February 12, 2021
Before diving into this topic, I want to make it very clear: I do not believe it is safe or in anyone’s best interest to attempt to host hybrid or even small in-person events at this time: Coronavirus cases are still on the rise, new strains of the virus offer a fresh health threat, and vaccine rollouts have been slower than planned even in the wealthiest of nations. Moreover, mass vaccination does not equal the end of preventative measures like masks and social distancing, and I doubt people will ever view mass gatherings the same (sanitation-wise). Nevertheless, when physical events do begin to come back, they will be hybrid at first; and though the in-person portion of these events will be small and local, planners will need to go above and beyond to keep guests and staff safe.
Following successful mass vaccination, it will take some time to move beyond the stigma of super-spreader events and build confidence in in-person meetings again. The decision to attend events at this point will be dictated in part by attendees’ confidence in the health and safety precautions taken by planners and venues; but what should those precautions be?
While some maintain events have always had the capacity for Covid-19 safety, others dismiss popular sanitation protocols as mere “hygiene theater” designed to placate rather than protect. One of the biggest challenges is the lack of consistent, authoritative guidelines for the events industry. Even with all the unknowns and inconsistent regulations/enforcement, we can begin to consider best practices for small in-person gatherings, and a good place to start is the familiar.
MASKS, HAND SANITIZER & SOCIAL DISTANCING
- · PPE concierge service: Don’t count on attendees bringing their own hand sanitizer and don’t leave room for excuses like “I left my mask in the car.” Consider having supplies on hand or even handing every guest their very own (branded) face mask and hand sanitizer upon arrival.
- · Traffic flow: You’ll need to space out your show more than usual and enforce social distancing (and mask wearing) at all times. Provide frequent distancing reminders and clear cues – floor, wall signage, ropes, etc. – to control foot traffic through the venue. Consider attendee density for anything that might involve queuing (ex. check-in) and make entrances/exits one-way.
- · Check-in: Registration is usually the first thing attendees encounter. Not only do people tend to cluster around the reg desk but it’s easy to forget distancing in the excitement of seeing friends and colleagues. The best option is to have guests check in online before arriving (you might combine it with a health survey) or to have multiple check-in points on site. If the venue has several points of entry, set up a self-serve station or kiosk at each one and stagger arrival by having attendees choose a check-in time when they register. The goal is to avoid congestion and set the stage for a safe event right from start. If you need to have on-site check-in, use a larger-than-usual space (ex. double the space for half the usual number of attendees). Also, don’t allow walk-ins!
- · Badges: Mail out accreditation before the event if possible (ex. as part of a swag box with a face mask and hand sanitizer). If you anticipate on-site badge printing, self-serve stations are the way to go.
- · General: Minimize staff-attendee interactions and reduce the spread of germs by employing touchless tech (mobile apps, QR codes, etc.) wherever possible. (You can also collect more attendee data this way.)
- · Assigned seating: Allow attendees to choose their seat ahead of time. One planner called it “sanctuary seat selection.”
SCREENING & TRACING
The goal is, of course, effective (i.e. accurate) and rapid onsite testing, but a system of pre-health screenings and post-event monitoring is still a must:
- · Pre-event health screening: Ask all registered attendees to fill out an online form or short questionnaire about where they’ve been, with whom they’ve interacted, whether they have or are displaying any coronavirus symptoms, how best to reach them, etc. This is a good idea even if you require a negative Covid test within a week of the event.
- · Temperature checks: For anyone entering the meeting space, including attendees, staff and third-party vendors. Handheld (non-contact) digital forehead thermometers can be purchased for as low as $20/device. There are also a variety of wellness kiosks like the one by LG Business Solutions, which includes a thermal temperature scanner and motion-activated hand sanitizer dispenser. The price is significantly higher (I’m guessing several thousand dollars), but it might be worth the investment for multiple events.
- · Waivers: While it might not stand up in a court of law, a waiver of liability can get attendees to think about their actions. Give attendees enough time to review the waiver and decide if they agree to the terms.
- · Staff testing: Have all staff tested for Covid as close to the event as possible.
- · Post-event: Have a contact tracing plan--use scannable badges or a Bluetooth-powered wristband like Proxxi’s Contact onsite to record attendee movement. At a $100 apiece (reasonable for a small group), the bands vibrate to remind wearers to maintain social distancing and can tell you who someone came in contact with in the event of a sick guest (i.e. who to notify).
Your choice of meeting location is paramount in a Covid safety plan: After 2020, we all want flexible contracts but a venue’s disinfection protocols and capacity to accommodate social distancing are also critical. It’s not enough for a venue to follow local safety guidelines (after all, those are constantly changing); you want a venue that’s demonstrated its commitment to health and safety.
- · GBAC STAR accreditation: Many venues are working towards this accreditation program launched in May 2020 by the Global Biorisk Advisory Council. The program focuses on best practices for controlling the risks of infectious agents like coronavirus. To achieve it, facilities must show compliance with 20 key elements, including PPE, personnel training and emergency response. Learn more.
- · Things to look for: High ceilings and wide spaces, one-way aisles and exits, social distancing markers and room capacities, up-to-date ventilation, separation by plexiglass and other dividing materials (sneeze guards), redesigned food service, mandatory health screenings for staff and vendors, onsite testing, protocols for responding to and reporting an illness, and, of course, updated/enhanced cleaning program.
- · Hotels: In the case of hotels, the guest experience matters. How is the hotel minimizing contact between guests and staff? How often are furniture and other high-touch surfaces treated with industrial disinfectants? Does the hotel have context-specific mask and social distancing policies? Has the restaurant/bar banned cash payments? Etc.
- · F&B: Buffet-style and bulk serving are fine if there’s a plexiglass barrier between the guests and food and a masked server behind the barrier. Consider individually-packaged and plated meals instead as well as single-use utensils. Masks should be worn at all times except when eating/drinking. Reconfigure tables and, if you have the space, make it 1 buffet/20 people instead of the usual 1/100. Forego the alcohol, too, as alcohol can reduce social distancing inhibitions.
- · Get outdoors: Outdoor meetings are safer so destinations with good weather year-round are going to be more in-demand.
There are an increasing number of resources out there for planners, and even entire new businesses forming around planners’ needs during the pandemic.
- · MIT COVID-19 Indoor Safety Guideline: Allows you to plug in 14 event variables and get a quantitative risk estimate. Factors include room specs (square footage, ceiling height, type of air ventilation and filtration, etc.), attendee behavior (exertion level, mask quality, etc.), time spent in the space, and more. The tool ultimately tells you how many people can safely be in the space and for how long. Learn more.
- · Sharecare + Forbes Travel Guide: The two collaborated on a health-security evaluation platform for hotels and resorts—a checklist of nearly 300 yes-no questions to be completed by a member of the property’s leadership team. It’s important to note that there’s no official on-property inspection, but the checklist is regularly updated as best practices evolve, prompting directory members to reconfirm their status. Learn more.
- · Hilton EventReady: Major hotel chains like Hilton have created comprehensive plans around meetings and events. Hilton’s EventReady playbook features curated resources and ideas for creating safe events.
- · Safe Expo: Advertises itself as “full service pre-to-post health safety monitoring for events.”
- · New tech: CES 2021 gave us new tech around Covid safety, including indoor air quality monitors that analyze ventilation and virus survival rate, and air purifiers that claim to filter out SARS-CoV-2 particles from the air. There are UV-C disinfection lights and new product XTI-360 may keep sprayed surfaces safe for up to a year. While I don’t know the price, availability or efficacy of these products or services like Safe Expo, the point is that a marketplace is arising just for events.
How to enforce all of the above? For one, clear communication both pre-event and onsite: Explain all the steps you’re taking to ensure a safe event. Make sure attendees and staff understand what they need to do to keep themselves and others safe. If possible, provide pictures: Show people exactly what they’re walking into, how to properly wear a mask, etc.
You might also consider having specially trained staff – a “Covid officer,” safety marshal or even security professional – to enforce compliance with social distancing, mask wearing and other rules, as well as on-site medical.
What no one seems to be talking about (yet) are the costs involved (venue, exhibit space, labor, catering, etc.). And while much depends on vaccine rollout, a lot comes down to personal comfort or willingness to attend events, which is hard to predict. It’s important to start the conversation now, though, and gather momentum for industry-wide best practices.