Ah, the return to in-person events. Many of us are tired of Zoom conferences, and are craving human interaction. Unfortunately, Covid is still a reality we have to navigate. But, there is some good news: it is possible to host an in-person event in a way that allows attendees to interact naturally while also taking realistic measures to keep everyone healthy.

TVD Associates recently completed our first post-Covid large scale event for one of our clients: the AVTE 2021 Annual Conference. Even after months of research, planning, and Zoom calls with board members and committee members, our on-site team worked almost around-the-clock to ensure all attendees, speakers, and staff were not only having an enjoyable experience, but a safe and healthy one as well.

As an organizer, it can seem daunting to take on the risks involved with hosting large events while we continue to deal with the Delta variant. To put it bluntly – it’s not easy. However, it is possible to create a successful event; the key is to understand that you’re entering murky waters and black-and-white decision making is just not realistic.

The Technological Aspect

In the case of our conference, we began by announcing it would be in a hybrid format. Both speakers and attendees had the option to attend virtually or in-person, depending on their comfort level. Interestingly, when we looked at our registration numbers, it ended up being a 50-50 split between virtual and in-person attendees. From there, we looked for a virtual platform that would allow us to organize and present the conference in a comprehensive manner that was accessible for everyone attending. Our solution ended up being Swapcard

The Swapcard app allowed us to organize all major planning functions centrally through the app: email reminders, agenda, speaker profiles, and exhibitor booths all existed within the app. We were able to supplement communications as needed through our regular email and social media channels. Once the conference was underway, both virtual and in-person attendees and exhibitors were able to track sessions they wanted to attend and chat virtually with each other. Virtual attendees were able to access streaming links through the agenda and participate in each session in real time.

So how do you moderate a conference where half of the attendees are in-person and half are virtual? Our solution was to have one team member sitting in each session, acting as camera operator and Zoom chat moderator. When the session had an in-person speaker, the moderator would read questions from the Zoom chat aloud. When the session had a virtual speaker, the moderator would run a microphone to in-person attendees so that they could ask a question. Sometimes moderators had to act quickly and make judgement calls on the fly. Originally, all cameras were positioned to film the podium so virtual attendees could see the speaker. But what was the point of looking at a podium if the speaker was virtual? In those instances, moderators were able to get creative by turning the camera onto the in-person audience and quickly come up with tech solutions that let all attendees feel equally part of the experience.

The Covid Aspect

While the hybrid format allowed more speakers and attendees to participate in the 2021 conference, it would be dishonest to say that the decision was not heavily influenced by the continuing circumstances surrounding the pandemic. At the time the conference was being planned, we were unsure if a vaccine would be released soon, let alone having the hospitality industry reopen in time to host the event.

With these concerns in mind, we prepared for the worst, but hoped for the best. Regardless of local mask laws (which changed during the course of the conference), we required everyone to wear a mask in all public conference spaces. Extra masks were available at the entrance to the convention hall along with sanitizer stations, and colored wristbands to let others know the level of interaction they were comfortable with.

We additionally required everyone to complete a daily health screening in order to enter the conference. Attendees received a text each morning of the conference with a prompt to answer a short questionnaire that confirmed they were not experiencing any Covid symptoms and had not had contact with anyone who tested positive for Covid in the past 48 hours. Upon entering the conference, attendees would show a staff member a confirmation text showing they passed the health screening and would then be admitted to the conference.

Enforcing these requirements initially seemed like a daunting task, creating choke points allowed our team to confirm health checks for all attendees with relatively little manpower. By placing two staff members at the entrance to the main exhibit hall and one at the entrance to the breakout rooms, we were able to effectively funnel attendees through the health checks rather painlessly. It is also worth noting that placing complementary breakfast in the main exhibit hall greatly helped in guaranteeing everyone went through their health screening. Breakfast was a perfect way to get everyone in one place at the same time and anyone who skipped breakfast was checked at our secondary choke point by the breakout rooms.

Behind The Scenes

Looking out for the health and wellbeing of our attendees and exhibitors wasn’t our only concern – we wanted to look out for our staff as well. Pulling off a seamless experience for attendees requires round-the-clock effort on the back end, and adding in the complication of Covid, we realized a few extra measures would be needed to support our team.

One of the best decisions we made was dedicating a conference room as the “Staff Office”. Not only did the space allow our team to have a home base for the duration of the conference, it also gave us a space we could work while also getting a break from wearing masks for hours at a time. By establishing our team as a “pod,” we were able to maintain reasonable Covid safety standards while still getting to take a short break from working with a crowd. 

Equally, if not more beneficial, was the executive suite we reserved as a staff lounge. While our staff office kept us close to the conference, the suite allowed the team to have a more laid-back place to hang out in the evenings and either continue to work or relax (it usually ended up being a little bit of both). Running a large event is stressful in general, so having a dedicated space where our team could take a mental break at the end of each day was an invaluable asset.

In the midst of running an event with many details and moving parts, we found that having enough support and resources for your team is critical to your event’s success.

The Main Takeaway

As we start to foray back into the world of in-person events, know that we will still have to work around Covid. It is possible to have larger in-person events and make sure everyone who attends – staff and attendees alike – are able to return home safe and healthy. The key is to plan thoroughly beforehand and have contingencies in place when the inevitable “life happens” moments arrive. Set a precedent of friendliness and preparedness, and your attendees will follow suit. Finally, make sure to take care of your team. You’ll help each other make your event a success.