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A True Tale: A Face-to-Face Event in the Time of COVID-19

*Download a PDF version of this article, with sidebars & photos, at the bottom of this article.

The email I got was simple and brief. The message from the familiar name said, “We’re contemplating an in-person event. Do you have time to discuss?”

I was intrigued. The first calls, several months before the scheduled date of the conference, were focused on current conditions, assessment of could and should we have a face-to-face conference, and if the Board of Directors of this trade association would move forward in these times of pivots and face masks.

“I had seen Alan speak on safety and security and knew from his LinkedIn page he was staying abreast of COVID protocols, so I figured discussing the options would be a good place to start,” said Leigha Schatzman, Executive Director, Association for High Technology Distribution.

Disinfecting between sessions

“We all know conference planning is stressful in the smoothest conditions. Planning through a pandemic filter ratcheted up the intensity. We knew we needed outside support to have complete control over every variable. We turned to Arrive to give us the best chance for event success.”

After reviewing surveys of the membership, conversations with the venue, budget considerations and a myriad of other elements, the Board decided to move forward. The face-to-face event would take place.

We knew groups could meet face-to-face and be safe. There was the “NBA Bubble” and the Tyler Perry studio campus, where the restricted environments could keep healthy people in and COVID-19 out. But how do we apply those principles to a non-bubble environment? We held strong to a couple of principles: we had to help people stay safe and we had to remind them to help themselves to be safe. And that’s what we did.

Getting the Layers Right

We looked to layer on the safety reminders everywhere we could. We doubled-down on signage. We used the “button-style” icons on the hard-copy signs for quick and easy visual reminders rather than text-heavy verbiage. I advised the association to order more signs than they had ever ordered in the past. There would be no mistake in the minds of the attendees that this association had safety top-of-mind. The event signage dovetailed nicely into what venue already had in place. The association leadership gave reminders throughout the day from the podium to mask up and sanitize.

Registration was retooled to minimize touch points. We provided each attendee his own small bottle of hand sanitizer and masks (one mask for each of the four days of the meeting) and then we provided extra masks and sanitizer on tables, podiums, and placed hotel provided handless sanitizer dispensers at the entrance of every function room. The place smelled of Purell and aloe.

“I was able to focus on programming, speakers, and other meeting logistics while Alan took the lead on all things related to COVID/safety,” Schatzman said. “He also confirmed each of our vendors would be able to maintain safety protocols while working onsite.”

We did better than local procedures asked. Our tables had fewer chairs and were further apart. All food service was attendant-served and behind transparent barriers. Even our staff office was set for distancing, with each of us having our own small workstation.

Normally, the association would have several offsite events, committee meetings, and spouse activities. It was decided to do away with onsite committee meetings and keep all the programming on property. This, of course, helped the budget, and further reduced health challenges with transportation and disinfecting of other venues. Thanks to creative brainstorming with local DMC, PRA – Utah, the spouse program became a watercolor painting class and lecture with a local artist with breakfast and lunch networking opportunities.

The closing dinner, instead of offsite reception, saw a meeting room changed into a “speakeasy” for a 1920s themed murder mystery. The local actors, with masks and costumes on, did a great job of engaging members and creating a fun, relaxing and memorable evening. And, more importantly, the attendees loved it.

Sidebar on Air Travel I feel like I’m in the minority as someone who has taken a handful of flights since June of this year. I’ve flown Southwest and Delta. Both did what I consider a good job of making me feel safe onboard. At the time, both were not using middle seats, so even though I wasn’t six feet from my neighbor, with everyone wearing a mask (and the airlines assertively reminding passengers to put it on and cover both nose and mouth), I was reassured our germs were not free-flowing. The airlines also stated the air in the cabin would be circulated “as often as every two minutes” with fresh air. However air travel still felt risky and at some airports, where the crowds and lines were long and distancing was more challenging, it also felt a bit uncomfortable. Of course, there’s nothing scientific about my feelings so take this as you will.

When weather permitted, we did receptions and breaks outside. Although we stressed the need to maintain distance and wear masks when not actively eating or drinking, we were frustrated when we saw “violations” in terms of hand-shaking and hugging during the kick-off Welcome Reception. Seeing this, we readjusted our messaging for the opening session during the safety talk. Keep in mind, outdoor events might fabricate a false sense of safety.

Never Stop Learning

As much as we put into the planning and safety, we did learn a few things, too. With safety might come more waste. For example, at the end of the event, instead of shipping nametag holders, lanyards and bottles of hand sanitizer back to the office, we decided it would make sense to discard the leftovers, as they would no longer be considered clean (and the time and money to re-sanitize would be prohibitive). Plus, future attendees wouldn’t want to use those items if they knew they were not new.

We also figured out it’s a good idea to learn what other events are taking place in the hotel. One night, after our registration area had closed, another group used it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but we didn’t know what C19 protocols the other group was taking and if they’d be up to the same standards. Logistically, it meant we had to make sure our space was cleaned and disinfected before our starting time the next morning.

We also discovered, for COVID-19 planning, more space is needed for smaller groups. The Grand America Hotel was a true partner at every turn. The hotel reworked the meeting space several times until everyone was satisfied with the square footage and layouts. Cariann Layton, Director of Convention Services, guided us through the hotel’s protocols prior to our arrival and we were able to see the hotel living up to its written procedures. They provided signage, touchless hand sanitizers, a branded letter at check in, and even a touchless temperature-reading kiosk.

“One of the unique aspects that Alan brought was his experience in meeting planning. He was able to easily fill in to advance room sets, work with the A/V crew and other suppliers and serve as a contact to the hotel,” said Schatzman.

In our general session room, each attendee had his own table, with masks, sanitizer and name tent, to mark “your spot,” for the length of the meeting. It was sanitized by the hotel with a disinfecting mist at the start of the event and during the day, when we broke for lunch and breaks. There was a bit of humor woven into our game plan, too. The association worked in safety-inspired walk-up music and break music. Attendees were treated to “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor, “Don’t Stand so Close to Me” by Police, and “Someday We’ll be Together” by The Supremes.

In the short-term, it will probably be more useful for small groups to use large spaces. In addition, smaller groups mean less noise, so the impulse to get closer or lean in to hear, is greatly reduced and makes masks more effective.

To further create our own C19 safety environment, we connected with other suppliers we’d be working with at the venue, such as PRA-Utah, to make sure they would follow strict safety protocols. We were impressed by their diligence on every program element. The AV team from Tri-Marq Communications was equally prepared with extra lav microphones so that equipment wouldn’t be shared, an abundance of floor mics for attendee questions, and a thorough cleaning protocol throughout. The same communication was used with the decorator who set up the tradeshow.

Speaking of which, the same strong safety protocols were in place at the tradeshow. Booths, tables and food stations were all appropriately spaced, with hotel attendants managing food distribution. The group was fortunate to use a large ballroom to ensure maximum spacing.

At no time were we informed of any attendees claiming a fever or displaying any symptoms. Mask wearing was mandatory by local ordinance as well as requested by the association. By all accounts, the event was a success. Neither planners nor suppliers may feel it’s a sustainable model, but all parties couldn’t have been more pleased with the results.

The attendees couldn’t say enough good things about the planning, the content, and the C19 prep. It helped that everyone — staff, attendees, the Board — felt privileged to be meeting face-to-face. At times it seemed like the good old days of February 2020. The team work, the opportunities to find solutions, and the drive to make it work really proved to be the winning formula.


True Tale Covid Onsite by Alan Kleinfeld
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