The events industry is one of the sectors hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many events have been canceled completely for 2020, with a few rescheduled for the end of the year. Unfortunately, this is optimistic and it's likely that events will not return to normal until at least the summer of 2021, depending on medical developments and what happens with medical advancements and therapeutics.
When we are able to run events again, many potential attendees are wary of attending or are likely to expect higher standards. How do we get attendees back (and keep them safe) in a world in which their confidence is shaken, and peace of mind threatened?
For this year, the response of many event planners has been going virtual with their conventions or annual meetings. San Diego Comic-Con, perhaps the largest "geek" convention is going virtual. Organizations that range from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Gap, and the American Association for Cancer Research are moving their annual meetings online.
For conferences open to the public, virtualization is a way to give hopeful attendees something, possibly make money, and keep their brand in the public eye. For companies and non-profits, it allows them to fulfill legal requirements without risking their employees in travel. Either way, many cons are going virtual...and learning from it. In the future, it's entirely possible that virtual conferences may run as an adjunct to physical events, whether it is by streaming certain events or having a virtual conference at a different time of year. While virtual events cannot offer the same attendee experience as face-to-face, they can offer something; and there are possibilities for amazing experiences that can only be done this way in the future.
Video conferencing tools can help with this, and you can also talk to your web hosting provider about how you can best handle live streams.
If the conference is canceled, then it's vital to keep yourself in the forefront of people's minds. This means using multi-channel advertising to continue to remind them that you exist and that the 2021 event is (hopefully) happening. Regular emails and a high level of activity on social media are key. Some organizations are also putting together webinars that can tide people over and remind them of a meeting's value.
Peace of Mind Upon Return
Unless a vaccine is obtained a lot sooner than most experts believe, it is likely that in-person events will start to trickle back in while there are still risk factors from COVID-19. Coming back too soon is inadvisable, as it might affect your reputation in the future, but not all events are going to be able to afford to cancel two years in a row.
With that in mind, event organizers should consider ways to reduce the risk to attendees. Here are some suggestions:
Prepare for Speaker Cancellations
As long as the virus is circulating, there's a higher risk of a speaker canceling because they or a family member are sick, or because they have been advised to quarantine. It's more important than ever, thus, to have a backup plan, just in case.
Have a Crisis Communications Plan
Make sure that you have a plan so you can rapidly communicate to participants, vendors, and attendees if there are any changes, including a further postponement or cancellation.
Consider Pandemic Insurance
It may be hard to get at this point, but Wimbledon, canceled this year, got pandemic insurance to cover their event. Also look carefully at how your contract is written. Many smaller events have been placed in a bind by contracts which didn't cover this situation, with some forced to cancel at the last minute, only after large event bans were put in place. Others have had to renegotiate for a postponement.
Make sure that you talk to the hotel or conference center before you commit to dates about what you will do if another wave of the pandemic forces you to postpone again. At this point, thankfully, hotels seem to be realizing that burying conferences under massive cancellation fees is not going to help them in the future.
Establish Clear Health and Safety Rules
- Banning handshakes and other physical contact between attendees.
- Mandatory thermal screening for fevers and possibly health questionnaires for attendees.
- Hand sanitizer stations in appropriate places. If feasible, a small bottle of hand sanitizer in swag bags.
- Wiping down microphones and panel tables between use.
- Canceling or modifying receptions that include food buffets. For example, giving out a boxed meal instead of having a buffet, or serving prepackaged snacks rather than finger food.
- Recommending or even mandating face coverings for attendees (bear in mind some people may have legitimate health reasons why they are unable to wear a mask). Vendors in particular should be encouraged to wear masks.
- Encouraging people to bring water bottles to fill at coolers or water stations rather than using glasses.
Whatever rules you establish, make sure that they are clearly and transparently communicated to attendees.
Conferences will be back, and they may even be better as people learn how to involve off-site attendees and presenters and thus provide an improved attendee experience. However, as they return it will be important for event organizers and venues to establish health and safety rules and increase flexibility for events and attendees alike. Consult with Signal 88 to help establish the best rules to move forward and protect your attendees.