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The New World of Meetings

Convention centers are shuttered. Stadiums sit silent. Theaters are dark. But behind the public stillness, industry associations and thought leaders are working feverishly to come up with guidelines, resources and tools for meeting planners, event organizers and venue managers who will eventually find themselves operating in a postcovid world.

“No one has a crystal ball, so we don’t know what the steps will be,” said Brad Mayne, president of the International Association of Venue Managers (IAVM), but everyone knows events will look different, from how people enter buildings to how attendees eat meals.

Working Together

IAVM created a covid-19 working group called Public Entertainment and Event Industry Recovery. The group’s wide-ranging representation includes convention centers, stadiums, performing arts centers, movie theaters, concert venues and sports commissions, as well as entertainment companies and industry groups — all tied in with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross.

“So, we’re trying two things there,” Mayne said. “One is, let’s create similar guidelines so we’re on the same page. And No. 2: Let’s get it from as diverse a range of industries as we can.”

The group also created alliances with associations for infectious diseases, and epidemiologists are helping with written guidelines, guidelines that Mayne said IAVM is finalizing, though it will continue to be a living, breathing document after it’s released.

On May 8, the Events Industry Council announced the members of its Apex Covid-19 Business Recovery Task Force, including the CEO of Meeting Professionals International (MPI).

There’s tremendous pressure to put out guidelines, said Melinda Burdette, director of events for MPI, “but we don’t want to put out a set of guidelines and then change those guidelines as the world changes. There’s too much in the world right now that’s unknown.”

IAVM’s goal is to provide a toolbox for venue managers as they navigate uncharted waters, Mayne said.

“We’re trying to think of everything that we might deal with and create a tool for every one of those scenarios,” Mayne said.

Enhancing Sanitation

Venue sanitation has never been so important. IAVM is working with the International Sanitary Supply Association (ISSA), which offers the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) certification, the cleaning industry’s only outbreak response and recovery accreditation.

Third-party, GBAC-certified sanitation companies use misters to spread specific food-safe chemicals to sanitize large areas, general areas and touchpoints — even cleaning eight feet up the walls.

GBAC is well established in other industries, including the food and technology industries, but ISSA “had not worked with the venue industry before,” Mayne said. “We found out about that a couple weeks ago, and now we have draft protocols in place. It won’t be prescriptive, but we’re telling our members it’s a great product.”

Venues will likely need to adjust or upgrade heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems to use higher-quality, heavier-duty air filters and increase the amount of fresh air the system brings in.

But sanitation must go beyond the building, Burdette said.

“You have to partner with your hotels, with your venue, with your city, if you’re using public transit — every partner at every touchpoint, you’re going to have to enhance the sanitation,” she said.

That includes working together on appropriate signage, supplying hand sanitizer, setting up handwashing stations and deciding whether to require face masks — and who will provide them.

“The hotels and venues are partners in this, so we’ll need to reach an agreement together about what level we’re going to do a particular meeting,” Burdette said.

Buffets will have to change significantly for sanitation reasons. Maybe servers dish up food cafeteria-style behind sneeze guards, or maybe plated, sit-down meals come back with a vengeance. Perhaps planners allot more time for lunch, and a seated meal becomes an education opportunity.

IAVM is holding onto hope that its annual VenueConnect conference will take place in July, and “I can tell you, of the multiple items in that swag bag are a face mask, portable hand sanitizer and guidelines,” Mayne said.

Socially Distanced Spaces

Gathering in a postcovid world also means redesigning public spaces.

“How do we redesign the registration check-in or a meeting room? How is that going to look to help with social distancing?” Burdette said.

For building entry, IAVM’s working group is looking at everything from walk-through sanitizers — dry-chemical booths you step into for three seconds — to using ultraviolet light to disinfect. Venues or organizers may also opt to take everyone’s temperature as they enter.

“Not any one of those is going to work; you’re going to use multiples of those,” Mayne said.

Enacting timed entry for events is another option. Giving attendees specific times to arrive will help minimize crowds so they can practice social distancing.

For registration, check-in kiosks could be stationed throughout the venue for people to scan a QR code from their phone and print their own badge. Maybe the screens have tearaways, like a single-use screen protector, with a new one for each attendee. There’s even talk of using facial recognition or beacons to register attendees.

MPI is also moving beyond providing basic first aid at conferences. Planners should consider offering telemedicine or having a doctor or nurse on-site to ensure attendees’ safety, something MPI will be doing at its World Education Congress in November.

Groups that typically use only a hotel as their venue may need to expand into a convention center to have more space to create socially distanced setups.

With social distancing mandates, “you really have to start thinking outside the classroom,” Burdette said, and that could mean moving events outside. Venues with outdoor event space in fair-weather destinations may offer planners more flexibility. Groups could spread out on a lawn for breakout sessions or hold a general session at an outdoor amphitheater.

Covid-19 Coverage

Just like there were no terrorism clauses before 9-11, this pandemic will forever change force majeure clauses —clauses that permit a company to depart from the strict terms of a contract because of an event or effect that can’t be reasonably controlled — and insurance policies.

Planners should make sure they have language in their contracts related to pandemics, shelter-in-place orders from governments or recommendations from the CDC.

“It will definitely affect the contracting stage,” Burdette said. “In addition to making sure the force majeure clause has the appropriate wording to protect you, it is about putting clauses in your standard contracts that address the safety of your attendees.”

Planners need to negotiate clauses in their cancellation insurance that cover pandemics or shelter-in-place orders.

MPI has contracted for its annual World Education Congress through 2023, “and we’ve gone back and said, ‘We have some addendums,’” Burdette said.

“Don’t be afraid to go back and ask your hotel to add safety or sanitation addendums to your contract,” she said.

CDC Guidelines

While there remain many questions to answer about how to hold meetings with public health and safety in mind, these guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will give meeting planners a place to start in their discussions and preparations.

Promote the daily practice of preventive actions.

Use health messages and materials from the CDC or your local public health department to encourage your event staff and participants to practice good personal health habits.

Provide covid-19-prevention supplies to event staff and participants.

Ensure that your events have supplies for event staff and participants, such as 60% alcohol hand sanitizer, tissues, trash baskets, disposable face masks, and cleaners and disinfectants.

Routinely clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that are frequently touched.

Plan for staff absences.

Develop and implement flexible attendance and sick leave policies.

Require staff to stay home if they are sick or caring for a sick household member.

Consider alternatives for event staff and participants who are at increased risk for complications from covid-19.

Promote messages that discourage people who are sick from attending events.

If possible, identify a space that can be used to isolate staff or participants who become ill at the event.

Plan ways to limit in-person contact for staff supporting your events.

Develop flexible refund policies for participants.

Stay informed about the local covid-19 situation.

Update and distribute timely and accurate emergency communication information.

Identify and address potential language, cultural, and disability barriers associated with communicating covid-19 information to event staff and participants.