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, Choura Events hosted a hybrid gathering in Torrance, Calif., in July, with rapid COVID-19 testing, spaced-out seating, mandatory masks for the 90 people in attendance, and other smart safety measures.
Associated Luxury Hotels International (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 the most notable 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 and 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. Together Again Expo's team also made sure individually packaged meals were served safely.
“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 home-run 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 World Arena 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 canceled, 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.”
This story was first published on Connect (BizBash's parent company) here.