More than 600 people gathered in Grapevine, Texas, last week for Meeting Professionals International's annual World Education Congress. Originally scheduled for June 6-9, 2020, the event was moved to Nov. 3-6 and rebranded under a "Reunite for Recovery" theme.
WEC Grapevine, which aimed to unite meeting and event professionals from around the world, was held as a hybrid affair. The event drew 608 in-person attendees, along with 1,131 virtual participants who tuned in from 17 countries. Live programming focused on the industry's recovery was offered to both audiences.
"Reunite for Recovery is not just a tagline," said Paul Van Deventer, president and CEO of MPI, during a press conference at the event. "To me, it is about fulfilling the mission of what we do when we meet: We change the world. Business events are critical to innovation. They're critical to the economy, and they're critical to economic recovery. We're thrilled to be here. We realize it's an important responsibility for this industry to do this well and to do this right, to show the way forward."
Organizers followed through with the in-person event, held at the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center, despite a recent surge in Covid-19 cases in Tarrant County, where Grapevine is located, and nearby Dallas County.
InHouse Physicians, a global provider of integrative medicine and employee health solutions, operated an on-site clinic at the event, and offered rapid-response coronavirus tests upon request. According to MPI, four people visited the clinic for injury or illness not related to Covid-19 and seven attendees requested a coronavirus test. As of Nov. 9, there were no positive cases reported at the event. As part of its duty of care statement, MPI has asked all in-person participants to monitor their health for the next two weeks and report any positive Covid-19 tests.
"The safety of all WEC participants was and remains our top priority," said Annette Gregg, MPI's senior vice president of experience. "Leading up to the event, we were in constant communications with city officials to ensure it was safe for MPI to continue. And we have worked with city, county, state and national officials, along with Marriott International and the Gaylord Texan, to ensure the health and well-being of all those involved in the event."
Other safety precautions taken at WEC Grapevine included a daily health screening that attendees needed to complete each morning via the event app. In-person participants were also required to undergo daily temperature checks. Hand sanitizing stations were positioned throughout the venue, and all tables and chairs were set up with six feet of physical distancing. Masks were required at all times, with the only exception being when guests were actively eating or drinking. Staff members monitored the event to ensure all attendees were abiding by the mask mandate and proper distancing. The Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center has earned GBAC Star certification in coronavirus cleaning and prevention.
During a panel discussion on the "Road to Recovery," industry leaders weighed in on what the future of meetings would look like. Some, such as Amy Calvert, CEO of the Events Industry Council, suggested that hybrid is here to stay and advised planners to rethink the entire event experience.
"I think this opportunity that you've created here, a live hybrid experience, is our future. And I think that's great because we will get better at it and we will continue to evolve the process," said Calvert. "I think this crisis has presented us with some opportunities to reflect on things we maybe took for granted. As one of my co-chairs of the APEX Task Force says, I think we were operating a bit on 'rinse and repeat' before. We did what we did. We showed up, we had great experiences, but perhaps we weren't asking ourselves and one another some tough questions about what was the return on that investment? And are we finding those to be valuable engagements?"
For those who decide to meet in person, the speakers stressed the importance of putting safety and wellness at the forefront of the planning process. Panelists also expressed their confidence that the meetings industry will recover from the Covid-19 crisis and come back stronger than before.
"Out of challenge and hardships, there's always growth," said Nan Marchand Beauvois, senior vice president of industry relations and membership for the U.S. Travel Association. "I really think we're going to come back stronger. This economy in the United States can't come back and can't grow without this industry. So, we'll come back stronger and we'll come back better because we've learned from the worst."
MPI plans to bring its members together again for the 2021 World Education Congress, which is scheduled to take place at Caesars Forum in Las Vegas on June 14-17.