Originally published Meetings Today
If you follow the link in the sentence above that provides WHO’s definition of “mass gatherings,” you may think that a meeting for 100 or 500 or 1,000, even a city-wide, might not be “mass” and perhaps it’s safe to go ahead with your meetings, conventions and events.
Most U.S. states and many countries still have guidelines that restrict how many people can gather. Even if it is permitted, physical distancing is strongly recommended by most if not by some leaders. What WHO recommends for gatherings is available to download. It’s worth your time to consider the recommendations.
I reached out to the Events Industry Council (EIC)—as recently as earlier in the week of the publication of this newsletter—in hopes it had developed guidelines for seating, changing capacities for spaces, and for issues, from the formerly convened APEX Contracts Panel, on what this means for contracts in place and those being negotiated, especially for room blocks, attrition, impossibility and cancellation. This is what I received just before we made this live. As an industry, we’re not ‘there’ yet.
The issues about which I wrote in April remain. On April 14 during Global Meetings Industry Day (GMID), virtual events and virtual components of EIC-member organizations, I wanted to hear thinking about the impact of COVID-19 on when we can gather again and how.
I heard little except the usual encouragement to meet. That’s all well and good if we have guidelines to keep people safe. We do not have more than what WHO published.
In discussions among colleagues in social media, including on ASAE’s Collaborate and in the “Events Industry Friends” group on Facebook [to join, answer the three questions], there is frequent conversation about the how/why/when we can move forward. There is no consensus though all want the industry to recover.
None of this would be so critical if so many of us weren’t dealing with postponing meetings and determining the configuration for those to be held in the latter part of 2020 and into 2021.
While many groups are pivoting to entirely virtual meetings, others are moving forward planning their events to perhaps meet as contracted or to attempt to revise the content and delivery to accommodate physical distancing.
I am grateful to Paul Bergeron, IOM, a freelance reporter covering association management, for his contribution to this newsletter on thinking about pivoting to virtual meetings. Pivoting has been swift and I, like Paul, fear that too little consideration is going into the long-term implications.
The impact of COVID-19 on how we hold meetings and events impacts nearly every element of a meeting. Considerations include the following, and this list is just a start:
- Physical distancing: a colleague with an upcoming meeting determined that a room that normally could hold 250 could hold at most 36 people with six-foot distancing; rounds would be impossible; and issues for people who need sign language interpreters more complex.
- Exhibit load-in/load-out times and conditions
- Room blocks
- F&B minimums
- Guest room availability between one guest’s departure and another occupying a room
- Elevator use
Lots of Questions and Thoughts; Few Answers
Some of the following thoughts were posted on various platforms, others were solicited. Only one is attributed because the issues are all sensitive regarding whether or not groups can or will meet.
I am grateful to The Wynn and to Marriott Hotels for their input on some of what we are considering around cleanliness. I hope they expand their thinking, quickly, to meetings and that the entire industry does far more, quickly.
I wanted for myself, clients and for readers, other voices to be considered as we all determine what to do. Voices of vast experience help me; I hope they will help you as you consider where our industry goes and how.
If in editing the comments from colleagues, I’ve erred in expressing their views, my apologies. I am grateful beyond words for their time in discussing complex issues because, I, a “P” on MBTI, needs lots of input to get to “J!”
One exchange in ASAE’s Collaborate with Michael LoBue, MS, CAE, president of San Francisco’s LoBue & Majdalany Management Group was one of the better ones. (A lengthy and rich discussion on Facebook in the above noted group was too much to post.) My edited response to Michael follows his questions and comments.
Michael LoBue: ”I haven’t read this anywhere, which surprises me, but doesn’t hurricane season officially start off the Atlantic Coast on June 1st and runs through the end of November? [Had he only been reading my mind, he would have discovered many internal conversations.]
“Given states like Florida, Georgia and South Carolina are re-opening their local economies by relaxing physical distancing, and the incredibly infectious nature of the coronavirus, why wouldn’t we expect the next U.S. hot spot to shift to the South… and then if a hurricane hits … the entire East Coast will shut down again.
“Even if things open up in other parts of the country at that time, everyone will correctly want to go into physically distancing again—plus no one from the infected areas will be traveling anywhere to attend meetings.
“I’ve never been in an evacuation, for a hurricane or anything else. I’ve talked to people who have. It doesn’t seem like a desirable experience—to have it happen during a pandemic doesn’t seem to improve those prospects (he writes sarcastically).
“BTW, I heard that Germany cancelled Octoberfest this year [Correct: We tweeted it for Meetings Today.]… Why any face-to-face meetings between now and the end of the year are on anyone’s calendar is a mystery to me.
“Am I alone in this view?”
My edited response to Michael’s post:
Michael, thank you for raising these issues. They are very much on my mind and in my planning for clients and in my writing for the meetings industry.
In the off-the-record conversations with hoteliers and DMO CEOs, and with colleagues who plan meetings and travel, there is a belief that many hotels may never open again. In addition, COVID-19 (now thought to exist in a greater percentage of the world’s population than originally projected) could stick around and join whatever flu strain or mutation of COVID-19 appears later this year, so add that to the existing critical issues for which to plan for if meetings/events—or any gathering of more than a few people—are to occur.
Yes, correct on hurricane “season.” We’ve already seen that in states where tornadoes have occurred, physical distancing had to be put aside in order to provide shelter for many impacted. Convention centers and like facilities, that house meetings and events, are being used for what is called temporary shelter for either COVID-19 patients and/or those who were formerly homeless.
These same spaces are needed for those impacted by tornadoes. During hurricanes or other disasters (like wildfires), these facilities are used.
Add these issues in considering whether to meet:
- Workers who will not want to work again in hospitality (including those who work/ed in transportation) for fear of illness and/or another round of layoffs.
- Transportation itself (air, ground) and no idea when schedules as we knew them may resume.
- Lack of hotels’ and cities’ policies and plans for implementation for cleaning, seating or other issues (attrition is one) impacted by distancing.
The list goes on for those of us planning for contingencies.
There are many who believe that talking about these issues is “fear-mongering” designed to scare people from planning or attending meetings and doesn’t show faith in what the hospitality industry can do. (Yes, #HospitalityStrong is trending among some.) I want to believe that we can meet again as long as we are prepared to keep people safe.
Groups, forced to make decisions now based on hotel or convention center cancellation charges, are being put in very difficult positions: choosing to stay afloat by having a meeting if states and cities say the guidelines for safely gathering have been met and the go-ahead given, or paying cancellation fees, with no registration income or less income for virtual events.
I’ve not mentioned the issue of city and state infrastructures and services that will be decimated because of lack of tax income, or the ability to obtain food with so many processing plants closed because of COVID-19 outbreaks, or the farmers plowing under crops and dairy farmers dumping milk.
I say, yes, Michael, I do not think there is much hope for 2020, but there needs to be lots of energy to plan to hold meetings and for contingencies.
What About Travel?
It’s not simple to figure out the pieces that go into planning a meeting under what were normal circumstances. In an email conversation with a colleague who was in hotel catering for years and now plans events, issues were raised about what is and isn’t open and about travel. To protect this person’s identity, I have edited some of the comments.
“The hotels [in the city in which they live] are all closed. There are a few I’m sure that have a skeleton crew and some smaller ones that have restaurants trying to still do deliveries.
“It’s so hard to know what the “new normal” will be: Which restaurants will make it? Which stores? Will people want to travel? HOW will they travel? The days of non-sanitized planes and crowded flights, at least till there’s a vaccine that works, are over.
“I think flights will have to have fewer people on each plane and will need more than 30 minutes to an hour for people to disembark and then new passengers to board and take off.
“I think airlines are going to have to do much more cleaning of the planes between flights, which will increase “gate time” and change schedules, which means that it will be way more expensive to fly.
“Likewise, hotels are going to have to figure out that housekeepers will need more time to clean each room. Hotels may consider switching from carpeting to hardwood/laminate or tile floors. Hotels on beaches or with pools will have to disinfect to the hilt. We’ve all been amused and grossed out by those “black light” reports, but now that a hotel could be culpable of murder—this ain’t so funny! It’s not bedbugs which are gross and a “problem”— people can die from this virus. So, that’s going to have people more “heebie jeebying” than before and more inclined to “tele-meet” than ever before.
“I do hope it’s sooner rather than later, and indeed that by October it will be “normal.”
Taking this and my own conversations with airline personnel into consideration, I asked a colleague directly in the travel segment of the industry the following questions; their answers follow.
Q. When and how do you think airlines will begin to fly even half their domestic schedules?
A. My guess is spring of 2021, at the earliest. There is too much uncertainty for the rest of 2020. The benchmark will be how well do the winter flights sell, if there is no second wave, or fear of a second wave.
Q. What do you think will make travelers feel safe in airports? On planes?
A. Offer free protective face masks on request; have line space markers; announce reminders to be respectful to your fellow passengers and crew; allow passengers to change seats if they are concerned; and continue to offer flexible flight change options
Q. What do you expect the biggest changes to be in how we travel for leisure, business and to conferences?
A. For a while, we will travel to familiar places, less crowded destinations, and on shorter trips, for leisure.
For business, we’ll meet in smaller groups, for less time. We’re less likely to extend city visits, see a show, go to a group dinner, want to meet everyone in the office, for “face time.”
For conferences, we’ll radiate to smaller meetings, with more spacing between seats, fewer breakout rooms, temperature checks, and masks. It will be awkward, and there will be smaller audiences reflecting the reluctance to participate in large group gatherings.
Pre-arranged small get-togethers will be organized online before a conference, so there can be a brief meet-and-greet on-site, and no need to attend mass networking events, or spend lots of time at big receptions or crowded evening events. [I wonder what will happen to “hosted buyer events,” where the intimacy of face-to-face cannot happen for some time.]
Small and roomy will beat large and packed-in. We will see wide-scale behavior change in venue site selection. No more small nightclubs or narrow hallway receptions. Opening events will be held at outdoor sites or large museums, with plenty of room for peace of mind. Large gardens or private parks will offer more comfort.
The crowded tradeshow floor is also endangered and may be replaced by smaller supplier group-specific exhibitor opportunities. For example, there might be a “Middle America Small Market” room and a “West Coast Top Tier” room, with room capacity controls, and delegates will stroll between them.
Q. What else do you want to tell people about the impact of COVID-19 on the meetings industry?
A. Organizers will need to relax change and cancellation policies. There will be lots of fear and uncertainty for a while. Delegates, exhibitors and (association) members will come from different geographic locations and different personal comfort levels. Some will adjust better than others to all the changes.
Planners will need to be sensitive to these changes, some of which will be expensive. CEOs and CFOs will need to accept it will cost more to draw fewer people to meetings and events. There will be less interest in promoting meetings by the numbers they draw, but instead, by the niche they serve. Some companies will get nervous and will cancel 2020/2021 staff travel out of fear, or for budget reasons, and this should not be inferred as not being a supportive or loyal member.
What About Hotels?
As noted above, The Wynn Las Vegas and Marriott hotels have put forth guidelines about cleaning. Prior to these plans being released, I asked three respected colleagues, two of whom recently retired, one of whom is soon to do so, and all of whom were with hotels in “lofty” positions, with a combined total of nearly 100 years in the industry (though they are all still younger than I am!) for their thoughts on the current state of the meetings industry.
I am grateful to them all for years of doing business together and, with our “business hats off,” friendship, and never more than now when ideas need to be explored in uncharted territory.
I am also grateful to another colleague still working with an open hotel for their input.
“Testing is the key. Hotels will have to confirm that all of their employees have been tested (multiple times) and are negative (for COVID-19.) Hotels will also have to take extra steps to show the facility is a safe place.
“Contracts are going to have to change to give planners more leeway on attrition and cancellations since no one will know for sure who will attend even when they try to hold a meeting.
“I see a reversal of the trend of leaving the hotel for F&B functions to wanting to stay in the hotel since it’s a more controlled environment.
“Since flying is a big concern, there might be an increase in regional drive-in meetings.
“Planners may need to let attendees participate both in-person and fully online to get people more comfortable (with gathering again).
“Social distancing rules will need to be established in all meeting rooms and outlets.
“Tradeshows are big problem. I see one-way aisles, limits on the number of people in a booth, more online demonstrations. (A model groceries are using now in many cities.)
“I see smaller sessions happening in meeting rooms but spaced out for social distancing and large sessions online so could you watch from your room or at a distance.”
Colleagues 2 and 3:
These two had an email exchange prior to my contacting one and then the other. I have permission to share their edited thoughts, exchanged before the three of us spoke.
Colleague 2: “Times are crazy, but my family is all good and I hope the same with you. What are you hearing in the industry for groups having to change programs/set-ups to maintain six feet of social distancing? Seems this would turn the meetings and convention industry on its head.”
Colleague 3: “What I think is that bad times are ahead for meetings. If we think that groups are just going to reschedule and put thousands of attendees at risk…the liability is huge, and associations and companies aren’t going to do that easily.
“The only thing that will save us [and the industry and meetings] is a vaccine. Short of that, it will be a long road back. Really worried for the kids. [These colleagues have children who work in the industry.] This is not the legacy I had hoped for.”
Colleague 2: “I so agree with you. The meetings and conventions segment is so critical to the hotels. Big hotels are not going to make it, especially the ones that recently opened.
“It took three years to go from peak to trough after 9/11 and 4 1/2 years after the 2008 financial crisis. I say this is going to be worse. A vaccine is key, but I think events will change for many years.
“Programs are going to have to be adjusted; the virus impact on what we know and loved is monstrous. I love the world we lived in. As I write this I think about … being at events with friends celebrating our industry and now I think it will be years before that comes back. I hope the young people at some point will be fortunate to have the same experiences.”
Colleague 3: “It seems that our path and successes may not be the same for our children. There are so darn many hotels popping up….. Big shakeout for sure.”
[About going to industry events.] We sure had a great run and I hope our kids get a shot at what we enjoyed, but I worry the entire industry is going to change and not for the better…just look at how easy virtual meetings now are. Face-to-face isn’t going to be back as fast, if at all.”
Following up this exchange, one of the two above wrote to me when I asked if we were going too fast in re-opening the industry. It is edited for space and anonymity:
“You are right, Joan, that hotels and airlines are hatching plans and probably too quickly. Saw the other day the ‘new’ seating arrangement for planes. Great, except that the one MOST important thing that will keep people from flying is the issue of filtered air on planes…it’s less about the seats, much more about how to keep the air that everyone breathes virus-free.
“Hotels are right in looking at the markets which can move quickly: business travel, leisure and sadly, not large group…. I’m betting 2021 or later realistically. All the [industry] talking heads will tow a [party] line but the real direction is going to come from the travelers themselves.
“Would you fly or stay in a hotel anytime soon? Every group needs to poll their members to determine direction.”
“Personally, I think we are moving too fast in reopening. A reinfection flare-up will really push us back. Just read earlier in [paper named] a column written by three lawyers who said that the liability in opening up stores, restaurants, etc., will be staggering if people get sick again.
“Our own industry doesn’t seem to be thinking this way.”
Last, from a colleague still working in an open hotel in a major market. Again, edited for anonymity, clarity and length.
Q. What will it take for the meetings industry to reopen to anything close to what it was before COVID-19?
A. To reopen to anything close to what we were accustomed to pre-COVID-19, three primary elements will be needed: cleaning, infrastructure and flexibility.
All suppliers will need to conform to and execute CDC-endorsed cleaning standards; suppliers and planners will need to work to execute changes in physical and customary “infrastructure.” All parties—all suppliers (even if not contracted by a planner, such as airlines), planners and attendees involved will need to be flexible and adjust policies based on what medical progress has been made,
Ultimately, all parties need to ensure that guests/meeting attendees feel that steps have been taken to ensure everyone’s health, safety and security.
Hospitality chemical suppliers, such as Ecolab, were immediately proactive in reaching out to their customers regarding chemicals and CDC guidance the first two weeks of March, as were AHLA, and in our case, our state hotel and lodging association.
Infrastructure changes are going to be a big part of our ability to operate within the next year. Hotels may need to reconfigure front desks to accommodate a plexiglass shield as grocery stores have. The formerly popular open-pod front desk design will go away. There will be installation of more self-serve check-in kiosks that also issue key cards.
In addition to physical distancing reminder signage, we may need floor markers like stores are using. We’ll add hand sanitizer stations everywhere. Physical distancing protocol may require furniture removal to allow more space in lobbies and public areas.
For meetings, physical set-up standards will have to change to 1 per 6-foot classroom at least short-term. Depending on the rooms and audience size, theater style may have to set for space for three or four times the seating as the expected numbers.
Receptions have to be re-imagined: Buffets and action stations will disappear, and bar set-ups will need to factor physical distancing.
Meetings will need to include a virtual component for those not able or willing to travel. Programs will need to rethink networking and other social components for the next 12 to 18 months.
Individual and group hotel reservation cancellation and meeting registration policies will need to be as flexible as possible. As flights (“lift”) have been drastically cut and are likely to remain that way for some time, planners must plan for their potential destination before finalizing plans vs. taking for granted that one can easily get to D.C. or Chicago as they used to. National meetings may go away for a few years and become smaller regional meetings due to change in air and change in our dynamics.
Q. What are the potential hazards for hotel workers and guests in returning to hotels?
A. I believe it was Dr. Fauci who said, “We don’t make the timetable—the virus does.” That means we have to address a workplace/facility hazard that cannot be seen and one scientists/medical community is still learning about. [We are only four months into research.]
Until there is a vaccine, assume everyone could be asymptomatic and/or a carrier, and execute cleaning and infrastructure changes accordingly to create optimal conditions for both guests and employees.
To face the potential hazards, provide the recommended protective equipment to employees and the optimal safe layout to provide physical distancing, and supplies and services to support guests. If we put many safeguards in place and go beyond required cleaning protocols, our guests—and employees—will be shielded from hazards to the best of our ability.
Q. What has been your experience during COVID-19 with an open hotel and what guests want to know?
A. Hotels in our state are considered an “essential business,” but under the state of emergency/shelter at home order, we are authorized to turn away guests whose stay is not due to essential work. We have turned away guests who say they are there to simply “get away” from their house.
Most of our guests the last few weeks have been police and fire personnel working extra shifts and want to be close to their stations. We have been hosting nurses on temporary assignment at one of the three nearby “specialty” hospitals that do not have COVID-19 units.
I have been working with a domestic violence organization needing additional temporary shelter for their clients and also the American Red Cross seeking to secure a designated hotel for their normal course of business of providing families shelter in case of fires.
Business travelers right now are traveling medical professionals and other first responders. We are participating in a “day rate” promotion for locals to use rooms for a workspace during the workday—we have seen day guests for this. [On behalf of all of us, THANK YOU!]
We are running between 8% and 15% occupancy. We’ve kept guests informed by posting information regarding the shelter in-place order, changes in service and our current housekeeping protocols. We are primarily in a residential area that borders a medical campus, so we do have a great deal of options for food service—either carry out or delivery. We keep as updated as possible list regarding options.
On May 1, so far, we’ve been told hospitals are able to start non-emergency procedures (joint replacement, colonoscopies, etc), so we may see guests who want to be close to family members. Clearly this, too, may change.
I’m still wrapping my head around everything. I do not think we will return to business levels we saw in 2019 for many, many years.
There you have it: different voices of experience. If my crystal ball, still not working the way it used to, were better, I’d have easy answers.
What we need is great collective discussions among many, including medical and scientific, emergency and other personnel, to help us figure out what to do. And we need patience as the world contends with this horrific illness.
We need to look at the inequities made more visible by this. We need to give what we can to help those who are in great need. I recommend your local food bank, World Central Kitchen, founded by the amazing chef Jose Andres, that now in addition to feeding people in disaster areas around the U.S. and world is feeding first responders and those in need in many cities, including mine (Washington, D.C.), and to Unite Here to help the many hospitality workers who are out of work and who we need to be healthy and safe so they can return to support us and our meetings.
If you are a U.S.-eligible voter, register or check your registration. Many U.S. states and territories have “cleaned” their voter registration rolls. Check, too, to see if in fact you are registered and where you should vote.
Vote in upcoming primaries and national elections. There are ballot issues and people running for office who will impact what we do in this industry. On Twitter at @meetingstoday, we post links to issues in upcoming elections that impact our industry. Voting is a precious right fought for by many. It is a responsibility of us all.
Because of COVID-19, many US states and territories have changed their primary dates and/or have added special elections. Please check your state’s or territory’s dates at their board of elections.