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Do attendees want to wear masks and keep their distance when meetings resume, or will such practices detract too much from the experience of live events? That’s a question with which Bradley Metrock, CEO of Nashville-based Score Publishing, has been grappling for months.
As executive producer of the VoiceFirst Events, all related to voice technology and the growing use of artificial intelligence, he had successfully pivoted a march conference to a digital platform in April. But he was determined that the Voice of Healthcare Summit, typically held at Harvard Medical School, would go forward in person Aug. 5-6.
His team painstakingly created Project Voice Series protocols that would include COVID-19 testing, daily temperature checks and health monitoring. "It was really hardcore," says Metrock. "We said there’s going to be masks, distancing, no food, no swag." The 420-person capacity conference center at Harvard Medical School would be restricted to welcome only 200 attendees, with appropriately distanced room setups.
But two factors upended that plan: Harvard will likely remain closed until Labor Day, and attendees didn't want to come to an event so mired in health safety measures. Within days, a completely different plan was hatched. The Voice of Healthcare Summit, Special Edition, will be a one-day event at the Boston Winery on Aug. 5, 2020, with a projected 125 to 150 participants. The only health protocol will be a COVID-19 test at registration. Those who test positive will be sent home with a refund; those with a negative result will enjoy a "halfway normal" event, says Metrock.
We spoke with Metrock on Friday about the factors that drove his decision and how he expects to pull it off. (Listen to the full conversation in this episode of Eventful: The Podcast for Meeting Professionals.)
Following are highlights from that discussion.
What were people telling you about the protocols established for the Voice of Healthcare?
Harvard had made a comment that I had heard several other times: "Who in the world is going to want to do this?" And I thought, "Well, my God, if you're telling me that, and I've heard this from other people, maybe we are over-engineering the problem."
And we had gotten a lot of pushback -- on the left and the right, politically -- from people who said, "Sorry no, we're not going to do any of that." The moral of the story is that people want elevated hygiene, health and safety, but they don't want to do anything about it -- to the surprise of, really, nobody.
What's the new safety plan?
We have come to the conclusion that the only way to do this safely is to test for COVID-19. If you can create and manage the testing properly -- with a third-party, licensed, certified health-care organization -- then you can create a meeting population where everybody's negative. And, under those circumstances, I have come to see that there's not a lot of reason for people to wear masks or do some of these other things, unless they just feel more comfortable doing that.
Also important: We're switching to open-air venues for our events. In Boston we're going with a place called Boston Winery, which is sort of open and airy, depending on how they configure the property.
How will the agenda be different?
Normally I'm one to program things to the gills. People know that, and it's a selling point of what we do. Now, I'm changing course, and we're having programs that breathe a little bit more and have a bit more time for socializing. And, especially since we'll be at Boston Winery, we're going to start serving alcohol in the afternoon.
This was going to be a two-day event. Now it's shortened to a one-day event. And it's going to be fun. It's going to be different. We're going to call it the Voice of Healthcare Summit, Special Edition.
Will people be ready to relax and have fun?
I think it is a critical revelation that I have had -- really only since last week -- that if you're going to do an in-person event, the ethos of it, or the psychology of it, has to run counter to the heavy, heavy lives we've lived for the first half of this year. We've all been staring at the same four walls. It's been sort of existential in nature. It's been awful. In-person events can be a huge home run if they're refreshing, if they're light, if they're fun, if they're social.
I think it is critical that people get out and get that face-to-face interaction. They’re going crazy without it. It's part of who we are as human beings. Conferences are something that many people just flat out, honestly, need to survive -- as crazy as that is.
What happens if people test positive for COVID-19 at registration?
We can credit them back -- they don't lose anything -- but they have to go and attend to their health. For people who are negative, we can proceed to have some halfway normal event.
Regarding testing, I understand that someone might be carrying and transmitting the virus for a few days before it would show positive on a test.
Yeah. There's been some news just this week about that and, of course we are following it all closely. I've been asked about that already, and my response is that we're going to go with the advice of medical professionals on what we should and shouldn't be doing. But it's a rapidly evolving situation where the testing is improving at an extraordinarily rapid rate, and we should have a reasonable solution that works, maybe even this month. I feel pretty good about it, despite some of the news that's come out.
Will you require participants to sign a waiver that relieves you of any liability if they get sick?
Yes, absolutely. And it'll be pretty clear: The waiver's going to say if you get sick before, during or after this event it's not the event's fault, it's not the sponsor's or exhibitors' fault or another attendee's fault. It's either your fault or no one's fault. I don't see a way around that any time soon, especially now.
Will attendees be asked to wear face masks or observe social distancing guidelines?
I'm sure it will be sort of muscle memory to where some will do that, especially the distancing, but all of this is subject to change as the situation evolves. If you want to wear a mask, feel free. If you know that everybody in the room is negative, I don't see a scientific reason to do that, but if you feel like you need to do that, no one's going to tell you to stop.
A lot of people look at masks and they just say "no." This is a big source of controversy here in Tennessee, where a lot of stuff has been open for weeks. Some people wear masks and some people don't. Even people who wear masks are saying, I'm not sure if I want to go to a conference where that's necessary. The ability of COVID-19 testing to free the room from that constraint -- the feedback on that has been very positive. So, it's shifted as we have evolved. [Per a recent survey conducted by Enigma Research for Northstar, the majority of attendees do favor requiring masks at public events.]
Massachusetts is still limiting events to 10 people. I guess you’re hoping that by August that will no longer be the case?
I suppose so.
Do you have a plan B if that's still too large of a gathering according to government restrictions?
Yeah, I think. Just before The Voice of the Car Summit, which was going to be held April 7-8 in San Jose, Calif., it was announced that meetings of more than 50 people could not be held. That evening, for a period of two to three hours, I completely razed our program to the ground and rebuilt it as a digital event. So, we can adjust it extremely quickly if we need to.
As we get into mid-July, if something unfathomable is occurring -- either this thing got worse somehow, or Boston is not going to be compatible with this event -- then we'll just make it virtual. We'll keep the same dates. I feel like postponing an event or cancelling it, you might as well just kiss it goodbye.
Are you working with city officials or the Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau? Are they aware of your plans for this event?
For this event, no. For some of the larger stuff, we do. We had not gotten to the point of doing that with this one.
How do your potential attendees feel about being tested on arrival?
Some people are arguing that they don't want us to do COVID-19 testing. And my response is, "How would you feel if you infected somebody and they died?" With our understanding of how this thing works, I just don't see a way around it. Even if there's a little pain point at the beginning, I like the idea of having an event that can be social and can be fun.
I haven't heard of any other event planning to test everyone and then, with a presumably COVID-free audience, just be relaxed about it. Have you?
Share Your Feedback
What’s your opinion about health and safety measures at meetings? Please share your comments below.
No, I haven't. We're kind of out there on an island. Every day of mine is dominated by thoughts about what we need to do to allow in-person events to come back. We can be a trailblazer if we can do this safely and do it intelligently.
A lot of people are really interested in seeing how this goes. We're already getting emails, about one a day, saying, "How dare you?" or some sort of theme around that. But the attendees and sponsors and other stakeholders are saying that this sounds about right.
Do you expect other event organizers will follow this model?
The moment people start to see this sort of convening is happening with no repercussions, it's going to be off to the races.
Listen to the full conversation in this episode of the Eventful podcast.