It has been over two years since we all entered the world of Covid-19 restrictions. What started as “take two weeks at home to flatten the curve” has forever changed our industry. And, as much as we’d like the pandemic to be over, it isn’t yet.
The good news, however, is that in-person events are back. And many are seeing record attendance as people crave networking, hands-on workshops, the opportunity to experience new products, and the energy that only in-person experiences can create. At the same time, there are more Covid-related resources, science, and data to help you create safe in-person events.
The bad news? The Covid landscape remains in a state of change. In fact, in late March, U.S. caseloads flattened after two months of sharp declines, and some experts are expecting to see an uptick from the BA.2 variant.
Whatever happens to the case numbers, what’s essential is to work with your stakeholders to create a Covid risk-mitigation plan that’s the right fit for your event. Below is a checklist that can help as you get back to planning in-person meetings. If you can work through all of these questions, you’ll have the foundation for clearly defined and safe Covid protocols.
Start with these questions to create your event’s Covid risk mitigation plan:
• What is the event format—in person, hybrid, or virtual—and what is the go/no-go date for that decision?
• Who will make the decisions on the Covid protocols to be used?
• What resources will be reviewed and monitored for Covid-related decisions (CDC guidelines, WHO guidelines, local government regulations, company policies, etc.)?
• How will these plans be implemented, communicated, and enforced?
• Will you consider Covid-protocol changes if guidelines from your trusted resources and/or local mandates change after your plans have been communicated to attendees?
• Who is your audience and what are their feelings on Covid? (Are they in a high-risk category? Are they older? Are they international? Are they ready to get back to “normal”?)
• What are your venue’s Covid-related procedures?
—Is it a GBAC-Star rated venue?
—Have there been changes to its services (for example, housekeeping or vaccination requirements to use the fitness center)?
—Is staff required to be vaccinated and/or masked?
—Does the venue offer a reduced room rate for attendees who would need to quarantine at the hotel?
—Must the venue be informed of Covid cases and/or report it to anyone else?
—How is the venue’s ventilation and air-purification system? (Has it been upgraded since the Covid outbreak?) Consider the overall air flow in the facility.
—How often are meeting rooms cleaned, and what sanitization protocols are followed?
Next, consider your on-site policies and communicate them to attendees well in advance of the event, ideally as part of the registration process. Potential attendees may make their attendance decisions based on your on-site Covid policies.
Will vaccinations be required?
• Will you differentiate between “fully vaccinated” (defined as two weeks after receiving all recommended doses in the primary series of Covid vaccine) and “up to date on vaccinations” (meaning that a person has received all recommended doses in their primary series of Covid vaccine, and a booster dose when eligible)?
• Will proof of vaccination be required?
• If your event allows children, will those under age five be permitted considering that vaccines are not yet available for that age group?
• How will you handle requests for religious or medical exceptions?
• Can a negative Covid test be used for admission instead of vaccination?
Will masks be required?
• Not at all?
• At all times?
• Only indoors?
• Only for those who are unvaccinated?
Will your event design create space for social distancing?
• Throughout the event?
• For some types of functions specifically, like indoor meals?
• In certain sections of the meeting rooms for those who prefer distancing?
Will there be on-site Covid testing?
This is a significant budget expense but extremely popular with many small- to medium-sized meetings and events, such as incentive travel programs and staff retreats. If you plan on testing, consider:
• Will you offer rapid-PCR or rapid-antigen tests?
• Will testing be available on request or required?
• Will testing be on upon arrival only or every day?
• If someone tests positive, what happens next? Who needs to be informed (staff, hotel, health department, or others)? Who covers the expenses related to their on-site quarantine? What are the venue’s policies related to positive tests?
If you do not plan to offer on-site Covid testing, questions remain:
• What is the closest Covid-testing facility in case someone needs a test?
• Do you have a concierge doctor you can call if someone becomes symptomatic and on-site tests are needed for multiple people?
• Do you have international travelers who need testing to travel post-event? Can you help arrange that service?
Who is responsible for managing and enforcing on-site Covid policies and procedures?
Covid compliance advisors?
A security company?
What are your policies for vendors, exhibitors, and special invited guests?
This brings up several related questions. For example, if your attendees do not need to wear masks because of vaccination or testing requirements, will your vendors still be required to wear them? Another question: If you require all attendees to receive a Covid test on arrival, will your VIP speakers need to do the same?
What is your cancellation and/or refund policy?
If someone cannot attend the event due to a Covid infection, will they be treated differently than any other cancellation in terms of remuneration? Is the policy different if your event is hybrid (i.e. you’ll retain an amount equal to the virtual attendance fee)?
Are you changing the food service due to Covid?
• Will you host meals outside? And if so, do you need to budget for heaters, lighting, or umbrellas?
• Will buffets be chef/server-attended or self-service?
• Will you offer individually packaged items, boxed lunches, or bento boxes?
• Will you have to-go boxes for guests who feel more comfortable eating in their guest rooms?
Will you provide masks and/or hand sanitizers on site? (Note: This is a great sponsorship opportunity!)
What happens after the event?
It’s recommended that you communicate to attendees and vendors the expectation that they monitor for symptoms and report to a designated contact any positive Covid diagnosis that happens within 14 days of departing the event.
Is there anything else related to your event that needs to be considered due to Covid?
Once you have the answers to these questions for your Covid risk mitigation plan, you’re almost done. Next steps include:
1. Clearly document your process.
2. Get buy-in from all stakeholder groups.
3. Integrate the Covid on-site plan with your overall event crisis-management plan.
4. Communicate openly and frequently with your attendees, venue, and vendors.
5. Check this off your to-do list.
Shayna Moskowitz, DES, is director of meetings & event technology at Part 2 Events.