Virus Forces Conference Planners to Go Back to Go

The coronavirus pandemic has upended operations and activities across nearly all industries, but meeting and conference planners face a particularly daunting challenge.

“Obviously, the impact to the events and trade show industry has been cataclysmic,” said Amy Calvert, chief executive of the Events Industry Council, a trade group.

Ms. Calvert said her group’s members were being forced to reinvent nearly every aspect of their jobs, from shifting in-person meetings to remote platforms, to thinking about how everything from big presentations to buffet lines would need to be altered — or eliminated — once people started to gather in person again.

“No one really had this in their playbook,” said Richard Vallaster III, director of client relations at A2Z, a meeting planning firm in Columbia, Md. “You can’t necessarily plop and drop what you’d done in person into the virtual world.” Even something as simple as scheduling a presentation becomes a puzzle when taking into account the various time zones of the participants, he said.

Hilary Laney, chief executive of the virtual event production company Evia in Seattle, said that “for event planners, as a whole, this has been a huge learning curve for them.” She said she had been fielding a deluge of inquiries from prospective customers who were concerned that even after stay-at-home orders were lifted, they would need to offer skittish meeting attendees a virtual option.

Annette Gregg, senior vice president of experience at the trade group Meeting Professionals International, said organizers faced three big questions right now: “Should we still have the conference at all in 2020? Should we add a virtual component? What are the requirements going to be when people do convene live, and who’s going to dictate those?” Ms. Gregg said her group was pushing back its annual June conference until November.

Brian King, global officer of digital, distribution, revenue strategy and global sales at Marriott International, said his sales teams had been hearing similar concerns. “Folks have shifted their meetings,” he said. “They’ve kind of moved to the back half of the year.” While some events are migrating entirely to the digital realm, many trade associations and exhibition organizers depend on the revenue from live events to sustain their operations.

Mr. Vallaster, of A2Z, said that “the entire events ecosystem is trying to understand what events look like this summer, this fall and even 2021 and beyond.”

“The challenge that especially our large organizers face is they’re typically held in big cities and the partner ecosystem is just massive,” he added.

That ecosystem includes the people who set up lighting equipment, unload trucks and serve food at convention centers; the mom-and-pop companies that fabricate trade show booths, signs and promotional products like T-shirts and coffee mugs; the photographers, videographers, caterers and decorators — along with the meeting planners who hire these contractors and coordinate all of the logistics.

“The big question we keep getting calls on is how we’re mitigating risk,” said David Seelinger, chief executive of EmpireCLS, a provider of limo and corporate busing service with offices in Secaucus, N.J., and Los Angeles.

Mr. Seelinger said his company was installing high-powered air filters, disinfecting vehicles in between clients, cleaning with long-lasting electrostatic agents and requiring drivers to wear masks and gloves. For the time being, he said, the company is recommending that coaches are filled to no more than half capacity to allow for social distancing.

Social distancing protocols are among the thorniest challenges for people who plan face-to-face events. Carina Bauer, chief executive of IMEX Group, an exhibition organizer based in Britain that focuses on the convention industry, said that trade show organizers were considering options like enlarging booths, making convention hall access by appointment only, even erecting clear plastic barriers between the vendors who exhibit and their would-be buyers.

Hotels are prepared for meeting room capacities to be slashed and seating arrangements reconfigured.

“We have a space-to-customer calculator,” Mr. King, of Marriott, said. “We’ve increased the space in that calculator.” A round table that previously would have been set with eight chairs, for instance, would now be set with only four.

Meals — especially buffets — and networking receptions with small tables and tightly clustered seating arrangements are probably gone for good.

“I think the traditional buffet that we’ve all come to know, where you’re standing in line and you’re reaching around the next person, we see that going away, definitely,” said Linda McNairy, a vice president at American Express Global Business Travel. “Having everyone packed in the bar — I think those days are in the past and will remain in the past.”

In the near term, event attendees will eat mostly presealed and packaged food — and a few organizers are considering stopping food service. Plated meals are likely to look quite different as well, with no preset place settings to prevent airborne contamination, and diners spread out, perhaps with clear plastic shields between them.

Drastically reducing the number of attendees in a space has significant implications for revenue in hotels. Most U.S. hotels operate on a model where the room rental is, in effect, subsidized by a conference’s guaranteed number of guest rooms and a predetermined amount of food and drink. If a group suddenly needs three times the space for social-distancing measure — which one industry consultant
says is a possibility — this model may not work anymore.

“The difficulty of this is the length of time that’s going to take, and the uncertainty about it and what’s going to happen in the interim,” Ms. Bauer said.

The acceptable standards of cleanliness are also much higher now. At hotels, housekeeping staff is increased and everything from carpets to paper goods, like notepads in guest rooms, are removed. Major chains including Marriott, Hyatt Hotels, IHG Hotels & Resorts and Hilton — which is advertising a partnership with Lysol — have announced new cleaning protocols to reassure guests about the condition of their rooms, meeting areas and public spaces.

For conference attendees, this means that jam-packed schedules will become a thing of the past. Deep-cleaning each room and all of the furniture in it before a new group enters will take time. Managing the flow of hundreds, if not thousands, of people while maintaining social-distancing guidelines, will also be more time-consuming.

“People are going to need to leave more time during the meeting process to flip meeting rooms and actually move,” Mr. King said.

Another imperative is cutting down on the number of objects that must be physically touched. “In the new world, contactless check-in and registration is now the new norm,” Mr. King said, adding that concierge and meeting services will become digital. “Technology is going to be the lead player in this drama,” he said.

Bjorn Hanson, a hotel industry consultant, also predicted a shift to digital. “A lot of the response will be things that were in process anyway but will be accelerated,” he said. Guest room keys and registration badges will be available in hotel and event mobile apps, he said, while paper handouts, already eschewed by many meeting planners, will vanish.

Hotels will also need to consider ways to cut down on physical touch points in public spaces. “Are bathroom doors going to have door stops so you don’t have to touch the door?” asked Nancy Sutta Berns, a senior program manager for Conference Management Services, which produces scientific conferences.

“There are bathrooms that have the automatic sinks and hand dryers,” she added. “It’s likely they’re going to have those if there are new guidelines.”

Even dispensers for soap and hand sanitizers need to be touchless to prevent the spreading of germs, she said. “Those things need to be automatic, not pump bottles.”

Then, there is the issue of fault: If someone travels to an event and subsequently contracts the coronavirus, what party is responsible?

“I think the liability question is coming up more and more,” Mr. Vallaster, of A2Z, said. “Some attorneys are concerned that employers may feel the liability falls on them if they send an employee or someone goes on behalf of their company” and that person contracts the virus, he said.

The long incubation period and potential for asymptomatic spreading would seem to make this difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile. “It’s pretty hard to pinpoint at what moment in time you could’ve contracted it,” Mr. Vallaster said.

Some organizers have floated the idea of on-site testing for attendees, but that raises potential privacy and medical-records concerns. It also depends on the ready availability of cheap, accurate quick-response tests, which don’t yet exist in the United States — and both the space and medical personnel to process and read those tests.

“How, as meeting planners, do we apply that?” Ms. Sutta Berns asked. “Through what organization do we hire medical staff with the ability to ensure the results are accurate? There are still so many questions out there.”

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