As we embark on 2021 with the hope of a vaccine, it’s getting easier to envision a future where we meet again.
Many of us in the event industry have been diligently working and using this past year to develop scenarios and contingency plans for what those first events might look like—how testing will be handled, what new safety protocols need to be followed, and the best ways to communicate this information have been thought through in detail. Some have even tested the waters with smaller events already.
But maybe the toughest decision yet is still in front of us—how do you know when the time is right to bring back live events? The easy answer is when attendees are ready to return, but when exactly is that? While this answer isn’t so obvious, we do have experience working with clients as they grapple with this decision.
Below are some considerations to help you make the decision that is right for your business and your attendees.
1. Risk Assessment
When determining the risk of your event, there is a lot to consider from the first go/no go decision through contracting and up until the weeks before the event takes place. Have a plan to monitor the risk of your event throughout the planning process. Start with a risk review and identify all stakeholders who should be a part of the decision in your organization. Consider the role of procurement, compliance, budget owners, public relations, brand and human resources.
2. Government & Regulatory Agency Recommendations
What are the current guidelines from the U.S. State Department, CDC, WHO, NHS, ECDC and local authorities? Consider not only local regulations of your destination but potential quarantine, testing and vaccine requirements from departure locations.
3. Organizational Policies & Tolerance for Risk
Different organizations have different levels of risk management policies in place around things like budget approvals, business travel and duty of care. These policies may have become more stringent during the pandemic and should be discussed as a potential impact if they have not eased when your event is set to operate.
In conjunction with well-defined policies, there are also more loosely defined expectations and norms that are set by executive leadership that should be evaluated. For example, many companies in the tech industry have already determined that they will continue with virtual only events through 2021. Other organization are eager to get back to in person as soon as they safely can.
4. Event Objectives & Participant Experience
Certain event types and objectives may justify investing in a safe, in-person experience. For example, as you look to accelerate your business recovery, it may be critical to bring together your most valuable customers or channel partners. Don’t hesitate to survey your participants to get their feelings ahead of time: What are you most concerned about regarding their health at events? The mandatory masks? Not being able to maintain social distance? Something else entirely?
Also consider the desired experience: Will you be able to achieve your goals in a virtual setting? Will an in-person event with safety protocols offer peace of mind, engagement and create the overall feeling you’re striving for? Is a hybrid model the right way to meet varying audience needs?
Demographics and location might also weigh into your decisions: Do you have a large portion of attendees in an at-risk population group? International attendees?
Because your event is a business investment, you should also consider if your participants will have enough confidence and see enough value of attending in-person.
Many large hotel chains are eager to get back to live events and will offer favorable contract terms to help mitigate attrition/cancellation penalties and flexible negotiations (e.g., function space without additional cost to help with social distancing). Carefully evaluate all the supplier partners and potential event expenses, deposit schedules, and cancellation and attrition terms. How much is at risk if the event doesn’t operate? Has low attendance? Or, has to end early?
6. Engagement Data
If you shifted to a virtual event strategy, you likely have a lot of data you can use to inform your decision. Take a look at similar events or year-over- year comparisons of live events versus virtual events and repeat attendees versus new attendees. What has worked well in a virtual environment? Who engaged and with what content? What have attendees missed from an in-person experience?
7. Statistics to Monitor
In addition to these business considerations, there are multiple sources of industry data that can be used as indicators. Looking at trends in TSA screening volumes and hotel occupancy rates can signal shifts in travel behaviors. Sentiment studies can offer insight into changing traveler confidence in the coming months as the vaccine rollout progresses. The US Travel Association is a good aggregator of many of these sources.
For live events to resume in a safe way, planners will be required to have rigorous plans to prevent, detect and respond to potential outbreaks.