As lockdown measures start to ease up in certain countries, Conference & Incentive Travel (C&IT) asked event professionals how social distancing at large-scale events might work in practice.
Social distancing is possible to an extent through implementing changes at venues, the experts agree. Some of their suggestions include temperature checks on arrival, one-way systems, decontamination misting booths, no handshaking policy, hand sanitiser points, face coverings, floor markings and new seating configurations.
“Before anyone will step into a venue, they will want guarantees that the venue has proven to be clean, safe and secure,” says Lex Butler, Operations Director at Wolf & White.
Several experts welcome the possibility of an industry-standard ‘stay safe charter’ or certification to provide the public with the reassurances that they have taken the necessary minimum steps to adhere to government guidelines.
Kevin Leaver, Head of Events at Millbrook Venues, says that in future the risk assessment will be “the final arbiter in the corporate world and will assume even greater importance as organisations seek to uphold their duty of care.”
Dax Callner, Strategy Director at Smyle, stresses the need for planners to work with venues and government to establish consistent approaches to social distancing across events, and evolve guidelines over time.
“This will be particularly tricky for companies that produce events all over the world, where policies and guidelines, not to mention social norms, may differ greatly from one region to the next,” he says.
Tim Collett, Head of Live at WRG and The Creative Engagement Group says that while any physical changes at venues might have their merits, “we must ensure the guest experience is still one that will create unforgettable memories with a rich user experience.”
Matt Franks, Director of Events at DRPG, added that any social distancing measures implemented should add to and improve the delegate experience, rather than detract from it.
“Seating will be a challenge, but we need to get creative and use this to our advantage,” he says. “Creating distance between seats allows us to use different furniture and layouts which we can weave into the overall experience of an event.”
The experts say that events will see a fall in the number of physical attendees.
Dax Callner says: “Live events will be as popular as ever, but physical events will not be well attended until this pandemic truly passes and lingering fears tied to travel and large-group gatherings recede, which will likely take a very long time.”
“I believe we will see events trading for a longer duration against a lower throughput,” says Kevin Leaver. “Whatever measures are in place will be far easier to manage with 30 delegates rather than 130, which may mean that the value of the event to individual attendees may have to be closely scrutinised, in deciding who really needs to attend.”
Matt Franks says the large-scale event will be “redefined”, with the possibility of holding smaller events over multiple days, or a series of touring events for smaller audiences, helping planners apply more control and distancing.
“We will need to consider the format and timings of sessions, creating multiple sessions to accommodate smaller, more spread out audiences with staggered timings that help control the flow of delegates and will also offer delegates a personalised learning journey allowing them to feel in control of selecting the content they want to experience,” Franks says.
“While there will be a proportion of people who will feel nervous about face-to-face meetings, there will always be an appetite for live interactions and their popularity will rise again. In fact, a positive to be taken from this pandemic is that face-to-face will be valued even more than before.”
Working together and sharing expertise
“There will need to be a greater level of flexibility from both venues and planners to ensure all levels of risk have been covered,” says Candice Kass, Event Manager at the Institute of School Business Leadership.
“I am really keen to start working with venues on what their plans are and what their risk assessments will look like. Event planners will need to provide as much information for delegates as possible before and during the event. How this information is disseminated and received will be a key factor and will involve venues, planners and delegates all taking some level of responsibility at each stage.”
“Our preferred supplier network is a critical part of our operation,” says Emma Coleman, VP and head of event solutions & sports at BCD M&E. “Working closely together we can shape the way forward and give clients reassurance and guidance about making their events happen safely in the future.”
“We have an increased duty of care to delegates and playing our part to keep everyone safe and reduce risk of any spreading is vital,” agrees Matt Franks.
“It’s important that as an industry we keep talking and sharing our experiences and learnings so together we can evolve. As a global industry, we are in this together and we can learn from other countries as we all begin to resume business.”
“Balancing the tightrope of risk and experience, there will be many phases to our recovery with grey areas in-between each of them,” adds Tim Collett.
Dax Callner believes that delegates must also take more initiative at events: “Delegates will have to assume some ownership of sticking to event biosecurity guidelines as part of their responsibility as event attendees, with policing mechanisms in place,” he says.
More hybrid events
The experts predict the continuation of digital and hybrid events when physical events return.
“Virtual’s new role cannot be forgotten,” says Matt Franks. “And the delegate’s experience cannot be reduced whether they are there in person or virtually. We are likely to see the rise of hybrid events, where we can reach larger audiences or continue with learning through virtual experiences.”
“Hybrid meetings will have a place for some time to come, enabling smaller groups of people to come together whilst connecting a much broader audience with the digital experience,” says Emma Coleman.
Lex Butler suggests that in order to increase physical numbers at events with reduced sellable space, venues may look into linking multiple conference rooms with cameras to host a speaker across several rooms, delivering the same content to a larger audience.
“It’s giving them the same experience, but with a hybrid feel,” she says.
“Virtual meetings becoming the norm will mean physical attendance will be seen as a luxury,” says Matt Franks. “We shall appreciate each other more, and physical attendance will have a changed status.”
He adds that: “An opportunity out of all of these changes will be the giant leap our industry will make in delivering more sustainable events.”
Bruce Morgan, COO at BCD M&E agrees. “There is no question that virtual solutions will continue to be a part of our shared new reality. We have to think differently, be prepared to act differently and recognise that our industry’s future has shifted.
“But we believe that the power of the human connection – which is the backbone of what we do – is more important than ever.”
Editors note: We couldn’t agree more!