Questions you may be asking yourself: Can I safely host an event? Do we – or can we – require vaccinations or negative COVID tests? How do I make certain I am legally protected if I have this event? Oh wait, can I no longer have a serve-yourself buffet? What about that coffee break? How do I ensure attendees maintain social distancing when this meeting room only has one entrance/exit door? Is the venue I’ve gone to for 15 years still a safe option given health considerations?
Overwhelmed yet? You are not alone.
Before the COVID pandemic, event hosts and meeting planners never considered any of the above questions when planning a meeting or event. Now, the laundry list of health-related questions is all we think about as we try and plan effective meetings and events, all while being hyper aware of and monitoring the health and safety of all attendees to our events. In this article, Certified Meeting Professional Melanie Payne discusses some things to consider and questions to ask as you try and navigate the difficult world of event attendee health.
Things to Consider at Different Stages of Event Planning
1. Pre-Pre-Event Considerations
We used to only have pre-event planning and considerations, but post-2020 we have entered the pre-pre-event world of determining if the event will happen and in what manner it will happen - in-person, hybrid, or virtual - so then we can start our actual pre-planning. Some things to consider when determining whether or not to have an in-person or hybrid meeting:
Determine what you require of attendees before fully planning the event! Everyone has an opinion. If we didn’t already know this, the last two years has made that top of mind. Are you going to require vaccinations for attendance? Masks? Negative COVID tests? It’s up to you as the event owner to determine what protocols you’d like to have in place for your event. Before determining protocols, however, it’s recommended to determine if you will have a highly risk-adverse or risk-possible position for your initial stages of conversations. Some of your decisions may affect attendees’ desires whether to attend (all based on their own opinions), so determining the general direction, even if not the exact policies early on will help with space needs, budgeting, and whether or not having the event in-person or hybrid is worth it to you.
Determine what you want to handle and what is wise or easy to outsource. There are some great health and safety vendor partners who will take some of the load off your shoulders. Partners will collect attendees’ personal health information so you or your organization don’t have to be responsible for the safekeeping and destruction of that data. There are also vendor partners who will test attendees on site and help treat as needed. Cost is a huge consideration with these vendors, but for your protection, they may be worth it. Be certain to ensure your health and safety partner is reputable, who follows the UMC social principles as well as offers reputable products.
2. Pre-Event Planning
Once you’ve decided to have a fully in-person or hybrid event, it’s now time to get to the logistics. Just like pre-2020 you must consider room setups, choose food and beverage, and plan your programming. However, it might now look a little different. Here are some things to think through while in the pre-event planning phase:
Do you have the right space you need and the right room set up to maximize space but follow social distancing? Can you say social distancing? Well, of course you can! But can you actually plan a room set around it? Consider this: with six-foot social distancing requirements, in a room where you used to fit 100 people classroom set, you can now only fit 58. You can no longer “just squeeze” in that additional attendee or easily add another six foot table for your coffee break. Instead, you must intentionally diagram out space to ensure you can comfortably fit your attendees while also maintaining a safe social distance. Think this only impacts your room choice, it may also impact your venue choice as you now need close to double the space you did pre-social distancing.
It’s time to think through how people walk in and out of a room, and when! Attendee flow changes completely when trying to keep people at a safe distance. We used to be able to expect 100 attendees to walk through the same 4 foot wide door and make it to their next breakout session with only a 10 minute break, stopping for coffee and a bio break while they were at it. If each attendee maintained social distancing with each of those stops, this 10 minute break could now easily take an extra 5 minutes. Consider making doorways one way to ease the safety of ingress and egress as well as increasing duration of breaks between agenda items.
Does your meeting have an exhibit hall or a networking hour? Consider how this might look different with masks, plastic guards, or social distancing. Think through how to keep people safe while multiple people are approaching the same table.
A buffet, passed hors d’oeuvres, and coffee oh my! Food & beverage service has never been more complicated. Before you could have 400 people go quickly through a buffet without ever having to change out the serving utensils or sanitize the coffee dispenser handle. What were we thinking?! Consider when planning out your food and beverage at your meeting how much contact you’d like attendees and catering staff to have with it. There are great contact-less options, but also some great ways to serve food out there. Time to get creative in both your menu and serving plans.
Have a waiver! Simply put, a waiver allows people to commit to the policies and protocols of your event ahead of their arrival to the event. Psychology states if people commit to something ahead of time they are more likely to stick to it when that time comes. So it would make sense if you had people agree to wear a mask, be vaccinated, or even just be on time, it is more likely to happen if they sign a waiver ahead of time saying they would and understand the consequences if they don’t.
3. On-Site Event Considerations
You’ve made it to event day! Not a small feat these days. Great work. Now to make it all happen according to plan. Consider the below on-site:
Plan and stick to the plan on how to handle those not following the guidelines of the event. Everyone hates to be “that person” but it is your responsibility as the event owner to stand up to the people who are not following policies and protocols set in place by your waiver. You made a commitment to the safety of all attendees when determining your policies and protocols. Having a plan in place regarding how you will communicate to those who are not following those policies ensures you are fair to everyone. This leaves no room for error in the midst of that potentially awkward conversation when asking someone to “pull up their mask” or even leave the event if they are not following protocol.
Have a communications plan in place to quickly distribute changes in information and plans to attendees. Remember that plan in 2020… or 2021… that didn’t go exactly the way you thought? Well, that’s events! And even more so in 2022. Having a communications plan in place to inform attendees when changes inevitably happen makes life so much simpler. If safety requires you to move a session to a larger room to ensure social distancing, change the agenda on site to allow for more time for people to move about an exhibit hall safely, or even share a helpful tip for attendees health, having a plan in place, whether it is an email, text or mobile app notification will ensure that change can be communicated effectively and efficiently.
4. Post-Event Follow Up
You did it! To make certain all is wrapped up with a bow, think through these items:
Be certain to have a way to follow up with attendees post-event. Having a plan to ask attendees follow up health information for 5, 7, and 14 days post-event will help ensure you receive and can share accurate data to other attendees for contact tracing purposes, if needed.
Have a plan in place to alert attendees if an attendee reports a positive COVID case. Ensuring you can alert other event attendees of post-event positive COVID tests could help ensure attendees could quarantine and make choices as they see fit. If you do intend to inform other attendees of a positive COVID case potentially contracted at your event, always make certain you never mention who that individual is or give any hints of who it may have been. All health data should remain confidential and never shared in detail.
In addition to all these considerations, always make certain you are working with state and local health officials when planning your meetings and events. Here is the current link to the CDC’s current guidance for meetings and events: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/event-planners-and-attendees-faq.html