While many people are eager to get back to in-person events, re-entry doesn’t come without anxiety. It’s likely that even the most gung-ho attendees will experience some reservations about attending events safely. Even though the vaccine has recently become available to the public, immunity takes time to develop and not everyone will be vaccinated. So you can expect to still encounter people who are afraid of contracting the virus- a very normal fear at this point. Some of your attendees may also have underlying conditions that predispose them to catching the virus, or could potentially make getting COVID-19 more dangerous for them. Many healthy individuals have similar concerns about family members, close friends, and/or co-workers whom they are exposed to regularly.
To further complicate matters, many people will experience heightened social anxiety after being out of practice for so long. Sure, some of us are naturally extroverts who thrive in crowds, but others aren’t nearly as adept at navigating large social scenes. Also, re-entry into events after a year of social distancing could really intensify anxiety for people who live with anxiety disorders or social anxiety.
As if all of this wasn’t already a lot to deal with, public health information is inconsistent at best. Is asymptomatic transmission commonplace or rare? The social distancing order we’ve been following for the last year is based largely on the premise that asymptomatic transmission is common. However, the WHO has also stated that this kind of transmission is actually rare, sparking understandable confusion. As we know, confusion leads to even more anxiety, which has a major impact on re-entry anxiety.
And to complicate matters even further, different regions are having rapidly different responses to the pandemic. In some states, social distancing and mask mandates have been lifted against CDC guidelines.
So what can you do to ease your attendees’ anxiety? Let’s talk about it.
1. Set the Standard for Safety Via Open Dialogue
The best way to address your attendees’ concerns is to do so directly. Don’t be afraid to start an open dialogue. You may be worried that bringing up COVID-19 safety will only remind them of the potential risk, but the fact remains: It’s already on the forefront of people’s minds. Not only is it COVID-19 news still broadcasted daily via the media, but it’s a natural concern when returning to in-person events. Active listening and effective communication can actually reduce stress.
While learning the facts can be helpful, the media can easily exacerbate anxiety. It drives fear by broadcasting ambiguous information, highlighting more negative than positive news, and inundating the public with information overload. According to Ken Goodman, LCSW, the more uncertainty people face, the more anxious they become; it’s human nature. So with all of this confusion circulating, it’s important to initiate clear communications with your attendees. So instead of ambiguous discussions, share what you’re doing to make your event as safe as possible. And use social media, emails, and signage to state this information in clear detail. Invite attendees to ask questions and discuss concerns with you via email, on a discussion board, or whatever way you can provide them with the fastest, best responses.
Be sure to validate and understand their concerns. You can empathize with and anticipate their anxieties by taking your own into account. What makes you most anxious about the return to in-person events? Is it the worry that other people in attendance might not adhere strictly to safety protocols? For example, sanitizer may be available in key locations throughout your venue, but will everyone remember to use it after eating or touching their mouths? One way to address this type of concern is to explain that there will be adequate signage and broadcasting at your event.
Speaking of which, consider people with disabilities; for example, someone who is deaf or has problems with hearing may not be able to understand messages delivered through auditory means. So you’ll need more than periodic broadcasts over a loudspeaker, which may be drowned out by voices and noise, anyway. Visual signage with good visibility from everywhere in your venue can also remind people to practice good hygiene and follow safety protocols. Providing information in Braille, using large print, or employing a qualified interpreter are all ways to communicate with guests who have communication disabilities.
Also, remember that people generally absorb information better in some ways than others. That’s another reason why it’s vital to use multiple types of broadcasting to convey safety regulations. And although most people know them well by now, use signage and broadcasting that lists the symptoms of COVID-19. This way, if anyone was having symptoms that could be related to the virus and was in doubt, they will now know your expectations. No, not everyone who develops a persistent cough prior to or during your event has COVID-19. But to reduce risk, it’s necessary for guests to separate themselves from others if they start to cough (or experience other COVID-19 related symptoms). If you clearly communicate that this is your expectation, people will understand. You can’t ensure that everyone will follow your guidelines, but setting a standard goes a long way toward keeping an event safe.
And think about it: Many people have not attended an in-person event in a year or more. They may not be aware of how much the industry has improved safety and sanitizing procedures in response to COVID-19. According to a recent survey by Servpro, 83 percent of businesses have invested in more cleaning and sanitation resources; 46 percent plan to continue deep cleaning for the duration of the pandemic; and 63 percent sanitize and clean multiple times daily. But your attendees may not be aware of the steps you’re taking to minimize their risk. So don’t be afraid to let them know. Again, you’re not drawing undue attention to the virus; it’s already at the forefront of people’s minds. Keeping them well informed about safety and cleaning procedures bolsters confidence about attending your event.
2. Don’t Just Talk, Take Action
Do you have a separate space or protocol to follow if a guest should exhibit COVID-19 symptoms during your event? Do you have a screening process, such as taking temperatures at the door or requiring guests to fill out a questionnaire that checks off symptoms? If so, let your attendees know this before your event. Acknowledge their concerns, and then reassure them that you are taking steps to make your event safe.
It can’t be emphasized enough: One of the most potent sources of anxiety is uncertainty. As Goodman relates, people tend to catastrophize when they are worried or uncertain. But one way to counter anxiety is to take action. Problem-solving may not cancel out concerns, but it does mitigate them. So let your attendees know that you’re taking affirmative action to keep them safe, and they’ll most likely feel better about attending.
Goodman also notes that “much of anxiety stems from a lack of confidence in our ability to handle changes”. So the more equipped you feel to hold your event safely, the more confidence you’ll convey. Your attendees will feel that positivity and it will bolster their own confidence. It will likely also motivate them to adhere strictly to safety protocols. When we believe that doing something will have a positive outcome for ourselves and others, we are generally more inclined to do it.
Finally, be diligent about risk assessment. Guidelines and case numbers vary from region to region, and sometimes from city to city. When you think critically about the risks involved in your event, consider the area where you are holding your event. Is the mask mandate still in place at this time? What general guidelines are in place in your region? Also think critically about the size and type of crowd who will be attending. If you will be social distancing, does your venue space accommodate this in a comfortable way? Can attendees navigate your event easily even with certain social distancing measures in place? Ask yourself these questions and more. You should be forming a definitive strategy in the months before your event. As you promote, open up a dialogue about what you plan to do to keep your guests safe and make your event enjoyable for them.
3. Identify Concerns with Surveys
An open dialogue is great, but if you want specific information about your attendees’ concerns, surveys yield even more information. Asking strategic questions not only tells you what your audience’s main concerns are, but it gives you knowledge about what would alleviate them. Rachel Posada Fletcher of PIE Network asked their members how comfortable they were about returning to in-person events. The answer choices were similar to these examples: “I’m comfortable attending in-person events right now”; I would only attend an in-person event if the company was strictly adhering to social distancing rules and using PPE”; “I would only attend in-person events after being vaccinated”; or “I would only attend after the CDC announced that the pandemic is over”.
These answers provided detailed enough information about the members’ feelings for the company to create a strategy that would address their concerns. The more you know about your audience’s anxiety, the better you can assuage or at least reduce it. There may even be some basic concerns you’ve overlooked amidst the craziness of returning to in-person events after a year of operating in the virtual space (or not holding events at all). Don’t be surprised if this is the case- important details can easily get lost in the chaos of hosting your first event after so long. Open communication is one of the best ways to make sure everyone feels as comfortable as possible and enjoys themselves at your event. Surveys are an excellent way to get the specific information you need.
This takes us back to our previous point: Don’t just talk, take action. When your attendees see that you’re not all talk, no action, they will feel better about attending your event. Not only that, but they’ll remember the time and care you took to keep them safe and give them a great experience. After being away from in-person events for so long, the first ones people attend will be memorable. You can take steps to make this a positive memory and strengthen your relationships going forward.
4. Hold a Q & A
Another way to address your attendees’ concerns is to hold a live Q & A. You can do this over Zoom or another virtual platform. Live Q & A is a great strategy because it allows you to respond to your attendees in real time. Doing this often brings up bigger issues that need to be discussed prior to your event. Keep chats brief and to the point, but allow people to talk about important issues with you and each other. This way, there is a sense of approaching and solving problems as a team. Make sure your attendees know that no one has to go it alone. Being on the same page with them is as important as being on the same page with your sponsors and/or partners, which we’ll talk about next.
5. Create a Cohesive Strategy with Stakeholders
This is a super important one. You can set up excellent safety protocols, but if not everyone follows them, they won’t work nearly as well- and your attendees will notice. Make sure that your venue, sponsors, partners, vendors, and all staff members are committed to following the same procedures.
How can you keep things cohesive? For one thing, unified messaging is a must. Send a clear, consistent message about event safety guidelines across channels. That includes email, social media, your website, signage, and more. To make the rules official, you can ask your attendees and associates to sign a code of conduct before your event.
If you’re still concerned that attendance will be low due to COVID-19 concerns, consider going hybrid. If you create a hybrid event and more people participate remotely than in person, this tells you something: The majority of your attendees simply do not feel ready to attend in-person events yet. If you’ve followed our checklist and did your best to keep an open dialogue, you’ve done the very best you can. It may just take more time for some people to be ready to attend in-person events. If you give your attendees the option to attend remotely, chances are that all will not be lost. As we’ve discussed at length in other posts, hybrid events are here to stay. We expect that won’t change even after the pandemic is declared over.
On the other hand, many people are eager to return to in-person events- and those people are usually even more likely to do so if they know you’re doing everything possible to keep them safe. This goes without saying, but the more confident you are, the most confident your attendees will be. And the way to boost your confidence is to be as thorough and prepared as possible. Returning to in-person events is as challenging as it is exciting. But the good news is that in-person events are finally in our near future!