Alan Kleinfeld, CMP, director of Charleston, S.C.-based Arrive Conference Solutions, has years of experience with emergency planning for meetings and conventions, in addition to years as a badge-wearing law enforcement officer. This year, however, he has expanded his focus, earned a certification as a COVID compliance officer, and is working with organizations to ensure health and safety protocols are established and adhered to.
We caught up with him between meetings to hear what he’s learned as a “Covid cop.”
What’s key to a safe meeting environment?
Alan Kleinfeld: For one thing, everyone needs to be on the same page. To get there takes the messaging efforts of me and the meeting planner I’m working with. And it comes down to this: If everyone's not going to follow the same protocols, don't hold the meeting face to face.
You’ve got to have everyone following the same rules, and sometimes you’ll need to make adjustments. Recently I was on site at a meeting; everyone was wearing a mask; everything was spaced; the hotel was awesome. And then we did an outdoor function. Attendees took their masks off and there was some hugging and kissing. The outdoors creates a false sense of security. So, immediately we started messaging again. The message was, “being outside is not an invitation to pretend that there's no more Covid. When we're outside, you wear your masks, except to drink, and then as soon as you've taken a sip, put the mask back on.” Fortunately, message got out and we never saw that happen again.
How is the messaging handled?
Alan Kleinfeld: At that reception, we had staff offering friendly reminders, and in that case, the executive director of the association spoke from the stage. And I made a point to ask her to get a message out whenever she had stage time. She was great at adding a bit of humor to make it feel warmer. There were also plenty of signs on easels, provided by us as well as the hotel. And on the conference app, there was a section on safety protocols, and pre-event we included safety information on the website and in emails. Yeah, it was a bombardment, but my client and I agreed that if the evaluations came back saying that we did way too much messaging on Covid, then we had done our job. In the end, we got some really good marks on our safety procedures.
It’s also important to get messaging out to suppliers. Before we get on site, I contact vendors and ask if they will be able to follow agreed upon procedures, so that we're all following the same rules.
Have you had any experiences with non-compliance in terms of masks and social distancing?
Alan Kleinfeld: Sometimes people forget, or they wear their mask under their nose, but they can be reminded. I haven't had a serious experience of non-compliance where someone gets aggressive or assertive about not wearing a mask. If that does happen, we’ll start with a conversation between the person and me or the meeting planner, saying “Hey, you don't want to get in trouble with the authorities or make anyone sick.” And then, if they still won’t comply, we’d probably get in touch with hotel security or perhaps call 911 or some pastoral-care person to deal with it.
One group I was working with had a no-mask mindset, and for months before the meeting the executives held that stance. However, eventually, the message from the planner to the group was, “Listen, this event’s not going to happen if attendees don't wear masks on site. We’re not the only ones who want you to wear masks: The city wants you to wear masks; the hotel wants you to wear masks, and other attendees want to wear masks.” In the end, everyone was extremely compliant on site—even those who were the loudest complainers. If they weren't happy about it, you couldn't tell.
How are meetings going to have to change?
Alan Kleinfeld: A lot of annual conferences have committee meetings and social gatherings off site. These really need to be reevaluated. Today, everything that you do is going to have to include some kind of Covid compliance. And that's likely to mean more staff, more liability, and more money. Transportation is just one piece of it: The norm now is for a charter bus to only be filled to 50 percent capacity.
Another thing to think about is your entertainment and music levels, as well as overall group size. When things get loud, the tendency is to lean in to talk, which can be unsafe even if you are wearing a mask.
What other compliance issues are you thinking about?
Alan Kleinfeld: It’s especially important to know what other groups are going to be in the facility. You don't know what their compliance plans are, and they could be criss-crossing through your area. It's going to be really important to me as a meeting planner and a Covid cop to know that whoever else is sharing space has at least the same level of safety procedures that we do.
I had an experience where we had closed down our registration for the day and left all of our registration materials out, so everything was ready to go for the next day. I happen to walk through the registration space that night and found that everything was gone. It turned out that our space was booked in the evening and no one told us. So, now we had to disinfect everything because I have no idea what this group was doing.
How do you handle personal protection equipment at the events you work on?
I lay out the options: Here’s the environment we want to create, and here's what it's going to take to create it. At that point, it's up to the client to decide what they want to do. But it’s important to remember that you don't have to do it alone. Check with your suppliers and your hotels. Often they can provide signs or hand sanitizer, and they might have temperature-check kiosks on site. To decide to meet in person or not is about risk assessment and balance. It’s in everyone’s interest to get face-to-face meetings back in business, yet we want to do it as Covid-safely as possible.