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SBI Director of Events Megan Miller, CMP, and Event Manager Katie Pitchford attended the Connect Marketplace 2020 event in Orlando, Florida. This in-person event hosted 800+ attendees, the first major in-person conference for the Events industry since the onset of the pandemic in the US. In this blog post, Megan shares the lessons they learned while onsite, and offers her professional opinion on the safety and feasability of large in-person events for the time being.

Show Me the People! What It Was Like to Attend an In-Person Event After 8 Months….

Attending an in-person event during a pandemic? Seems a little wild, but as event industry leaders, our events team wanted to experience what would be possible at Connect Marketplace 2020 in Orlando, Florida in October. Connect 2020 was a 3-day in-person event featuring a live exhibit hall, virtual and in-person supplier meetings, education, and networking events.

Connect Meetings is an organization that provides innovative education and resources for event planners and suppliers. With this being the first 800+ attendee in-person event since the start of the year, it was essential to attend to gain knowledge of how the industry can and will bounce back and move forward safely. All eyes were on this conference to get it right.

There were two main areas we wanted to see the industry address to help us plan for when it is safe to resume in-person association meetings:

  1. Providing a safe and healthy environment for the attendees
  2. Innovative solutions to new protocols.

Spoiler alert: It’s not safe (yet).

What Went Well?

COVID Precautions – Building Confidence

It appeared that CDC recommended guidelines were being followed in this aspect. All participants took a self-assessed pre-screening questionnaire and went through a temperature screening at the start of each day before entering the meeting space.  Pre-screening was completed via text or email, or could be done onsite on provided iPads that were cleaned after every use. If the assessment was passed, attendees were given a sticker for their name badge indicating they had passed the assessment and were granted access to the event. Different colored stickers were used for each day (see a photo of a name badge in the gallery below).

There were signs all over the hotel (i.e. entryways, congregating areas, etc.) with reminders to wear face masks, maintain social distance, and the voluntary consent agreement to the risks of being onsite related to COVID-19.

Room Sets, Cleanliness, Touchless

The room sets for education and supplier meetings were probably the most confidence-boosting aspect of the conference. Chairs were spaced out within the exhibit hall for sessions and it was clear they were 6 ft apart in all directions. For supplier meetings, attendees were at 10-12 ft tables and required to wear a mask at all times.

Cleanliness in the hotel was in tip-top shape, and featuring health and safety measures that we should have had years ago! Hotel restrooms were being cleaned constantly, furniture was stripped and sanitized after each session, and hand sanitizer was available in elevators, lobbies and at every exhibit hall station. We definitely felt safe knowing the hotel staff was doing their best to keep things safe and clean.

Touchless interactions were fantastic and will definitely be here to stay. Registration packets were mailed to attendees ahead of time including name badges, sanitizing wipes and gel, schedule at a glance, and even KN95 masks. This reduced the need to visit a registration desk and so helped minimize exposure to more people. The hotel worked hard to deliver a “one-touch” type of experience with lunch, with a “build your own” assembly line. Typically, attendees weren’t even allowed to dispense their own water: it was done by hotel staff who wore gloves to ensure the “one-touch” safety measure. Surprisingly, it didn’t slow down the service time, so that was a nice touch.

Innovation! Virtual is the New Normal

It’s time we incorporate a virtual experience into all events moving forward. From virtual supplier meetings to virtual education, there was nothing lacking in the technology world at this conference. We even had a virtual happy hour where a “build your own” cocktail box was delivered to our hotel room. We turned to a specified channel on the TV and a mixologist was there to teach us how to make a Mai Tai! The networking component came in when the drink was finished and a photo posted to LinkedIn. This was both innovative and engaging. Rest assured these sorts of live and virtual components will be intermixed moving forward to build a comprehensive hybrid event.

What Needed Improvements?

Mask Up – No Exceptions!

Requiring masks at all times, for all people, was a big area that needed improvement. While technically people followed the CDC guidelines, there were always exceptions…especially during the opening and closing reception when food and beverages were being offered. People took advantage and used the excuse that they were “eating or drinking” to not wear their masks over their nose and mouth for extended periods of time, and it was not being enforced in a meaningful way that masks be worn properly, nor were people being given guidance on what it means to be allowed to remove your masks briefly to take a bite of food or a sip of a drink. Attendees had to walk through groups of unmasked individuals and it was somewhat surprising that planners weren’t following the rules they agreed to abide by.

Bad Publicity

This was also an area that was new and needed to be considered moving forward. There was a photo taken of hired staff who were not wearing a mask and it turned into a hot topic on a meeting planner social media page. For such an important event to have bad publicity from meeting planners, it did not bode well for bringing in-person events back when event leaders couldn’t follow the rules.

Trade Show: Oh, the Lines…

Some of the booths had plexiglass and broader spacing, but it sure felt like a normal pre-pandemic trade show floor where there were opportunities to cozy up next to people, drink and food in hand. While there were some socially distanced tables set around in booths, it was surprising to see the hall set with cocktail tables and 4 ft rounds set for 4 people. No matter how the math works out, it was going to be less than 6 ft per person which is not CDC approved. This was another glaring area that didn’t instill confidence and we didn’t feel safe.

An Expensive Proposition

As you can imagine, all of the added health and safety measures come with a cost. Additional banquet staff for meal functions, double the meeting space for appropriate physical distancing, hiring security to ensure masks were worn, onsite physicians for testing, additional staff for sanitizing and re-sanitizing, etc. The list goes on. While all these measures are needed for events to return safely, it would likely be cost-prohibitive for a non-profit association to put on a similar event with additional costs that we don’t typically budget for.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Only forward! We want to give full credit to Connect 2020 for taking the leap to being the first to put on an in-person event of its size for event professionals. They did a great job developing a template for health and safety, and we have learned what worked well and what didn’t as we plan to return to in-person events, when it is safe to do so. Until then, we are seeing so much success and having a great time planning virtual events of all shapes and sizes!

View Photos Taken at the Event

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