Coronavirus and Meetings
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Event planners were forced to quickly pivot to virtual meetings when the coronavirus shut down in-person gatherings around the world in March. But as the number of new infections slows and states begin lifting travel restrictions, meeting professionals are readying for recovery.
Research from Northstar Meetings Group shows 83 percent of meeting planners are working full time. Of the planners polled, 58 percent expect to hold events in 2020 and an additional 34 percent have meetings scheduled for Q1 2021. To prepare, industry professionals are rethinking the entire event experience and changing everything from room design to food-and-beverage service in order to address attendee concerns.
In a webcast hosted by Discover Saratoga this week, a panel of event and hospitality experts from the Upstate New York destination gathered to discuss the state of the industry and what changes are needed to welcome guests back.
"People have kind of found that their home is their safe haven," said Daniel Fortier, general manager of the Embassy Suites by Hilton Saratoga Springs. "We have to give them reasons to get out of their homes and show them that hotels and venues are doing an awful lot to make sure that people feel safe when they get back out on the road."
A New Normal
While no one knows exactly what events will look like in a post-COVID-19 world, the panelists all agreed that business as usual will need to be reframed. Attendees will likely be required to wear masks and hand-sanitizing stations will be posted at every corner of the venue.
"The new normal is something that unfortunately no one has the answer to," said Sean Willcoxon, chief catering officer of Mazzone Hospitality, an event management, food and service provider. "We are all just doing our very best to research and plan for what the answers could be. What we do know is the use of the traditional buffet is essentially out the window for the time being, and limited touch will be key."
The challenge for event professionals, he added, will be to make meetings as attractive and engaging as before, while also enhancing health and safety measures.
"We're looking at different floor plans and different models for grab-and-go or individually wrapped food," he said. "How do we create environments where people can have a good hot meal that tastes delicious, and feel really, really confident that the meal is coming from a good place and that there is no concern behind it?"
Willcoxon noted that the new challenges also present new opportunities for planners to get creative. For example, new safety protocols can be combined with sponsorship opportunities.
"All of the touch points are opportunities to let your customers know that you are doing two things," Willcoxon said. "One is really thinking outside the box with every little detail. Two, what about putting your client's name all over the floor signage and on the aprons and face masks of the attendants serving food? What about putting stickers on those box meals? Use these opportunities to say, 'Listen, we thought about this and we've changed to the new normal, but also allowed that new normal to be interesting and a talking topic.'"
In addition to food-and-beverage changes, the panelists also discussed what needs to happen with the capacity and flow of an event.
Theresa Wutzer Moore, associate director of the NYS Council of School Superintendents and president-elect of Meeting Professionals International's Upstate New York chapter, said the organization is looking at a smaller program for its annual Fall Leadership Summit. The event, to be held Oct. 4-6 at the Saratoga Springs City Center and the adjacent Saratoga Hilton hotel, typically welcomes about 1,000 people.
In addition, the Saratoga Springs City Center will likely lower the number of people allowed in its spaces and, according to president and executive director Ryan McMahon, the venue is also considering adding in predetermined traffic patterns.
"When we open, are we going to be full capacity? Probably not," he said. "We're looking at ways to do events with 500 attendees that may have staggered times for people to come in and different ways for people to keep their distance. Getting the quantity of people we would like into our facilities comfortably and safely is going to be an interesting challenge."
Some event-tech companies are helping planners reconfigure meeting layouts for COVID-19. Allseated, for example, has added a physical-distancing tool to its event-planning platform. Using an algorithm, the tool helps meeting organizers design floor plans and seating charts that meet the necessary six-foot-distance guidelines.
"As you can imagine, these greatly reduce meeting capacity in individual spaces," said Willcoxon. "So, you can think about it in two ways. You can get the biggest space you possibly can and put three people at a table and do it that way. Or, some of the great ideas that were thrown out there by this panel are having all the attendees come and then some will watch virtually from their hotel rooms while others are eating, and you rotate the groups. We have to get extremely creative about where we put people, when we put them there and how we get them there, so that people will flow evenly and never be crowded on top of each other."
Cleanliness Takes Center Stage
Another point emphasized throughout the panel was the need to enhance cleaning efforts and make them more visible to attendees and guests -- a stark departure from previous procedures.
"Hotels have traditionally done their cleaning efforts late at night, behind the scenes so nobody sees anything," said Darryl Leggieri, president of Discover Saratoga. "But that whole paradigm has shifted… We need to be visible now with our cleaning efforts in order to instill confidence."
Fortier of the Embassy Suites agreed. The hotel, which has remained open during the pandemic, has housed a number of nurses from Saratoga Hospital and has adjusted its sanitization standards accordingly. The property also is implementing new companywide procedures from the Hilton CleanStay program.
"We're happy to share anything that we're doing right now, whether it be how many times a day we're wiping down the door handles to the face masks, the gloves and the numerous hand-sanitizing stations we have around the building. We want to assure guests that we know clean, we practice clean and we keep adding new measures," said Fortier. "Every day we're working on this and we do hear the question of 'What are you doing now that you weren't doing yesterday?'"
As hospitality and event professionals look ahead and prepare to evolve for a new normal, the panelists offered words of encouragement.
"If you think about the people who are on this call and the faces of the hospitality industry, there's one thing that no one can argue against," said Willcoxon. "That is our ability to bend and flex and to deal with things when they get thrown at us because we have to. So, is this difficult now? Yes, it's difficult, but it's just the new normal and we will adapt."