread out inside. The group long ago learned to book all the venue’s meeting space because they usually ended up using it, Brown said. So the association already has all the Golden Nugget’s meeting space reserved and plans to use it to provide larger breakout spaces and socially distanced networking areas. The event typically has about 500 attendees but expects 300 to 350 this year, so “it’s going to be really spread out,” Brown said.
Food and beverage operations must change as well, and pretty much everything “has to be either cafeteria style or plated or packaged,” Smith said.
At LTA’s event, waitstaff will serve cafeteria style at buffets or serve plated sit-down meals, and they’ll even serve at coffee stations to minimize touchpoints.
“Anytime there’s F&B, it’s not a free-for-all; it will have to have a staff person,” Brown said.
Editor’s note: At press time, we learned the Louisiana Travel Association’s November summit was canceled due to hurricane damage in Lake Charles, the host city. We chose to leave Madeline Brown’s comments about the conference plans in this article because we believe her perspective is still valuable to readers in spite of the cancellation.