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Updated July 6, 2020.
After months of widespread closures, all 50 states are now in some stage of reopening — and the face-to-face events industry, which has been on hold since mid-March, is slowly restarting. According to Northstar Meetings Group's Pulse Survey, 41 percent of meeting planners are rescheduling cancelled events for sometime this year. In addition, 20 percent of planners polled said they are adding new meetings to the 2020 calendar.
Following are a handful of live events that have already taken place and could help pave the way in establishing protocols for in-person meetings as the pandemic continues to affect business and daily life.
The Mohegan Sun Casino & Resort in Connecticut held its first group meeting on June 23-24. The two-day, hybrid event was attended by 20 in-person guests and 80 virtual attendees.
The resort, which is operated by the Mohegan tribe, reopened on June 1 with an extensive set of new safety protocols in place. Among them are mask requirements for all team members and guests. In addition, all staff members and guests must undergo a thermal temperature check upon arrival. Anyone with a temperature of 99.9 degrees or higher must go through a second thermal scan and will be denied entry if they are confirmed to have a fever.
Other measures include positioning sanitizing stations at all entrances and throughout the conference center, placing six-foot floor markers at all line queue locations, sanitizing shared A/V equipment between speakers, and blocking off every other sink and urinal in the bathrooms. Conference rooms are disinfected overnight and during meeting breaks with disinfectants and/or foggers.
John Washko, vice president of expo and convention sales for the Mohegan Sun, noted that the event ran smoothly, largely because of the venue's ample space for social distancing and detailed safety standards.
"When organizations are ready to return to face-to-face, live events have different factors they need to consider to keep their attendees as safe as possible," said Washko. "A main consideration should be the physical layout of the facility. They need to ensure there is ample space and options for meals, functions and egress. This is a significant competitive advantage to a property like Mohegan Sun, that has more than 35 restaurants/lounges, two separate convention centers with 275,000 square feet of indoor meeting space, and a variety of routes to travel to and from events, meals, guest rooms, etc."
The 153-room Guy Harvey Resort St. Augustine Beach in Florida has been sold out for room booking for the past month and a half. According to Jennifer Moore, director of sales and marketing, the resort is also seeing some group business pick up, particularly in the SMERF area.
In June, the venue hosted two meetings for local associations and has a few more on the books for later months. Both June events were attended by less than 25 people (gatherings in Florida are currently limited to no more than 50 people).
To keep guests safe, the hotel has implemented a "25 Points of Care" cleaning program, which includes mandatory face coverings for employees, plastic dividers between guests and staff at check-in, frequent disinfection of lobby doors and high-touch areas and more. Adjustments have also made to the meeting room layout and procedures.
"It's very different… [Guests] can't get anything themselves anymore, so we have to serve them everything," said Moore. "We had a buffet at one event, but we had to have servers behind the buffet serving them food and somebody had to walk around and get them coffee."
Other changes include a socially distanced layout, linenless tables and a thorough sanitation of the meeting rooms at every break.
"They were very happy with everything and we got great feedback," Moore continued. "We kind of went above and beyond for them and I think they felt very comfortable."
Meanwhile, the Margaritaville Orlando Resort in Kissimmee, Fla. reopened on May 15 after a temporary closure and hosted its first group meeting on June 4. The event, an annual board meeting for the local Osceola County Tax Collector's office, had originally been scheduled to take place in April but was cancelled due to COVID-19.
The rescheduled June event was attended by 26 people with additional board members dialing in. As a government group, the meeting needed to adhere to all guidelines from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
"For the Tax Collector's event we had a number of opportunities to overcome, not the least of which was how to make sure this government entity could conduct their required business while staying safe and providing a productive environment," said Jason Johnson, regional director of sales and marketing for the Margaritaville Resort Orlando. "Our team jumped at the task and immediately began to diagram the room setup while consulting resources that helped lay out the CDC's recommended distancing."
For the event, attendees were seated at individual tables which were spaced at least six feet apart. Hand sanitizer was placed on each table, as well as at all the entrances. The CDC guidelines were quoted in the meeting notice sent out prior to the event and all attendees were encouraged to wear masks.
According to Bruce Vickers, an Osceola County tax collector who organized the meeting, attendees followed the guidelines and the board meeting was an "absolute success."
"Everyone was very pleased that we had gone through with it and were able to have this meeting and follow the guidelines," said Vickers. "We have been under quarantine and shut down for a couple of months, so we had all only had some conference calls with each other. It was really good to see people, even though we had to socially distance… In these trying times, it is difficult, but possible to meet as long as you follow the guidelines."
In-person meetings are also happening in Virginia. The Boar's Head Resort in Charlottesville welcomed its first meeting group at the end of June.
The hybrid event was held June 24-26 with 13 in-person attendees, most of whom traveled two to three hours from the Washington D.C. area. An on-site webcast studio enabled additional attendees to join via video.
Because the group involved medical professionals, safety was of the essence. New health practices implemented at the resort include a no-contact check-in option, sanitization of high-contact surface areas and fixtures every two to four hours, touchless hand-sanitizing stations installed around the property and the requirement that all staff members undergo mandatory temperature checks before each shift. In addition, all meeting rooms are fogged daily and sneeze guards have been added to the all the buffets, which are serviced by an attendant.
According to the Boar's Head Resort director of sales Mark White, the event went so well that the group is already planning to return. The resort is also hosting another meeting this week, starting on July 6.
"We were well prepared and did not face any challenges based on our new protocol," said White. "We had very positive feedback based on new standards. All went well, so much so that the group is committed to return for possibly four additional dates."
If you know of a live event that has happened or will take place in the coming weeks, we want to hear from you. Please email us with updates.