Attendees are finding their seats in seminars again, and now it’s not just virtually. In-person meetings are back — but pulling them off in post-pandemic times is no small feat. There’s a lot more to consider, from new and ever-changing health and safety protocols to hesitancy that many attendees might have to travel.
Angela Cox, who has already conducted several in-person programs this year, does not mince words about the extra efforts it takes to bring people together again. “It is a lot more work,” says the senior director of meetings and events for Northstar Meetings & Events. “But,” she adds, “it’s all for the love of the game.”
Flexible Plans Are Vital for Live Events
To make the return to on-site meetings easier and more comfortable for both you and your attendees requires alterations to your usual game plan. “You can’t just jump straight into what you used to do,” says Paul Hampton, chapter director for Georgia Thespians and planner of its events. “You have to ease back in."
He did just that for a recent in-person conference that he planned in Columbus, Georgia: In order to meet tighter budgetary restrictions and be mindful of today’s health and safety concerns, he changed the locale, shortened the conference length, and reshaped the schedule. “This was the only way we could have the event,” says Hampton, who wasn’t sure just how well it would go over. “But they ended up loving the format,” he enthuses, “and everyone was just so glad to be able to be there."
Sneak Peek: A Prime Live Event Destination
about how Columbus, Ga. has positioned itself to appeal to returning groups.
With pandemic upticks and travel protocols still constantly in flux, Chris Herzberg says it’s not enough to have just one contingency plan in place. “You have to have a back-up plan behind your back-up plan—and then another behind that,” says the senior development manager of Midwest sales for ITA Group. “Assume the worst-case scenario and that things will go wrong. You can’t go in living in la-la land. Be a solution-focused person more than ever.” The plans should be in writing, he says, and be living documents: amended as needed should situations change.
Increase Communication Frequency with Suppliers and Attendees
To make sure all the entities involved are still on track—and still on the same track—it’s important to check in with suppliers and venues more regularly than you ever did before. “This is about strengthening relationships,” says Stephanie Sorrells, senior experience designer for Creative Group, Inc. “We have 15-minute calls almost daily with our hotels and venues now as we lead into our live events."
Paul Hampton says the most important partner he’s had in post-pandemic times is the local convention and visitors bureau (CVB), who did much of the on-the-ground legwork. “Lean on your convention bureau,” he advises. “Having a good visitors bureau made all the difference in going back to an in-person meeting.”
Communication with attendees, too, needs to be more frequent and comprehensive than ever before. Angela Cox has found that, whereas she used to send four or five emails to attendees leading up to an in-person event — now she’s sending upwards of 14.
In addition to the increased amount of information that needs to be shared (mask wearing requirements, social distancing restrictions, and the like), regular communication can also give attendees confidence and assurance to travel. “Give them facts and data: For example, this city has already safely hosted over 100 in-person programs in different hotels this year,” says Herzberg.
Be prepared, too, says Cox, for more back-and-forth with attendees: Hers are reaching out individually with questions and concerns more so than in years past, and you’ll need to address them. “Each person wants to hear back, even if it is a normal ‘got it’,” she says.
To help alleviate some of that back-and-forth work, Paul Hampton advises that, leading into an event, you keep your organization’s website up to date and chock full of health and safety info. “Putting information up as soon as we had it available answered a lot of the questions before attendees had them,” he says.
Project an Upbeat Vibe
Amidst all the talk about temperature checks and sanitizing procedures, though, remember to also deliver positivity. “We never sent out anything that was doom-and-gloom to our attendees,” says Hampton. “All of our emails were very upbeat—things like: ‘We can’t wait to see you again,’ and ‘Only two more weeks until we can be together!” This built-up enthusiasm for the program, he says, which transitioned into attendee energy and engagement on site.
Sorrells says it has also boosted attendee buy-in to focus not just on the “hows” of getting together in person, but also the “why.” “We have encouraged everyone to think about the purpose of the meeting and to focus on the power of the moments that they going to have there—which is something they did not feel as much with the hybrid and virtual meetings we’ve had to conduct,” she says. “We are asking attendees to spend time before the event thinking about how they can strengthen those moments even more and create connections that they could not create virtually.”
Manage Attendee Expectations
The message that everyone is in this together can also help set realistic expectations so that attendees do not go in anticipating exactly the same experience they’ve had in the past. “Remind attendees that the hospitality and restaurant industries are facing challenges that can affect service. They are going through some new glitches, and we have to work through those glitches with them,” says Herzberg. On that note, he adds, be sure to share any information that “can prepare attendees for easier traveling.” If digital check-in can allow them to bypass a potential line at the hotel front desk, for example, send links to the apps that can facilitate it.
Remember, says Sorrells, it can bring comfort to attendees to know that there are people behind the planning. “Let your attendees know that you would never want them to be in a situation that was uncomfortable for them,” she says. “And that you always have their backs.”
Columbus, GA: Ready for the Live-Event Spotlight
Long celebrated amongst regional meeting groups, Georgia’s second-largest city is no longer such a hidden gem. “All that Columbus has been known for,” says Peter Bowden, president-CEO of VisitColumbusGA, the city’s CVB, “is even more amplified now.”
Indeed, Columbus has attracted the attention of meeting planners located further afield, who are quickly learning that the city is an idyllic place for re-entry to in-person events: It is “an alternative and more favorable destination that is easy and affordable,” says Bowden — not to mention loaded with leisure travel appeal.
Bowden credits two recent “game changers” for broadening the city’s reputation: An announcement from American Airlines about new nonstop service to Columbus from the two hubs of Dallas/Fort Worth and Charlotte, and the recent opening of two brand-new hotels in Columbus’s vibey and vibrant Uptown area — which also happens to be home to the Columbus Georgia Convention and Trade Center. A former iron works factory, the Center envelops convention attendees with historic charm thanks to a preserved architecture that features original post-and-beam construction.
The city’s new total of 4,800 hotel rooms is a nice companion to its collective half-million square feet of meeting space. History and military heritage are on display, and there’s a spirit of creativity and innovation—thanks to Columbus’ performing arts scene and the students of Columbus State University. There are well-celebrated museums; a wide variety of restaurants; and the world’s longest urban whitewater course on the Chattachoochee River—which also has a scenic Riverwalk.
The appeal is somewhat timeless, as is the Southern hospitality that sets the tone. “Clients tell us that they cannot get over the level of service,” says Bowden. “We like to think that service sets us apart from everyone else.”