Events…in a COVID World
As COVID-19 has swept across the globe, we’ve seen industries flattened literally overnight.
And ours was no exception.
Our business, the event business, thrives on bringing people together. To connect ideas, to exchange information, to solve problems.
Of course, this can be done remotely—through virtual events and streaming. But we’re social animals. It’s in our DNA. The expression ‘if you don’t meet face to face, you’ll never see eye to eye’ is said for a reason. Through contact, we develop trust; and through trust, we develop relationships.
Now, in this crazy new world, we’re being told to do the opposite…we must practise social distancing.
Social Distancing + Events = ???
The best and brightest minds in the world are predicting that social distancing, in one form or another, could last for 18 months.
After infections peak, there will probably be a relaxation of the lockdown measures currently in place. But until we find a vaccine, we could find ourselves back in lockdown a few months down the line—a cycle that may well be destined to repeat itself until we have the drugs needed to fight this thing.
If this is the case, what will this mean for the events industry? How will event profs design experiences under these circumstances? How will we make social distancing and events compatible?
We need to start finding answers to these questions. Because, if the above scenario does play out, that takes us to September 2021 before we can get back to some form of normality…SEPTEMBER 2021!
But, woah, we’re getting ahead of ourselves…*deep breaths*…let’s think about the short to medium term for now. Let’s take this one industry-altering question at a time. Starting with…
How might we run an event in a COVID-19 world? Let’s say, in Q4 of 2020.
Pre-Pre-Pre-Event (yes, that’s a legit stage)
For in-person events to persevere, the UK government would first have to lift the lockdown restrictions. (Obviously…it’s not much of an event if the guest list is limited to members of the same household.)
The government would then need to review and update the restrictions on how many people can gather in one place—starting, probably, with small-group events and growing from there.
As these guidelines are released, *then* you can see if your event qualifies.
Pre-Pre-Event (finally, you can start planning)
Adding onto the already long list of things event planners need to consider, additional questions and steps may need to be added during online registration to determine whether delegates are eligible to attend events in person. Things like…
These are personal and, frankly, problematic questions to ask and require an ‘opt-in’ process. But—HR and GDPR issues aside, because we can’t even fathom that headache right now—they will get you the data you need to make sure your event happens, and happens safely.
Testing is a whole other issue, by the way. Unless mass testing is rolled out, some people might have had the virus, but have no idea. Early data suggests that figure could be as high as 30%. But, you know, like we said…one thing at a time.
Speaking of headaches, the increased risk associated with post-lockdown events means organisers will need to widen their insurance coverage as well. This should include more flexible cancellation coverage, coverage for staff and delegates who may contract the virus, and coverage for vulnerable individuals attending the event—to name a few.
Pre-Event (AKA, getting there)
So you’ve asked these questions, you’re insured up to your eyeballs, and you have a guest list. How will your delegates travel to the event safely?
There are a few options here, but public transport is probably out. That leaves asking delegates to drive themselves to the venue, or organising coaches. If you choose the latter, you may want to consider advising people on how to maintain social distancing—for example, sitting 2 people per row, rather than 4.
Plus, from the data you’ve gathered, you may also be able to separate people based on whether or not they’ve had the virus.
Okay, you’ve jumped through all the hoops, you’ve prayed to the event gods, and your event is going ahead. . .
That means your event has met the post-lockdown small-group restrictions set out by the government; you have the data you need to see which delegates qualify to attend in person, including whether or not they’ve been tested for the virus; and your approved guests have now arrived safely at the venue.
One thing’s for sure; delegate packs are going to look very different after lockdown. What should be included?
- Home testing kit. (We aren’t there yet, but the development of home tests is moving rapidly.)
- Gloves & face masks. (Probably…Face masks have been controversial so far, but the science is changing every day.)
- Hand sanitiser. (Assuming we can find some by then…)
- Reusable water bottle and/or thermos (sustainability is crucial, with or without the virus.)
- All the event info. (The usual need-to-know details, plus a few extra requirements courtesy of COVID-19, like a reminder of social distancing guidelines and info on the venue’s disinfection procedures.)
By sending these packs, you’ll be able to involve your delegates in the event design from the get-go. This serves a dual purpose; it lets them know what to expect at each stage of the event, whilst putting their minds at ease regarding the new measures. Things like, ‘on arrival, please use the hand sanitiser provided’ and ‘please arrive wearing the branded face mask from your pack’. (Too much?…In case you weren’t aware, face mask fashion is a thing…and we kinda don’t hate it.)
As delegates rock up with your event logo on their faces (we can’t quite believe we’re saying that, but it is what it is)—they’ll probably be met with a set-up resembling airport security before they can access the venue. Maybe something like this:
- Open-door policy. (Prop doors open to keep fresh air circulating and prevent everyone from touching the same door handles.)
- Thermal imaging. (Thermal imaging cameras could be hired to detect whether or not delegates have a temperature.)
- Point of care testing. (Delegates could be tested at the door, if they consented during online registration. Abbott Laboratories have developed a testing device that can show a positive results within 5 minutes and a negative one within 13. This may not be strictly necessary, if mass testing is rolled out across the country—but it would be a relatively fast fail-safe regardless.)
Obviously, the idea will be to minimise contact and maintain social distancing, so registration should be mostly unmanned. We’d recommend having at least one person nearby—behind a screen, of course—in case your delegates have any queries. Other than that, Tensa barriers would be set up to break up the space, with clear markings on the floor to remind everyone to stand at least 2 metres apart (like the ones you’ll have seen in the supermarket).
These post-lockdown events will be predominantly BYOD (bring your own device, just FYI) with QR codes included in the delegate packs. They would simply scan this code from their device at registration, and a badge or sticker would be printed for them to wear (for example, using a self-printing name tag kiosk).
If you required an extra level of security, there are blockchain companies—like True Tickets—that are revolutionising ticketing with technology that could be used for high-profile events. These companies offer scanning facilities that can confirm delegates’ identities, which you could position at the venue’s entrance.
Tensa barriers will come in handy again for setting up self-catering lines, or you could go for velvet ropes and posts for a bit of extra glamour. Floor markings should be used in the networking space, so delegates can keep the conversation going whilst keeping their distance. Handshakes are *obviously* out of the question, but a good ol’ elbow bump is a polite work-around.
As for the furniture, our indy bar tables offer a place to rest drinks, whilst ensuring a table’s worth of space is maintained between delegates at all times…Who says social distancing can’t be stylish?
The main event
Typically, conference seating is grouped; either in lines (theatre style) or around circular tables (cabaret style). Either way, it’s a bit too close for comfort. Chairs would have to be kept at least 2 metres apart—but the addition of trendy poseur tables and some strategically-placed decorative items will make this feel a bit less awkward. These makeshift ‘rows’ could be filled one at a time; like a military operation, but…you know…more fun?
And remember—if your delegates are sitting apart, the speakers on stage will have to as well. So podiums will have to be set 2 metres apart, same as the audience seating. During Q&A, the usual methods of passing the microphone or tossing a catchbox can’t be used, but there are plenty of event apps and platforms out there that allow delegates to submit questions digitally. (Thank you, smart phones, for everything you’ve done for us!)
If you want to get even more creative, you could set up a digital whiteboard which lets delegates contribute their ideas and feeds them right back to the plenary. (Equally, if what you’re really after is fewer gadgets and less hassle, you could stream speakers in as a cheaper—and safer—alternative.)
Until we meet again. . .
Just as lockdown has encouraged people to experiment with virtual meetings and events, social distancing is going to force event profs to get creative with live events too. And while there’s plenty to be nervous about (‘unprecedented’ truly is the word of 2020) there are things to be excited about as well.
Because, when we can finally meet in person again, it’s going to be an event for the history books.