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Meeting Veterans Discuss the Path Forward

As destinations across America begin the process of formulating reopening plans, we asked some of our meeting planner readers about holding meetings in the coming months. These two questions offer a snapshot of the industry’s mindset as we confront the rebuilding process:

What needs to happen for organizations to begin holding in-person meetings again?

What ideas or innovations have you heard about that may make that possible?

Here are some of their thoughtful responses.

Going Small

“In-person meetings will return when organizations and employees feel safe to travel and when their organizations allow travel,” said Andrea Cannistraci of And Great. “Smaller meetings of 50 or fewer people will come back first. We’ll see more regional events that allow participation without flying — think roadshows. There will be a move toward lots of smaller regional events versus one big national event.”

“I would think meetings should go live by August or September of 2020,” said Debbie Schuler, president of Great Escapes LLC. “Food and beverage will be hit the hardest. Consider the changes for buffets and standard tables of 10. We may seat only five at a table of 10.”

Some planners see the outcome being favorable to smaller meeting destinations.

“There’s never been a better time to ‘go small,’” said Patty Stern, founder and creative director of Patty Stern Creative. “Organizations will have to start small to begin holding in-person meetings again because of legal mandates with capacity maximums for safe social distancing. This is going shave meeting space down considerably. Where I could get 100 people in a room, I’ll only be able to have 40.”

“As a small market meeting destination, this is the opportunity for many cities to introduce themselves, their resources and amenities,” said Eduardo Arabu, executive director of the National Hispanic Corporate Council. “It is a chance to highlight to meeting organizers how smaller destinations can be the first options considered. Meeting organizers could have greater planning confidence in smaller cities with bigger health and safety amenities.”

Embracing Innovation

Planners see numerous innovations that will lead meeting planning into the future. As might be expected, these changes include the use of virtual technology, attrition flexibility from hotels and adherence to social distancing guidelines for large gatherings.

“Organizations won’t be meeting until we’ve pivoted in several ways,” said Maureen Sloan of Helms Briscoe. “First, only companies and associations that still have the funds to meet will be able to. Conference budgets may need to be stretched even further, and hotels will need to be more flexible. Meetings will integrate both in-person and virtual attendance.”

“Some clients will wait for policies from the airlines that allow travelers to board and fly with peace of mind,” said Sloan. “Other clients feel that some of the steps that hotels are taking — additional sanitation in sleeping rooms, remote check-in options that eliminate waiting at the front desk, limited per-person elevator usage, and rearranged public areas are enough to make them want to host a face-to-face meeting again.”

“Hotels will allow booking with no attrition,” said planner Sandra Constantino.  “Also, language that allows for cancellation, without penalty and without a multitude of lawyers may become commonplace. Masks and sanitizing displays will be readily available for general use at any meeting.”

“National meetings will shift to being regional meetings so people can drive in and attendance is increased,” said Stern. “Companies and associations can do ‘road show’ experiences to keep regional meetings or conferences exciting by adding ‘surprises’ at each program and taking it up a notch each time.”

“At least through next summer, virtual and hybrid meetings are going to be the accepted norm,” said Stern. “While nothing will ever be as great as face-to-face, isn’t it wonderful that technology has caught up, allowing us a viable alternative? Since the world has adapted to working remotely, virtual has a much higher acceptance rate now than before.”

“So many things are being discussed,” said Terry Matthews-Lombardo of TML Services Group, “things we never dreamed we’d be considering; things like touch-free conference registration via everything prepaid and preprinted at home; badges will include a headshot, since we will all be wearing masks; there will still be a troubleshooting desk with live help on site, but the goal will be to keep the registration area clear of crowds.   

New Norms

“The need for greater on-site security in order to enforce face masks, social distancing and cut-off capacities in meeting rooms will be the new normal,” she said. “One of my clients is concerned about elevator usage and lines for the bathrooms. They are considering staggering breakouts so the bathrooms won’t collect crowds and coffee break stations will flow better. My thought is to start utilizing an attended coffee cart situation where you place your order through an app and wait until they call your name.”

“Most importantly, planners need to count on attendee support,” said Sloan. “This means attendees need to follow the rules about having their temperature taken, using hand sanitizer stations or bringing their own water bottles. Our industry is in for an evolution of changes, more than ever before.”

“The Michigan Society of Association Executives is drafting a best practices guide to help associations think about all of the things that should be done before, during and after an event,” said Allison Beers, owner of Events North. “I think these types of guides will help planners get back to work safely while informing decision-makers on best practices to keep everyone safe.”