As event planners, your job is to embody a quote from British actor Michael Caine: “Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath.”
Although the coronavirus pandemic restrictions have largely lifted in the United States, the return of events will likely be different than prior to the pandemic. Plus, risks still exist for those not yet vaccinated with new variants emerging.
Your ability to remain steady despite the challenges has never been more needed.
Here are 3 guidelines to help you plan a successful event in 2021:
1. Plan for the worst, unlike ever before
Event organizers always think about the many moving pieces — from timing to technology to flow — that provide a great user experience. But now you’ll have to track the latest information about COVID-19, including how travel restrictions or other concerns affect not just your event, but all of the places your participants are traveling from.
Start with agreement among your team and the venue about who will be your authoritative source of information, whether it is the CDC, World Health Organization, or a state or city entity.
Depending on the status of vaccinations, as well as requirements for vaccination certification, you will also need an in-depth understanding of the infrastructure of the event space. This includes information about air filtration, food preparation, safe-distance room set up and movement of people, and cleaning and sanitation protocols. Determine what you will require in terms of masking or certification from speakers, vendors, and participants, and what you will do if someone doesn’t comply. Make that information clear in all registration materials.
Perhaps the biggest, and scariest, plan involves COVID itself: what will you do if there’s an outbreak at your event? Consider consulting with a public health or crisis planning expert to make sure you have a strategy that keeps your speakers and participants safe. Create a crisis communications team and make sure everyone understands the chain of command.
2. Plan for different scenarios
There will continue to be uncertainty as more people get vaccinated, travel opens up (and potentially closes back down), and regions of the world have different requirements and restrictions. The result is an unfortunate level of uncertainty.
Brainstorm at least two or three different scenarios, based on the experiences we’ve all lived through since the 2020 coronavirus crisis began. Create fully fleshed out plans for what you’ll do if the unexpected happens, whether that’s civil unrest in the city where your event is or a dramatic change in travel restrictions.
Don’t forget to discuss what triggers would force your team to switch to a virtual format and when the cut-off day for that decision would be.
3. Plan to support your attendees
Many people are traumatized by the events surrounding the pandemic. Psychologists and social scientists warn that people are struggling to readjust to in-person social interactions. Expect awkwardness and discomfort as we all learn how to re-enter the world and attend in-person events.
Can you provide emotional reinforcement or recovery experiences for your participants, whether that’s guided stretching or meditation, art or music therapy, or quiet zones to calm overstimulated nerves?
During the registration process, ask participants if they have concerns or special needs. At the event itself, tell them what resources are available if they are struggling or uncomfortable.
Also remember that participants will have to adjust to a new way of conferencing, with much less close contact and fewer opportunities for informal networking. Even simple things like not having water pitchers or shared lunches may upset some people. You may need more staff on-hand to deal with immediate needs at the event.
We’ve all learned hard lessons since the coronavirus crises began, and that’s true for planning live events. Many people across the globe have a pent-up desire to travel, engage with colleagues, and find a new normal. It takes a leap of faith to commit to a live event in 2021—but a bold approach could pay off as the best year ever, for your business and for your attendees.
This is the first in a multi-part blog series on event planning in the months and years after the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. Check out the other blogs in the series: