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How to Plan Meetings in 2021 and Beyond

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

On a recent PCMA chapter Zoom event, talked turned to COVID-19 (C19) and would we return to a sense of “normal.” The concerns are valid. Many of us have been in full or partial quarantine (different from isolation, by the way) for almost a year. Businesses have died or been injured. C19 fatigue is real. People want and need to get back out there. So can we? Can we start planning in-person meetings and stay safe? Can we start getting back to business? Yes. And no.

First, I have meeting planner blood in me. I’ve been doing this kind of work since AOL was the king of email. So I know about challenges, flexibility (now called ‘pivoting’) and the unexpected. I’ve also been a safety officer since the attacks of 9/11, the first real modern challenge for meetings.

Travel tanked and most of the public was scared to get on a commercial jet. Gatherings returned not long after. But it was a new normal. TSA, pat downs, revised luggage polices and carryon rules. See something, say something (which still applies). We adapted. We’ll do so again now.

C19 has been a long haul incident. In the very beginning, some said it would only last a few weeks. Then it was a few months and then a vaccine was in the works and then the vaccine was here and still we’re told, even with three FDA approved vaccines, we still need to mask up. Government works at a glacial pace sometimes. When I first became a public safety officer, it took three years for the agency to get me a radio (and that was fast at the time!). That being said, we should expect to add a few months for every new declaration made about the progress of beating C19.

In terms of developing a vaccine, what we have today is incredible. More than 65 years ago, it was polio that frightened most of the country. According to an article by NPR, vaccinations began in earnest in 1955, but it wasn’t until 1979 that the virus had been all but wiped out in the US. The fact we have anything to fight C19 this early in the battle is miraculous.

The vaccine isn’t a cure, but it’s a start. And that’s one reason why we need to plan face to face (F2F) events at a slower pace. Most of us already know it takes years, maybe as much as a decade, to research a virus and find a vaccine. For C19, a ton of red tape was eliminated to get something completed quickly. That means much of the research and studies and testing were omitted. For now. However, when you hear something new about C19 that may contradict a previous statement, it’s because the research continues, and we discover new things.

For instance, why do we still need to wear masks even if we reach herd immunity by June? Because we’re still trying to find out how long the efficacy of the vaccines last and if a vaccinated person can be contagious and whether new versions of the vaccine will need to be developed to fight new variants of the disease. Who knows? Maybe in a few months they'll discover the six-foot rule is now the four-foot rule, and won't that be a good thing for meetings?

As an industry, we know how to adapt. We found our path after 9/11 then The Great Recession of 2008, and the fires and flooding from climate change. As for those who refuse to wear masks for whatever reason, there’s really only one answer to why they need to mend their ways: common sense. Forget about the science and the politics. Masks, cleaning and distancing have an extensive history of proven effectiveness. Think about it. Why do our moms tell us to cover our noses and mouths when we cough and sneeze and to wash our hands before we eat? Because it helps stop the spread of germs. No point in arguing mom.

Since August of 2020, I have been helping plan meetings with F2F elements, with the main goal of C19 compliance. I know safe F2F conferences can be done. We’ve all heard the declarations from some colleagues who say we shouldn’t do any F2F until C19 is contained. But that may not happen for a few years. So let’s continue to move ahead, keeping C19 in check.

Planners, get help managing the pandemic for your meetings. You can’t verify attendees are wearing masks while doing room checks, signing BEOs, and confirming the F&B is correct. Part of that pandemic assistance is to conduct a risk assessment. A must do during a pandemic. If it turns out you can prepare, mitigate and respond to C19 at your event, then you’re in business.

So how do we plan meetings for at least the next 12-18 months? We do it safely, pragmatically and smartly. We keep the remote/hybrid option open. And for face to face elements, we wear masks, wash our hands and watch our distance. Now let’s get busy planning.

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