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"We're back. We're officially back!"
Those were the first words spoken on stage at "Reconvening for Recovery: Live," a hybrid event produced by Northstar Meetings Group and Mohegan Sun, held at Mohegan Sun Casino and Resort, Oct. 13-14 in Mystic Country, Conn.
The event brought together in person 75 meeting professionals with industry influencers and speakers, many for the first time since the pandemic struck in March. More than 1,000 attendees participated in the 3.5-hour program virtually on a custom digital-event platform, as well.
The event was supported by a number of suppliers, including:
- PSAV, who provided audiovisual and broadcasting services;
- PC Nametag, who provided badges and wristband distancing technology;
- PMSI Promos, who provided personal-protection equipment and other items;
- Madison Ave. Inc., who brought in the signage to support social distancing; and
- Aventri, the event's registration provider.
Thanks, in part, to the broadcasting component and livestream of the event, a recorded version of Reconvening for Recovery will also be made available for industry professionals to watch on-demand. Register here to be notified when the on-demand video is available.
Meeting In-Person Again
For most of the attendees, Reconvening for Recovery was their first live business event since the prepandemic months. Cleaning and social-distancing protocols were evident from the moment they stepped on property, where they were checked by a temperature scanner before entering. Participants were required to sign a code of conduct specifying the protocols they would be required to follow:
- Allowing temperature checks;
- Wearing masks or facial coverings over both mouth and nose;
- Adhering to social-distance protocols; and
- Agreeing to report if they felt unwell or were experiencing flu-like symptoms.
"The goal of Reconvening for Recovery: Live was to both show and tell how to mitigate risk by adhering to the most current meetings industry health and safety protocols to produce a hybrid in-person and digital event," said David Blansfield, executive vice president and group publisher for Northstar Meetings Group, who hosted the event along with John Washko, Mohegan Sun's vice president of expo and convention sales. "Meeting planners like to see how things work in the real world. Judging by the feedback we've gotten from both the in-person and virtual attendees, I think our program accomplished that," Blansfield added.
"I hope what our live attendees took away from this event was our focus on safety, not only here at Mohegan Sun, but for our industry overall," said Washko. "We can move forward, and we can move forward safely, as long as we move forward together."
A Dynamic Schedule
On the agenda were a number of education sessions targeted to helping meeting planners learn how to bring back their events -- whether completely in-person or a combination of on-site and virtual participation -- safely. Washko and Mohegan Sun president and general manager Jeff Hamilton began the program by outlining how the property is keeping guests safe.
Regarding the hybrid event planning process, Hope Holm, regional sales director for PSAV, fielded a number of questions from both in-person and online attendees on the technology and manpower needed for such meetings. Holm pointed out that for hybrid events like Reconvening for Recovery, the audiovisual company needs to bring in the same number of employees to run the virtual side as are needed for the on-site portion, such as live and virtual stage managers to run each part of the show.
The program featured a virtual panel with four members of the Events Industry Council's Covid-19 Business Recovery Task Force: Amy Calvert, president and CEO of EIC; Michael Dominguez, president and CEO of Associated Luxury Hotels International; Allison Kinsley, founder of Kinsley Meetings; and Liz Warwick, vice president of meeting management and event strategy for Liberty Mutual Insurance. Panelists discussed the resources EIC is producing to provide best practices and guidance for live events.
"Depending on where you sit in this country, as far as how ready people are to meet, everybody's experience is extremely different," said Dominguez during the session. "What we have found consistently is the [EIC] resources have given people confidence to be able to get on that plane for the first time and come together for the first time. I always joke it's me on a high dive when I was a kid: You're scared out of your mind until you take the first jump and then you realize, okay, that wasn't that bad. I can do it again. That's kind of where we are right now."
David DuBois, president and CEO of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, spoke of the need for more testing and the development of a vaccine to help get trade shows back on everyone's calendars -- and save lives. "If 90-plus percent people would wear face masks, we in the United States would save 45,000-50,000 lives. I'm a big advocate of that," he said.
Another priority for IAEE is securing federal government aid for the industry. "What are we doing to advocate for stimulus relief? How many of you received PPP in the first wave?" he asked. "How many of you can't wait for your furloughed workers to slowly come back to work?"
Also on the program was Heather Hansen O'Neill, a motivational speaker who specializes in helping organizations create better relationships internally and with clients. She advised listeners to assess their daily habits after months of working from home and keeping to ourselves. "Are the choices you're making freeing or restricting?" she asked. "Accept what is so you can move on to what can be."
A Message from Miss America
After the group transitioned safely (abiding by social distancing and other guidelines and protocols) from the meeting room to Mohegan Sun's Earth Expo Center, Miss America 2020 Camille Schrier addressed the live and virtual audience with a presentation focused on transformation, capped by a demonstration of the unique talent she displayed in winning her crown -- a science experiment demonstrating the explosive catalytic decomposition of hydrogen peroxide.
Cameras streaming the virtual component of the event captured the transition of in-person attendees, staff and presenters from room to room. The event then continued to broadcast from the new location -- the expo center -- keeping virtual attendees engaged and involved throughout the process.
In addition to the on-stage presentations, Schrier presented two video vignettes, one which provided the perspective of Angela Cox, Northstar's senior group director of meetings and events, who planned Reconvening for Recovery: Live, and her counterpart, Mohegan Sun's Dana Lambersky, CMP, CMM, director of convention services; the other focused on Schrier's experience as an in-person meeting attendee in the era of COVID-19. Both will be available for on-demand viewing, together with the entire program. Register here to be notified when the on-demand video is available.
Attendees came away delighted to have been together once more. "This is the first in-person event that I've done since February, so it was really nice to get out of the house finally and come and do this," said Judy O'Babatunde, events coordinator for the Education Writers Association. "I felt extremely safe. I took a million pictures, and I have lots of insight on how we can move forward doing hybrid events in a safe way."
"We're so happy to be in-person again," echoed Amanda Veldman Doyle, director of regional sales for Prestige Global Meeting Source. "Live meetings are at the core of what we do, and it's great to be able to experience it first- hand so we can communicate to colleagues and clients what it's like to go to a meeting now — and feel safe doing so."
"I loved the interaction, seeing people face-to-face, or should I say mask-to-mask," added Juliana Rauf, conventions, meetings and government affairs coordinator for the National Retail Lumber Association.
Importantly for Northstar, participants came away with a feeling of optimism for the future of the meetings business, said Northstar's Blansfield. "It gave them hope. It inspired them," he said. "Now they know we can do this; we can meet again safely and effectively. That's the kind of spark we hope will spur recovery."
Northstar will hold two more in-person events this year. Destination West in Arizona takes place at the Wigwam Resort outside Phoenix, Oct. 28-30. And Destination Texas will be held Dec. 9 - 11 at the Great Wolf Lodge in Grapevine, Texas.