A Tough Love Letter to the Meetings Industry: Why We Must Embrace Attendee Concerns

Planners must survey guests on what safety protocols they expect and when they will feel safe traveling, in order to craft an in-person event that people will feel comfortable attending. 


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Right now, our industry is in a reinvention frenzy. We are building new models for how to safely meet and connect in order to get people to be ready to come back to face-to-face events. But we cannot operate under the "Field of Dreams" premise that if we build it, they will come.

Yes, we need to be prepared for the new reality that coronavirus has brought — I have been saying this to my team since day one of this pandemic. But at the same time, there seems to be such a rush to redesign the event experience and get new protocols out as quickly as possible, that it is hard not to wonder if they are up to par.

If you are like me, you are probably also getting lots of emails with invitations to webinars on what the new best practices are for meetings of the future. But how many of those are based on solid research? Do we know what the potential attendees think? 

Last week, I took a few days off to go for a road trip with my family. We needed to get out of our routine and were ready for a change of scenery and dose of "normalcy." Or, so we thought.

We "hotel hopped," staying at four places in four nights — and every experience was very different. The hotels were, for the most part, doing their job in the basics of the front desk being socially distant, the restaurants only offering grab-and-go, etc. But what about the other guests? And were all of the staff members following the guidelines?

Eli Gorin, managing director for FHTglobal

I saw some of the housekeeping staff walk around without masks and started to wonder: How can I be sure that this hotel is actually doing what they say? Was the room really as clean as I had been promised? Were all of their safety standards being meticulously followed? These are the same questions that attendees will have for event venues, hotels, vendors and more before they feel it is safe to travel and attend in-person meetings again.

But how many planners are working to understand their potential attendees, including their needs, wants, fears and expectations surrounding COVID-19? Are organizations creating new meeting guidelines based on thorough research of and feedback from participants? Or are they just assuming that they know what is best for the guests, and only relying on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to inform the planning process?

For years, we have used the input of our participants to improve the educational content and even some experiential components of events. So why stop there? We need attendee input now more than ever before.

Take strategic meeting design to a whole new level by bringing participants into the process. Ask if people are willing and able to travel? Are they comfortable being in a closed room for hours on end with strangers? Does the notion of a room being at 25 to 50 percent capacity sit well with them and how will this impact the learning experience? Do they think networking from a distance will work? 

Do a mental walk-through of the event experience and ask yourself if what you have planned for your in-person meetings will make sense and how will the participants feel when all is said and done? If you build it, will they come? Well, you won't know until you ask.

Our industry as a whole is and will be suffering a great perception issue in the coming future. We need to do the work to prepare and show how the meeting spaces we are creating are safe.

We must take proper care and time when crafting new safety protocols. Rushing to redesign the meeting experience without first gathering attendee input will likely lead to a solution that must be revamped again and again.

All meetings are not created equal, but all meetings should have the same end result — to leave attendees with a positive experience in all aspects. Take the time to step back, assess, connect and really get to know what and when your participants are looking for in their next in-person event experience. Only then when you build it, will they come.

Eli Gorin is the managing director for FHTglobal, which specializes in medical association meetings. This is the latest post in his "Tough Love Letters to the Meetings & Events Industry" series. You can find the rest here. Gorin will also be speaking at Northstar Meetings Group's Interact International digital event on August 18.