. Where In-Person Meetings Are Happening Now | Northstar Meetings Group

Where In-Person Meetings Are Happening Now

Recent face-to-face events profiled here include a fashion expo in Florida, a 12-day corporate event in North Carolina and two conferences in South Carolina.

Nearly half of the attendees at the South Carolina Funeral Directors Association's February conference were vaccinated.
Nearly half of the attendees at the South Carolina Funeral Directors Association's February conference were vaccinated. Photo Credit:SCFDA

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Updated March 12, 2021

Across the country and around the world, live events are taking place with the help of technology and updated safety protocols. Temperature screenings and Covid-19 tests have been added to the registration process. Swag bags are now stuffed with hand sanitizer and extra masks. In some places, attendees are separated into smaller groups to reduce the risk of transmission.

The number of conferences taking place are expected to rise significantly in the months to come. Northstar Meetings Group's latest PULSE Survey shows 81 percent of planners polled in the U.S. will hold their next in-person event this year. A concurrent survey from Northstar's Britain-based counterparts, Meetings & Incentive Travel and Association Meetings International, found that meeting professionals in the U.K. and are Europe are also optimistic about the industry's recovery and 71 percent are planning in-person events for 2021. 

Pulling off a safe and successful in-person event right now is possible, but it requires a lot of planning, as well as active communication with attendees and ongoing collaboration with vendors.

Destination Concepts, a destination management company headquartered in California, hosted nearly 20 in-person events throughout the country last year and is in the process of planning more than 40 for 2021. "There are a lot of people who are saying they'll wait until Q3 or 2022, but we do still have a fair amount that are willing to move forward," said CEO Brynne Frost. "We've shown them how to do it safely and get people back to being comfortable."

Following are details on face-to-face events that have taken place over the past few months, helping to establish protocols for in-person meetings as the pandemic continues to affect business and daily life. Recent additions to the list include gatherings in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida.

Florida

The Orange County Convention Center in Orlando was one of the first in the nation to become GBAC Star certified in coronavirus cleaning and prevention, and has hosted more than 50 events since March 2020. Among the most recent was a fashion event, which combined three trade shows that were relocated from Las Vegas and held simultaneously at the OCCC on Feb. 9-11. 

Together, the WWIN Orlando ShowcaseMagic Pop-Up Orlando and Offprice Orlando Market attracted thousands of attendees over the course of three days. The event was organized in accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

All attendees were required to wear face masks, undergo daily temperature checks and show proof of a negative Covid-19 test result before entering. The organizers provided on-site rapid testing, with results available in 15 minutes. Guests also had the option of taking a Covid-19 test within four days prior to the start of the event. Only those with negative test results were allowed into the show. 

"Now, more than ever, it's important for our industry to work together to prove that we can return to the show floor and that our communities can reconnect in secure ways," said Kevin Thornton, vice president of operations at Informa Markets, which organized the Magic Pop-Up Orlando show. "Testing may be an important piece of that, but long term I think the value is really in our shared commitment to events that consistently value safety. Through our collective efforts, we have proven that live events are able to run with visitor health prioritized, signaling a real economic restart for the fashion community, the many other trade industries we serve, as well as the cities that host our events."

Deep cleanings of the venue were conducted daily and more than 100 sanitizing stations were set up throughout the space. In addition to signage, safety ambassadors reminded attendees and exhibitors to follow health protocols. A mobile app was used to provide a touchless check-in experience and reduce lines. The technology also allowed for contactless lead retrieval at booths.

"We were very proud to partner with Informa on this and one of the reasons we're proud is because we feel like we kind of bookended the pandemic in a meaningful way," said Jim Sharpe, CEO of the event technology company Aventri, which provided the mobile app and QR code technology that allowed attendees at Magic PopUp Orlando to check in and do business in a touchless manner. "We were the on-site partner for Mobile World Congress in Barcelona a year ago, when that one was one of the first big shows to be canceled and sent shockwaves through our industry. To be here and partner with them and provide some tools that drive both safety and attendee experience is something that we're very proud of."

Other safety measures taken on the show floor included widened aisles and reduced booth capacities. Guests were also encouraged to make booth appointments to avoid congestion. Early opening hours were offered for at-risk visitors. 

Groups are also gathering at hotels across the Sunshine State. In Palm Beach, Fla., The Breakers hosted the 2020 Global Wellness Summit in November, with 115 in-person attendees. An additional 500 people participated virtually. The event was originally scheduled to be held in Tel Aviv, Israel, but had to be moved due to travel restrictions. 

The Global Wellness Institute aimed to go above and beyond when it came to safety. The Breakers, where the event was held, is GBAC Star-certified in coronavirus cleaning and prevention. The hotel has also created an extensive set of health and safety protocols, as part of its "B Safe" initiative. In addition, Dr. Richard Carmona, the 17th Surgeon General of the U.S, served as medical advisor to the summit. 

"When we decided that we really did want to try to do this, he was our first call to see what he thought," said Nancy Davis, executive director of the Global Wellness Institute. "It might have been that he said, 'Don't do it.' But from the beginning, he was a person who said, 'You really have to try to do this. It's really important that that we do this.'" 

According to Davis, it was particularly important to the Global Wellness Institute that the summit be held live if it were possible to do so safely, given the organization's focus on wellness and the growing amount of research that shows a link between social isolation and poor mental health.

To ensure the highest levels of safety, Covid-19 tests were required upon arrival. All test results came back negative, but medical professionals were on site each day just in case a participant became ill. Guests also had their temperatures checked daily, and masks were required at all times. The speakers even had to wear masks onstage. 

The "Healthe Entry" portal was used to remove airborne and surface microbes as attendees entered the ballroom.
The "Healthe Entry" portal was used to remove airborne and surface microbes as attendees entered the ballroom. Photo Credit: Global Wellness Institute

The Global Wellness Institute partnered with several companies to bring new, cutting-edge Covid-19 technology to the event. A UVC-sanitation portal provided by lighting-solutions company Healthe was placed outside the ballroom, and the portal used UVC light to remove airborne and surface microbes as attendees passed through it. In addition, wellness-technology company Delos provided air-purification units for all meetings spaces.

Other safety precautions included sanitizing microphones and chairs between speakers, and meetings rooms were thoroughly cleaned and disinfected during each break. While seating was appropriately distanced, attendees had the option to use elliptical machines and recumbent bikes during education sessions to give their immune system a boost. 

North Carolina

Current guidelines from the state allow meeting venues to operate at 30 percent capacity, up to 250 people per indoor room. But even before these restrictions were eased in late February, smaller meetings were taking place.

Destination Concepts, for example, hosted an event for an automotive company in November. A total of 125 people got together for the meeting, which was spread across multiple days from Nov. 6-18. To keep the attendee count low, the company rotated in groups of 25 attendees for two days each.

"It's a concept that we actually have been doing with this client before and it happened to work really well in the new distancing world," said Frost. "We've actually helped other clients take the leap and say, 'Do we really need to bring hundreds of thousands of people together in one place, at one time? Or, could we break that up into some waves?'"

In addition to smaller group sizes, all attendees were required to wear face masks, complete health questionnaires and undergo temperate checks. The event was held outdoors on a minor league baseball field and moved to a covered concourse that still had open air circulation on the one day of rain. 

All of the seats were spaced at least six feet apart. A variety of food stations were set up during mealtimes to avoid crowding. Anyone who was feeling unwell was encouraged to stay in their rooms and attend virtually. According to Frost, none of the attendees displayed any symptoms of Covid-19.

South Carolina

In Columbia, S.C., the state's capital, the local convention center has hosted more than 70 events since reopening in late June. According to director of sales Sarah Britt, the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center has seen a significant uptick in traditional conferences over the past two months. 

Although Gov. Henry McMaster lifted the 250-person cap on mass gatherings on March 1, this does not change anything for the convention center. According to Britt, the venue received approval in September from the state to hold gatherings above the 250-person limit. Events are, however, still limited by social-distancing capacities. In addition, anyone entering the convention center is required to wear a mask and undergo a temperature check. 

Recent events held at the facility include the South Carolina Funeral Directors Association's Mid-Winter Conference and Expo, from Feb. 1-3. The gathering was attended by more than 200 people, down from the usual attendance of 300-350. But the group was able to include all of the elements of its traditional conference, including a general session, breakouts and a trade show. Roughly half of the attendees were vaccinated, as funeral home workers are among those eligible for inoculation in the state.

"One of the great things about this group is that, by essence, funeral directors are event planners. So, they're very familiar with this world because they've been holding safe events this whole time," said Britt.

Temperature checks were completed via thermal scanner or handheld device. Meals included server-attended food stations. Most rooms were set up classroom-style, with one attendee per eight-foot table. For the trade show, all booths were spaced at least six feet apart, or were separated by eight-foot-tall pipe-and-drape wall dividers. Vendors were required to have hand sanitizer at their booths. A capacity counter was used to monitor the number of people entering and exiting the trade show to make sure it never exceeded the amount needed for proper social distancing.

South-Carolina-Distancing-Sign
Creative signage reminded guests to maintain proper distancing at the South Carolina Governor’s Conference on Tourism. Photo Credit: Experience Columbia SC

A few weeks later, the convention center hosted the 2021 South Carolina Governor’s Conference on Tourism. "It was a great moment of getting these hospitality leaders together in person, because we're all working towards helping the tourism industry recover right now," said Britt. 

The annual event held for tourism and hospitality professionals from across the state drew 175 attendees. The agenda was shortened, with general sessions only. All seating was socially distanced and attendees were given name cards to mark their seats. Signage and floor markers also reminded attendees to remain at least six feet apart. Plated meals were served, along with individually portioned snacks. 

Singapore

The island nation of Singapore is gradually reopening, and has been accepting applications for MICE events since the fall. Approved gatherings must abide by the safe management measures outlined by the Singapore Tourism Board.

Following these guidelines, the Professional Convention Management Association hosted its Convening Leaders conference at the Marina Sands Bay hotel in mid-January. The two-day hybrid event, held Jan. 13-14, brought more than 300 in-person attendees to Singapore. Masks were required at all times, except when eating or drinking. Guests had to undergo daily rapid antigen tests, as well as temperature screenings when entering the hall. To limit mingling between attendees, participants were split into seven zones, with a maximum of 50 people per zone. Each zone had a separate area for registration, testing and lunch. An army of social-distancing ambassadors were on site to enforce the safety protocols.

"Knowing how there were so few cases in Singapore at the time, and that everyone in attendance had been tested each day, and that even still, the event organizers went to great lengths to ensure all attendees complied with the necessary protocols to safely distance and wear masks, I don’t think there was a safer place on the planet than in that convention center," said David Blansfield, executive vice president and group publisher of Northstar Meetings Group, who spoke at the event. "The program was timely and topical, and the technology was state-of-the-art. Add to that the excitement of being out and about after being cooped up for so many months — and being able to enjoy the sights and sounds of Singapore, to boot — and you can see why it was such an exhilarating experience.” 

Singapore was designated as the "global broadcast center" for the conference. Remote participants from around the world were able to view the broadcasted sessions online. In addition, nearly 50 planners gathered at the Caesars Forum in Las Vegas for a blended program featuring livestreamed content from Singapore, along with in-person sessions and activities.

Arizona

NORA, a trade association for the recycling industry, hosted its annual conference and trade show in November at the Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa in Tucson, Ariz. The event, held on Nov. 11-14, drew 125 attendees, down from the usual 300. The number of exhibitors also decreased from 50 to 16, which allowed for plenty of space for social distancing. 

"It took about two or three times the effort to get about 40 percent of the results," said Scott Parker, president of Amber Ridge LLC, an association management company that produced the event. But he noted that the primary objective of the conference was not revenue, but rather hosting a safe event that brought the association community together in person. 

"If we went a year, a year and a half or even two years without meeting, we believe that you'll start to see dispersal of the community. You'll start seeing people leave or saying 'Well, if I haven't gone there in a year, maybe I don't have to go there in two years,'" said Parker. "Our primary goal was to get people there safely, if they felt comfortable with it. Once they were there, we wanted to make sure that we gave them a great program, so that anybody who made the effort to get there was going to feel like they got a lot of value out of it."

The Westin La Paloma, part of the Marriott brand, follows the hotelier's Commitment to Clean health and safety standards. In addition, all attendees received a safety kit upon arrival, which included a face mask, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and temperature strip tests. Participants were required to check their temperatures and complete a health questionnaire each morning. Touchless infrared thermometers were also available at the registration desk for those who wanted to double check their temperatures. Anyone who exhibited Covid-19 symptoms or had a high fever was told not to attend the event and to inform the staff. According to Parker, none of the attendees reported experiencing symptoms. 

Color-coded ribbons were used to signal an attendee's comfort level with physical interaction at the event.
Color-coded ribbons were used to signal an attendee's comfort level with physical interaction at the event. Photo Credit: Amber Ridge LLC

NORA encouraged people to attend only if they felt it was safe for them. In addition, guests were given color-coded ribbons at registration, which attached to their name badge and displayed their comfort level in terms of physical interaction. Green meant the person was OK with fist or elbow bumps, while someone with a yellow ribbon was comfortable talking but not touching. Anyone with red wanted to keep their distance. 

"Out of everybody who attended, I don't think anyone took a red ribbon badge," said Parker. "I think the reason is, if they were already at that level, they probably weren't attending anyway. But it allowed somebody who was approaching someone they hadn't seen in a while to understand what their comfort level was."

The event safety protocols were designed in conjunction with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (see the latest CDC recommendations for events here). Attendees were encouraged to wear face masks at all times and required to do so when six feet of social distancing could not be maintained. In an effort to minimize contact, touchless door openers were installed on the meeting room doors. Electrostatic sprayers were used to sanitize surfaces before meetings and during breaks.

All tables and seats were spaced six feet apart, and no breakout sessions were held to minimize movement. Guests received name cards to reserve the seat that they would use throughout the day. Meals were served in individual containers and activities were held outdoors whenever possible, including the closing reception and a golf tournament. Each golfer was provided with their own cart. 

According to Parker, keeping up with changing guidelines from the CDC and the county was challenging. But the team was well practiced in making adjustments on the fly, having switched venues just 45 days before the 2017 trade show after a Florida hurricane took the roof off of the ballroom they had reserved. Luckily, the November event in Tucson went off without a hitch. NORA is currently planning to host two in-person events in 2021, including a June meeting in Chicago and the 2021 annual conference in Florida.

New York

In the Empire State, events are currently restricted to 50 people are less, with smaller meetings happening, particularly in Upstate New York. Author and leadership speaker Sharon Burstein hosted the fifth-annual Leadership Summit America at the Desmond Hotel Albany Oct. 29-30, with strict social-distancing and safety protocols in place. The event usually draws nearly 200 people, but this year's attendance was limited to 40 guests to adhere to the state's gathering limits. All attendees were required to wear masks and sign a waiver. 

Each attendee was given their own 6-foot table for the education sessions. Plated meals were served at 72-inch roundtables with three to four attendees per table. Bottled water was offered, in addition to coffee and tea served in cups with lids. Breakfast foods were individually packaged. 

The event space was disinfected twice a day and microphones were sanitized after each use. The stage was expanded to accommodate social distancing between panelists.

"Everyone is Zoomed out," said Burstein. "People are so appreciative of the effort made to have a live event. And small events can be very successful when you have the right venue, and everyone works together." 

Connecticut

"We're back. We're officially back!"

Those were the first words spoken onstage at "Reconvening for Recovery: Live," a hybrid event produced by Northstar and Mohegan Sun Oct. 13-14. The in-person event brought together 75 meeting professionals, marking for many their first face-to-face meeting since the pandemic struck in March. In addition, more than 1,000 attendees participated in 3.5 hours of educational sessions on a custom digital-event platform. (The program is available on demand here.) 

This was an ideal venue for putting new health and safety protocols to the test, says Angela Cox, senior director of meetings and events for Northstar Meetings Group. "They have their own health-care providers on property, so we had a doctor on call for us. They also have a manufacturing plant, so they had plexiglass for registration shields and buffet shields." 

Reconvening-for-Recovery-Sign
Signs were posted throughout the Mohegan Sun, reminding guests to practice safety protocols while attending Reconvening for Recovery. Photo Credit: Keyth Reynolds, Pixel Perfect

Owned and operated by the Mohegan Tribe, the resort is a sovereign nation, and thus not held to the group-size restrictions imposed by the state. The property was closed in the spring, but reopened to guests on June 1, and began serving groups later that month.

Here, planners can easily meet or exceed all safety protocols recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources. At this event, all in-person attendees were required to sign a code of conduct, pledging to allow temperature checks, adhere to social-distancing guidelines, wear face masks and other measures.

Thermal scanners were used to check all attendees' temperatures daily, and signs and floor decals were used to direct traffic flow and remind guests to keep their distance. PC Nametag provided wristband technology as an option; the bands buzzed when wearers came within six feet of each other.

"You have to overcommunicate with your attendees," said Cox. "We needed to make sure everybody coming to the event knew they were expected to wear their masks over their nose and mouth, not just on their ears, and that they needed to respect social distancing. Without putting that out in advance, some people weren't going to be comfortable coming to the event. But since they knew what was expected, that helped set their minds at ease.

Guests were seated at 72-inch banquet tables, with a maximum of three people per table. All attendees were provided with tent cards to mark their seats at a table. Couches in lounge areas were set with pillows in the middle to ensure proper distancing between guests. The same safety standards were applied to the food-and-beverage program, which consisted of plated meals and server-attended buffets with plexiglass dividing the staff from the attendees.

If you know of an in-person event that has happened or will take place in the coming weeks, we want to hear from you. Please email us with updates.