A few weeks ago, the event industry drew headlines for all the wrong reasons. What started as a drive-in fundraiser concert with a number of thorough safety measures ended with viral videos of crowding and front-row guests without masks, appearing to break the state of New York's social distancing regulations. The Department of Health has since launched an ongoing investigation into the July 25 "Safe & Sound" benefit in the Hamptons, and Governor Andrew Cuomo tweeted that he was “appalled.”
Before the event, BizBash caught up with the organizers to discuss the safety measures put in place for the 500 car—or 2,000 guest—gathering, which included a concert from The Chainsmokers. Steps included pre-event health questionnaires, and mask and hand sanitizer giveaways for every guest. There were hand-sanitizing stations in every row, bathrooms that were disinfected every 10 minutes, and an on-site physician performing temperature checks. The amount of security was tripled to more than 80 guards, and concertgoers purchased reserved parking zones that were designed for four to six people per car and spaced six feet apart.
So what exactly went wrong here—and how can it be prevented in the future, when these types of drive-in events continue to grow in popularity? To find out, we chatted with six top event pros from throughout North America. Here are their takes.
Cara Kleinhaut, founder and CEO, AGENC Experiential & Digital Marketing, New York and Los Angeles
“What is devastating to us as professionals is we are collectively responsible for reviving our decimated industry. We will be held up to a microscope with everything we do, like it or not. So we have a collective obligation to make sure we are putting every single best practice forward when planning [events] in this age of pre-vaccine COVID. They must be safe. Many of us have gone to great lengths to become COVID-safety certified, stay in close contact with local officials and health experts to make sure our spaces are safe, and publishing best practice manuals. We do not take this lightly. If we are going to do it, we better do it right.
From what we saw in the Hamptons, despite their best-laid plans on paper, they did not enforce social distancing, mask-wearing, and other very basic safety measures. Enforcement is key, as human nature will always be to push the rules and revert to old behavior and entitlement of what we feel we should be able to do. Where that event failed was in communication from the stage that the behavior needed to stop or else they were going to have to shut down.
That said, I have seen this done correctly—for example, at the Rose Bowl for RuPaul's Drag 'n Drive. The cars were properly spaced, masks were worn, and if people tried to gather the security teams immediately redirected people back to their vehicles. The cost for increased enforcement will be higher, but it's an investment in our collective health and our responsibility as professionals to show how this can be done properly.”
Justin Lefkovitch, founder and CEO, Mirrored Media, Santa Monica, Calif.
“We were so disappointed to see the mismanagement exhibited by all associated with the event, especially when so many of us in the events industry are doing all that we can to prepare a roadmap for in-person events in the age of COVID-19.
Echoing the response from our colleagues, we need to do it right, or don't do it at all. Each and every event and producer represents the industry as a whole. The actions of this particular group will, unfortunately, ripple into local communities and our industry. One act of irresponsibility has the potential to set the whole industry back at a time when we can least afford it. We all need to understand that what we do has a lasting effect not just in our state, but across the globe. It is our job to work within the best interests of our clients, our staff, our community, our industry, and most importantly our guests—while also keeping everyone safe.
We must exhaust all resources to ensure the safety of our guests, with a focus on security. While checking temperatures is great, as we know, not all carriers have fevers. Masks and temperature checks are not enough when they are not supplemented by responsible social distancing and other protocol compliance.
Governments, brand sponsors, and the general public are less likely to trust legitimate events, regardless of careful preparation and attention to detail. Every time something like this or the Fyre Festival happens, the entire industry has to work harder and jump through even more hoops. Securing permits becomes more difficult, and regulations become even more strict. We have worked tirelessly with local and state government to come up with safe and responsible guidelines to bring live events back to our community. For the sake of public health, our industry, and the future of live events, we hope that producers can work together to do it right, or not do it at all. Even when you think you've considered every aspect of an event, you need to have contingency plans for contingency plans.”
Elias Vargas, founder, SET LLC Event Support Services, Miami
“As event professionals, we are responsible for the overall execution of the event and enforcement of all protocols. That said, at all pre-COVID events there existed a clear but sometimes silent contract between attendees and producers that non-compliance would almost certainly result in removal from the venue and possible legal action.
Post-COVID, we need to look at the guest mobility journey, including access to and flow through the venue from a holistic approach we designed and call 'guest mobility management.' We utilize information science, trained hospitality staff, and the appropriate equipment to promote safe attendee hosting.
In view of the recent events, event producers will need to be more explicit and vocal about distancing protocols and penalties, and have the appropriate enforcement protocols and trained staff in place. What everyone already knows should now be made clearer than ever: As a matter of safety to everyone, rules need to be followed.”
Clint Upchurch, director of sales, Medicine Women, Los Angeles
“When I first saw it on the news I totally blamed The Chainsmokers. But then I read BizBash’s article that interviewed the organizers before the event and everything sounded above board—protocols had been met and some may have been exceeded. I think the breakdown was the enforcement of the protocols—that once things started going south, the event continued. As soon as there was crowd movement it should have been dealt with. If that failed, the event should have been shut down immediately. Making sure there is clear communication to attendees of what the protocols are, and mentioning that they will be strictly enforced, is key. People don't know what they don't know. And those that do know and are set on breaking the rules [need to] know they are being watched and will be dealt with.”
Heather Sharpe, event producer, Sherpa Group Events, Vernon, British Columbia
“The concept of drive-in entertainment is possible, but the organizers of The Chainsmokers event lost control of the crowd for sure and what resulted was reckless. It is a challenge to police crowds that large, and once some people get away with breaking the rules, everyone will try to push boundaries. It begs the question of who is responsible, and possibly liable, for the negligence of the guests if the organizers practiced due diligence?”
Matt Stoelt, CEO and creative director, Stoelt Productions, Los Angeles
“With the event industry all but disappearing overnight back in March, the pandemic's overreaching effects have been immeasurable. As agency principals work with clients and brand partners to create the new normal ahead of therapeutics or a vaccine, it is a massive responsibility to set precedence to ensure everyone's safety as COVID-19 continues to spread.
What transpired in Southampton was both shocking and dangerous, and a massive blow to the industry. The drive-in event platform is still evolving and has become the preference for several brands in the interim. Understanding that there have been hundreds of successful drive-in events both domestically and globally, I don't feel as though the format is the culprit—I believe that the planners and city officials are responsible for what transpired.
Like other safety protocols when executing a large-scale event, such as creating a weather plan for an outdoor festival, this addresses what actions will take place to ensure everyone's safety. Weather plans would include lowering the PA for high winds or shutting down generators for lighting, based on proximity to the event. I believe that for the permit to have been issued, there should have been a plan in place for this eventuality, with local authorities to mitigate it immediately. If guests became noncompliant and this was our event, we would have stopped the performance until they returned to their vehicles—or ultimately ended the event to force the crowd to disperse.
Understanding that planners felt they took the proper precautions and followed CDC guidelines for the event, allowing guests to gather at the stage as they did is a significant threat to public safety and controlling the spread of the virus. Based on several media reports, city officials who approved the permit were in attendance at the event, and they, too, did nothing to stop the violations. I firmly believe that the city was negligent by issuing the permit and allowing the event to take place without having a contingency plan in place to prevent guests from gathering.”