With more people getting vaccinated and travel restrictions easing in certain parts of the world, many clients tell us they are ready to have in-person meetings and events again. Lynne Amori, an account and operations manager, and Regan Furtado, a sourcing manager, with American Express Meetings & Events, have put together this stage-by-stage event planning guide, taking into account the new realities of meeting in person today.
If the meeting is 6 to 9 months out
For those planning larger, complex events, Lynne and Regan suggest having a minimum of a six-month lead time. In-person meetings today need a complete rehaul from pre-pandemic days due to new regulations and circumstances – from restructuring the agenda to redesigning the flow and setup of the general session and exhibit hall and reimagining the meal format (goodbye buffet lines!).
Due to varying comfort levels, they suggest polling prospective attendees about how they feel about meeting in person again and their willingness to travel to help determine the meeting’s size, structure, and format. If some people are not ready to travel, whether due to their own reluctance or company-imposed restrictions, consider a hybrid event so participants have the option of attending virtually.
Before getting too deep in the planning process, Lynne and Regan advise speaking to your HR, legal, and senior leaders about any new policies or protocols the company has adopted that could impact the event. Now’s also an excellent time to communicate duty of care updates to employees to show them what action the company is taking to keep them safe.
During this stage, Lynne and Regan recommend carefully reviewing the language of the event venue contracts. Now more than ever, flexible attrition and cancellation terms are necessary. Strong force majeure (aka right of termination) clauses should include epidemic/pandemic verbiage to avoid paying cancellation penalties due to travel restrictions or something of that nature.
Before COVID-19, the terms around epidemics and pandemics were a bit loose in standard contracts. Our newly updated addendum that clients can utilize with their contract packages has robust force majeure and contingency clauses, so you can enter into an agreement with more confidence, knowing there is little risk financially and legally.
Also, be sure to review the terms in the vendor contracts and spell out any critical health and safety protocols you would like them to follow.
If the meeting is 3 to 6 months out
Lynne and Regan said many clients are easing back into in-person meetings, hosting smaller events like a regional team summit rather than a large conference that requires attendees traveling from different hubs across the country. For smaller events, Lynne and Regan say you can begin planning three to six months beforehand, but follow many of the tips they recommended above.
Keep in mind if you’re having an event with fewer in-person attendees – whether because you’re limiting the number of invites or hosting a hybrid event where a portion is attending virtually – this may impact your negotiating abilities with the venue since your room block, meeting space, and food and beverage needs/costs won’t be as high.
Even with a smaller event, it’s important to verify with the venue that it can accommodate the number of attendees you anticipate since there may be social distancing measures in place that will limit capacity.
Conversations around production requirements should happen within this timeframe as well. Lynne and Regan suggest engaging a local production company to assist with your technological needs – a lot has changed within the last year.
Especially if you are hosting a hybrid event, you’ll need more than microphones, projectors, and screens. A whole new vocabulary has cropped up around the technology required to make these events a cohesive experience – so much in fact that several of our meeting planners have received digital event strategy certificates to keep up with these trends.
If the meeting is 1 to 3 months out
This is the time to focus on the specific hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute agenda.
Forget about long seminars in a packed auditorium. For the past year or so, people have become accustomed to attending meetings virtually in which they can easily get up to stretch, take a bathroom break, or grab a bite to eat. Lynne and Regan encourage planners to create an agenda with staggered schedules, shorter sessions, and more frequent breaks to avoid losing attendees’ attention and reduce congestion at restrooms and other high-traffic areas.
At the same time, you don’t want to create an atmosphere where people aimlessly roam around, so consider other organized activities, such as a 15-minute drop-in yoga or meditation workshop, to break up the day.
As for the networking component, long gone are the days when crowds would mingle in a reception room and cozy up to a highboy with servers passing around hors d’oeuvres. Many planners are getting creative, turning to mobile apps to set up trivia games, scavenger hunts, and other choreographed activities, to encourage safe social interactions.
Leading up to the meeting
As the event approaches, work with your legal and HR teams to finalize details surrounding the safety processes and protocols the company is implementing. For instance, if a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination is required to attend the event, determine how this information will be collected and verified. Will there be daily screenings, such as temperature checks and self-assessments? If so, who will be overseeing these screenings? Will this process also include having attendees sign release waivers stating they will not hold the company liable if they fall ill during the event?
You also may want to create signage with reminders of what you’re trying to enforce on-site, including markers on the floor to indicate where people can stand for social distancing.
Frequent communications should be sent to attendees before the event to establish the code of conduct and on-site expectations. Clarify if there will be mask and social distancing requirements, “no handshake” rules, and what attendees should do if they develop symptoms during the event.
Vendors should also be included in these communications since the responsibility to host safe events will not just fall on the core planning team but everyone involved.
After the meeting has taken place
Lynne and Regan suggest collecting and analyzing attendee feedback so you can see what did and didn’t work and use those insights to improve future events. You might also have attendees share testimonials in a video or blog to build confidence in peers thinking of signing up for an in-person event.
Lynne and Regan are seeing an increase in demand for hybrid meetings and events, which are a practical way to accommodate varying attendance preferences.