. How Top Meetings Destinations Are Handling the Pandemic and Preparing for Recovery | Northstar Meetings Group

How Top Meetings Destinations Are Handling the Pandemic and Preparing for Recovery

Venues in Chicago, Las Vegas, New York City, Orlando, and Washington, D.C., have established coronavirus protocols and developed new programs to welcome groups back to town. 

A 19,000-square-foot production studio with digital-event capabilities has been added to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.
A 19,000-square-foot production studio with digital-event capabilities has been added to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. Photo Credit:Events DC

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Updated Sept. 16, 2020. As the coronavirus pandemic stretches on, convention and visitor bureaus across the country are hard at work developing new ways to make their destinations safe and inviting for visiting groups. Some are partnering with local health agencies to provide concierge medical services for event planners, while others are adding brand-new broadcast studios that are equipped to handle virtual and hybrid events. Below is a roundup of how some of the nation's top meeting destinations are responding to the crisis and working to help the industry come back stronger.

Chicago

Gatherings in Chicago are currently limited to 50 people or less, but the city's convention center is already preparing to reopen and host large gatherings safely when the time is right.
 
McCormick Place, which offers 2.6 million square feet of exhibition space, recently became GBAC Star certified in coronavirus cleaning, disinfection and prevention. The venue has worked with the Global Biorisk Advisory Council, as well as public health officials, to develop a reopening plan. New safety protocols include implementing Covid-19 training for all employees and increasing the number of touch-free, automatic doors at the convention center. A new, 360-degree virtual tour allows planners to explore the convention center from anywhere and plan for future meetings.
 
"We miss having large-scale, face-to-face meetings in our city. But the day is coming, hopefully soon, when you will be back in Chicago with your meetings, events and trade shows," said Marc Anderson, chief operating officer of Choose Chicago, during a virtual roadshow hosted by the CVB.
 
According to the reopening plan, meeting hotels on the McCormick Place campus are also enhancing their safety protocols. This includes the Marriott Marquis Chicago and the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, which are currently in the process of obtaining GBAC Star accreditation.
 
Anderson noted that one of the city's nicknames is a testament to its resiliency. "Chicago is affectionately referred to as the Second City. Not because we are second in any way, but because our city rebuilt after the great Chicago fire of 1871," said Anderson. "Chicagoans rebuilt our city and I can promise you that our city, our recovery and our restoration will be bigger, brighter and more soul-stirring than you can ever imagine."
 
Other venues around Chicago also have reopened, including nearly 82 percent of the city's hotels, according to Anderson. In addition, local attractions have reopened and redesigned their events spaces in order to host gatherings safely. The Field Museum, for example, has added 144 hand sanitizing stations, updated their floor plans to account for 8 feet of social distancing between guests, and now requires vendors to undergo health screenings and temperature checks. The museum, which reopened in July, has hosted three private events of as many as 36 people each.
 
"We feel hopeful," said Ellyn Nugent, manager of special events for the Field Museum. "My main takeaway from talking to clients is they're ready. People want to gather, and they want to go back. The meetings industry is not going to go away. We just have to get to a place where people are comfortable traveling, comfortable coming to events and comfortable booking them."

Las Vegas

Las Vegas is getting back to business. Nevada casinos began reopening on June 4 and by the end of July, 125,000 of the city's 150,000 hotel rooms had reopened. Properties have continued to welcome back guests in the weeks since. Hospitality giant MGM Resorts will reopen the last of its currently shuttered Las Vegas properties, Park MGM, on Sept. 30. 

In an effort to keep residents and guests safe, the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services has released a free contact-tracing mobile app. Covid Trace is designed to exchange anonymous information with other phones in the area and alert users if they come into contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19. A "Vegas Smart" initiative from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority encourages travelers to stay smart and stay healthy when enjoying the destination. Details on the health and safety protocols being implemented at each property can be found here.

Group gatherings are restricted to 50 people or less, but the Las Vegas Convention Center is preparing for when larger groups can return. The venue recently earned GBAC Star certification and is plowing ahead with an $890 million expansion, which is expected to be complete by the end of the year.

Las-Vegas-Market-Summer-2020
Temperature checks and masks were among the safety requirements at the 2020 Summer Las Vegas Market Photo Credit: Las Vegas Market

Events are happening under the current guidelines. The Summer 2020 Las Vegas Market was held Aug. 30 to Sept. 3 at the World Market Center. The trade show, which is hosted by the International Market Centers, drew 20 percent of its normal attendance. Most attendees were regional, with 77 percent hailing from Western states. 

IMC worked with officials at the city, county and state levels to develop a traffic control and safety plan. According to Neal Patton, general counsel for IMC, in-person attendance was spread over five days and across 47 floors, so no more than 50 people were at the same place at the same time.

"We eliminated all of the aspects of our normal trade show that would have involved large gatherings," said Patton. "We held no meetings, live seminars, networking events or buyer lounges. None of the places where people congregate were open." Instead, the venue switched to a showroom-only format and also offered digital tours and appointments to limit traffic. "People were spread out in hundreds of showrooms on multiple floors, over a period of days. We never had a gathering that approached 50 people at a time."

Health screenings and temperature checks were conducted at registration, and occupancy limits were posted in every showroom, elevator and restroom. Staff members monitored the showrooms to make sure that attendees were wearing masks. In addition, floor decals were installed to encourage social distancing and announcements reminding people to wear a mask and practice healthy habits were played throughout the day.

"IMC's successful staging of their summer Las Vegas Market strongly signals the return of the convention and trade show industry in Las Vegas," said Chris Meyer, vice president of global sales for the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. "Trade shows are a key driver of the southern Nevada economy, and we look forward to welcoming IMC customers back to Las Vegas in January when IMC christens their new trade show facility."

New York City

Once the epicenter of the country's coronavirus outbreak, New York City has since rebounded and has reached stage 4 of its reopening plan. Groups of up to 50 people are now permitted. Indoor arts and entertainment venues must limit attendance to 25 percent capacity. Outdoor art and entertainment venues and religious gatherings cannot exceed 33 percent of the venue's capacity.
 
In an effort to keep visitors safe, NYC & Company has launched the "Stay Well NYC" pledge, which asks all tourism and hospitality businesses, as well as their guests, to follow Covid-19 safety protocols. This includes maintaining social distancing, sanitizing all surfaces in accordance with CDC guidelines and performing wellness checks on employees.
 
The city's convention venue, Javits Center, is preparing for a new normal of meetings. A 30,000-square-foot broadcasting center has been added to address the need for virtual and hybrid meeting technology. The studio is equipped with a private green room, studio cameras, livestreaming capabilities and more. It can accommodate up to 300 people under social-distancing guidelines. An on-site production team is available to help planners ensure their virtual and hybrid events run smoothly. The studio was used for the first time last week to film sessions for the annual Climate Week NYC event, which is scheduled for Sept. 21-27.

"From constructing a temporary Covid-19 hospital to facilitating donations for community groups in need, the Javits Center has played a critical role in supporting New Yorkers during these unprecedented times, and we look forward to supporting New York's economy and businesses as we work to reopen this iconic venue," said Tony Sclafani, senior vice president and chief communications officer for the Javits Center. "In the meantime, we have created a state-of-the-art broadcast studio to host virtual events that can be live streamed to audiences across the planet, and our first customer, the Nest Summit, has already begun filming as a part of Climate Week NYC."
 
The Javits Center, which is working towards completing the GBAC Star certification program, has released a 28-page guide detailing new event protocols. Among them are the implementation of staggered arrival times for meeting attendees and the sanitization of all high-touch areas such as door handles and elevator buttons at least once every hour. A similar 32-page document outlines what changes are being made to the facility's food-and-beverage program. Meanwhile, work to expand the Javits Center continues. The project, which is expected to add 1.2 million square feet of event space, is on track for completion in March 2021.
 
Other venues across the city are also preparing for an omnichannel future. Venues that offer hybrid hosting models include Convene, Etc.venues, Shubert Studios and more. Meeting planners can peruse the city's various venues on a new virtual site tours page, which has been added to the NYC & Company website. More than 50 venues currently are listed on the page.
 
"As New York City's five boroughs continue to safely reopen, our world-class venues are preparing to host meetings, conventions and events once again, with best-in-class health-and-safety protocols in place and new hybrid offerings available to planners," said Jerry Cito, executive vice president of convention development for NYC & Company.

 

Orlando

Visit Orlando and the Orange County Convention Center are working hard to bring group business back to the city. At the moment, there are no set restrictions on group gatherings in Florida, although the state is discouraging people from congregating in groups of more than 50.

To help ensure attendee safety, Visit Orlando and the OCCC have partnered with the health-care network Orlando Health to launch a free medical concierge program that will provide medical experts and resources to all groups that hold an event at the convention center in 2020. 

As part of the program, Visit Orlando will help connect event planners with medical professionals who can answer any questions they have, as well as help to review and improve their safety plan. Planners will also have access to personal protective equipment suppliers, who can provide masks and hand sanitizer for the meeting. What's more, planners will have the option to conduct coronavirus testing for all attendees and staff, and an on-site medical expert will be available at the event. Orlando Health's Virtual Visit program will also allow attendees to get 24/7 medical help and connect directly with a physician through their phone, tablet or computer.

The OCCC was among the first in the nation to earn GBAC Star certification. In an effort to show that large, in-person events can resume safely, the venue hosted the Together Again Expo in late July. The event was attended by 1,405 people in person and 8,225 people online. Safety protocols included temperature checks at the door, socially distanced sponsor booths and the requirement to wear face masks. 

As of Sept. 14, the OCCC has successfully rescheduled 36 conventions with an estimated economic impact of $366 million. Upcoming events include the Florida Wedding Expo and Central Florida Home & Garden Expo, which will be held in late September and October, respectively. 
 
"With a thoughtful approach to reopening, our destination has focused on enhanced safety measures throughout our venues, hotels, attractions and restaurants," said George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando. "In the last few months, we successfully hosted two major events – the Together Again Expo and the AAU Jr. National Volleyball Championships – at the convention center. Orlando has also been the home to the NBA and Major League Soccer seasons. These events show trust in our region to keep attendees safe and serve as a testament to our reputation as a safe destination." 
 
Events are also taking place at nearby hotels. The Rosen Plaza Hotel, for example, has already hosted a handful of meetings, including a 500-person event in mid-September. The venue, which is equipped with 60,000 square feet of event space, has updated its meeting layouts for social distancing, added walk-through temperature screening devices at all hotel guest and staff entrances, and enhanced sanitation practices with the use of electrostatic sprayers.

"We have successfully hosted several larger programs and the clients have been very happy with the various social distancing parameters we have had in place," said Victoria Hall, director of sales and marketing at the Rosen Plaza Hotel. "We have another group of 150 scheduled soon and are busy booking groups with meetings to take place throughout this year and beyond."

Washington, D.C.

MMB-washington-grand-hyatt
At the Meetings Mean Business Coalition's summer board meeting event, the podium was sanitized and the microphone cover was replaced between speakers.

In-person meetings are also taking place in the nation's capital. The Meetings Mean Business Coalition held its 2020 summer board meeting at the Grand Hyatt Washington hotel in late July, with 35 in-person guests (events are currently restricted to no more than 50 people). Since then, the Grand Hyatt Washington has hosted additional gatherings.

"We have done larger meetings but broken up the meeting space to make sure we're in compliance," explained Kathy Chapman, director of sales and marketing at the hotel. "We've also done some smaller meetings."

According to Destination DC president and CEO Elliott Ferguson, the city has had 42 large-scale event cancellations but is seeing an increase in small-meeting bookings. Since the pandemic began, 43,000 room nights have been booked. Destination DC has also booked five major citywide conventions for future years. 

To welcome large events back safely, the Walter E. Washington Convention Center has become GBAC Star certified. New changes include the addition of touchless thermal cameras at all entrances and updated food-and-beverage options. Events DC is also partnering with SurfaceGuard, an antimicrobial surface-coating company, to use its BIOPROTECT products to clean and disinfect all Events DC venues, including the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. SurfaceGuard uses an EPA N list disinfectant that is designed to kill coronavirus and create a layer of protection that inhibits the growth and spread of bacteria and mold for 90 days.

Beyond new health and safety practices, Events DC is ramping up its digital- and hybrid-event capabilities. A new 19,000-square-foot production studio has been added to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. The facility is equipped with AV and lighting capabilities, dynamic LED screens, and more to accommodate virtual gatherings. In addition, Events DC has launched Gather, a platform that can be used to produce and stream digital events as well as host on-demand experiences.

"Today, more than ever before, is such an important time for people and communities to come together — and conventions and meetings, sports, and entertainment have the power to do that — even virtually. Gather is a prime example of creatively keeping our communities and industries together through this new dynamic, virtual-programming platform to experience live and on-demand content," said Greg O'Dell, president and CEO of Events DC. "With this new virtual platform and production studio, Events DC presents a distinct opportunity for enhancing client experiences with the ability to offer state-of-the-art technology, customization of content, and the enrichment of both in-person and virtual experiences."