Digital Event Prepares Planners for Safe In-Person Meetings, Hybrid Success

Speakers at Northstar's Destination Southeast discussed health measures for meeting face-to-face, strategies for engaging virtual attendees and more.

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Check out the schedule of Northstar Meetings Group's upcoming digital events here.

As the end of 2020 approaches, planners are preparing for the year ahead and reassessing their meeting calendar. Some are eager to return to face-to-face events, while others are considering shifting to a hybrid model. 

Destination Southeast, a hosted-buyer-style event held online by Northstar Meetings Group on Oct. 27-28, brought together meeting planners and suppliers to connect and plan for future business in Southeastern states. The region is expected to help lead the industry's recovery, as it is rife with beach destinations, boutique hotels and golf resorts, which survey data shows are among the most popular venues planners are considering for future meetings. 

A total of 60 industry professionals attended the two-day digital event, which included one-on-one appointments and networking opportunities. Educational sessions led by industry experts provided timely tips for navigating the current crisis and elevating the event experience across a variety of formats.

"Virtual and live events are not mutually exclusive. They each have their own power and their own characteristics. Essentially, they are tools in the toolbox that we event professionals can use to communicate with our audience," said Jennifer Collins, president and CEO of the planning firm JDC Events. "It just so happens that we are leaning more heavily on virtual events right now because of the crisis we are in. But in the sense of moving forward and as we start to come back to meeting regularly in person, hybrid events would be ideal to consider and to keep in our arsenal."

Collins, who led a session on new approaches to event sponsorships, encouraged attendees to think of their exhibitors as more than just funding sources. Instead, she urged planners to treat sponsors as true partners, who can be tapped to strengthen in-person and hybrid meetings by providing fresh content and thought leadership.

Rethinking What's Possible

For those grappling with how to hold a hybrid event that is equally engaging for remote participants as it is for those attending in person, marketing expert and bestselling author David Meerman Scott provided sage advice. 

Meerman Scott advised event organizers to focus on making the digital experience more intimate and interactive. This, he said, can be achieved by broadcasting live video of virtual attendees onto large screens at the physical event location and engaging remote participants in as many ways as possible (think: chats, Q&As, polling, breakout rooms, in-app connections and social media hashtags).

According to Meerman Scott, the best virtual events are like TV. Organizers should have the focus of the screen be on the presenters, rather than PowerPoints, as this activates attendees' mirror neurons and can make them feel connected to the speakers, despite the distance between them. 

Diversity Matters 

Day two of Destination Southeast kicked off with a session on the importance of diversity, led by Simon T. Bailey, an executive advisor with 30 years of experience in the hospitality industry and former sales director of the Disney Institute

Simon T. Bailey

Bailey noted that inclusive teams solve problems faster, and said diversity should be considered in every aspect of a meeting, from the planners and A/V team behind the event, to the speakers on stage and the suppliers that bring it all together. 

"Allyship is not the flavor of the month, but should be a part of your culture and here to stay. If you're going to be a real champion, you have to do the work," said Bailey, who recommended recruiting professionals of color and working with local convention and visitors bureaus on additional ways to enhance meeting diversity. "The moment you partner with a destination, ask them if they have a vendor list of professionals of color."

Safety First

To close out the event, Dr. Antonio Crespo, medical director of infectious diseases for Orlando Health, provided tips on how to host safe in-person gatherings right now. He advised that masks should be changed on a daily basis and suggested planners have extras on hand for attendees. According to Dr. Crespo, cloth and disposable masks are equally effective, as long as they are worn properly.

Meeting organizers should also closely monitor the number of Covid-19 cases within the local area, said Dr. Crespo, and implement as many safety protocols and health screening measures as possible.

Dr. Antonio Crespo, Orlando Health
Dr. Antonio Crespo, Orlando Health

"Not everyone is going to have a fever, but fever is a very common symptom of Covid-19 and temperature checks can help with that," he said. "It's not going to prevent 100 percent of the cases, so temperature checks shouldn't be your only screening method. They should be used in conjunction with other measures, like health questionnaires that ask about recent exposure, Covid-19 symptoms and where the attendees are traveling from."

As for food and beverage, Dr. Crespo said prepackaged meals and grab-and-go food items decrease the chance of transmission and are therefore preferable to sit-down meals. Alcohol should be served in moderation, with staff members monitoring attendees to ensure everyone is practicing social distancing and abiding by the safety protocols. 

"It's difficult to predict, but I think we can expect another year of these types of precautions," said Dr. Crespo. "Having a vaccine might help in decreasing the number of Covid-19 cases but in the meantime and even after a vaccine, it's very important that we continue following safety precautions. Events can be done safely as long as we are responsible and the attendees coming also act responsibly and follow proper guidance."