There’s no question about it: COVID-19- the novel coronavirus- is hitting the event and hospitality industries hard. It’s no secret that the global impact of this new virus is having a serious effect on the economy, so there’s no need to go into detail about that. CNN, FOX, and every other news channel has it covered, and negative news tends to travel faster than the positive. So let’s talk specifically about how COVID-19 is impacting our industry- and how we can best manage our businesses in the wake of uncertainty that accompanies a pandemic.
Before we move forward, let’s take a brief moment to review the facts and separate them from the fiction. One of the most frustrating elements of the COVID-19 situation is that even the authorities still have more theories and speculation than facts. By now, we all know that canceling events with more than 5 to 10 people in one space is a step geared toward containing the virus. Nationwide, many bars and restaurants are limiting service to pick-up to prevent the spread of infection. But partly the incubation period is anywhere between 2 and 14 days, the CDC has no definitive numbers in terms of how many are infected nationwide or when we will effectively flatten the curve.
Thus, the purpose of this post is to stimulate creative minds to problem solve with the resources you do have available. And it’s universal: Event planners have a rare combination of creative genius and pragmatism that allows them to adapt to situations that might make less resourceful people give up.
How is the New Coronavirus Spreading?
COVID-19 is spread through droplets that are released into the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or even speaks. These droplets then land on the mouths and/or skin of very nearby people. However, the virus only travels about one meter in the air. This may sound like good news, but it causes the germ to quickly land on surfaces, making the main mode of transmission physical, person-to-person contact. When people touch infected surfaces, they can infect themselves by touching their noses or mouths with the virus on their hands. Before they even show symptoms, which can take up to 14 days, they can spread the coronavirus to people with whom they have close contact.
How long does the virus live on surfaces? We don’t know for sure. That’s why bars, restaurants, and other establishments have eliminated seating options and limited their service to take-out. Some have closed altogether.
The most effective way to prevent infection with COVID-19 is to limit person-to-person interaction to when it’s absolutely necessary, such as at work. It is recommended for everyone to wash their hands frequently with soap, and when soap isn’t available, to use 70% alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
The CDC recommends being in contact with local and national public health authorities. They will give you guidelines that help you prevent the spread of the virus, including hand and respiratory hygiene.
How COVID-19 is Directly Impacting the Event Industry
Now that we’ve reviewed the facts about COVID-19, let’s talk about how they’re directly affecting our industry. Obviously, the new coronavirus has led to massive cancellation of sporting events, concerts, parades, festivals, and other assemblies that keep the event industry thriving. Ticketing and event management platforms such as Eventbrite are being materially impacted, as are event businesses around the world. Not only are event platforms losing revenue from events that will never even be planned over the next months, but cancelled events will lead to massive chargebacks for ticketing platforms.
Last Monday, the CDC recommended that all gatherings of over 50 people in one place should be postponed for at least the next eight weeks, but advised that social distancing is preferable. A reminder: Social distancing means avoiding interacting with groups of larger than 5-10 people.
Although most events with an attendance rate of more than 10 individuals have been cancelled, small events and meetings are still worth a discussion. Using strict precautions, many companies are still holding meetings, conferences, and small events.
Here are a few key questions to ask yourself if your live event is still happening over the next eight weeks:
Do you have a clear contingency plan if someone at the event becomes ill during your event?
Besides promoting stringent hygiene and respiratory etiquette, you should also provide your attendees with informational and educational materials. Make sure these materials can be easily understood by attendees of all age groups, at all reading and comprehension levels. (If that means taking a moment for a brief presentation as well as providing reading materials, do that). Soaps and/or 70% alcohol-based sanitizers should be available in all common areas.
All precautions aside, if someone does fall ill at your event, you have to be ready for it with a plan to immediately isolate the person and take appropriate measures. Well before you event, set aside areas for medical treatment should they become necessary. Established isolation/treatment areas where sick individuals can be assessed and triaged by on-site healthcare workers is advised. Of course, the isolation area should be equipped with the appropriate hygiene sanitation products. After using masks, all attendees and event staff should immediately dispose of them in a waste basket, and then wash their hands directly afterward. (Don’t bring waste baskets from public areas into isolation areas, and certainly don’t do the opposite!)
It’s worth noting that the general public does not currently have access to the same protective gear as medical professionals to prevent the spread of illness. Don’t hold an event unless you have enough masks to give everyone who is concerned if someone becomes ill; although the virus only travels one meter in the air, people generally feel more comfortable taking maximum precautions in groups.
Are attendees registered or non-registered?
Registered attendees are easier to track post-event if public health reasons necessitate it. Enough said.
Go into Virtual Lockdown
Thanks to modern technology, quarantining your event doesn’t mean no one can attend. In fact, Microsoft’s biggest event of the year just went virtual due to the rapid, aggressive spread of the coronavirus. Virtual events are in no way limited by preventative measures. And although we’re reluctant to thank the coronavirus outbreak for anything, it’s the reason that online events are increasingly in-demand. In fact, many event professionals are looking at it as an incentive to change the way we think and behave, gearing creative and technological efforts toward remote participation. The industry is exploring new software that is built to support many more participants.
Although many people become concerned that networking will be limited at virtual events, there are many impactful ways to help attendees make meaningful connections. The main idea is to make your virtual event as interactive as possible. Begin with introductions, and before launching into specific content, ask a few topical, open-ended questions. These types of questions tend to encourage critical thinking and elicit meaningful responses.
While you promote your event, designate a virtual space for attendees to interact with each other in the weeks before it happens. Talk about your event daily on social media to inspire interest and interaction among your followers as the date approaches. More and more people are drawn to remote participation and virtual events as they practice social distancing, and many opt to self-quarantine. In many ways, this is actually an opportune time to focus on virtual events as people crave social interaction without putting themselves at risk. Keep in mind that there is a general need for the kind of comfort and support that comes in numbers. So use your promotional platforms as a safe space for open conversation about the current situation- and how we can use it to grow personally, professionally, and creatively by connecting remotely.
But remember: Even if you have a moderate to large social media following, and you talk about your event daily, some of your attendees might get lost in the crowd. (And some of them may not even use social media or use it infrequently). So provide all of your attendees with a link to an interactive website where they can interact with each other before your event.
Also, encourage all attendees to do research before your virtual event takes place. We advise the same practice for networking at live events- it helps attendees get more out of the event. Remind your attendees to decide with whom they want to connect at your virtual event. Once they’ve narrowed it down to one to three individuals, they should research their background. This way, they don’t have to waste time asking basic questions, and can get right to the points they really want to discuss.
Another reason why virtual events are ideal for networking? Statistically, people tend to forget 90% of what they learned at a conference in the days that follow. That’s a lot of information! We are inundated with much more information than we can process on a daily basis, so it’s only natural that much of it gets lost. You know what else gets easily lost? Business cards! But with virtual reality, the most valuable information from an event can be stored in the cloud.
Because virtual events make it easy for people to exchange information from the comfort of their homes or offices, they’re less expensive to plan. They usually offer a better return on investment, too.
Surviving the Coronavirus: The Future of the Industry
Understandably, a lot of people are anxious about the future of the industry after the outbreak. Generally speaking, the event world will be working with reduced budgets and economies. But amid all the bad news, herein lies the positive: Reduced economies will likely lead to smaller, more intimate events, even on the corporate scale.
Fortunately, this dynamic is highly compatible with the experiential trends we’ve already been seeing in the last several years. Recently, even larger events have implemented breakout sessions, which are smaller groups that explore specific aspects of a general event topic. Breakout sessions within larger events encourage more meaningful connections and critical thinking by getting people with similar, specific interests in small, interactive groups. More than ever, attendees are seeking out experiential value over material value and possessions. This is certainly a boon for markets with reduced budgets. Event planners will be encouraged to get creative, take interactive virtual events to new levels.