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COVID Event Guidelines as of March 2021

The days leading up to the shutdown, clients were calling to cancel their celebrations and we were rescheduling their events 2-4 weeks out. Yes we all thought this would be over in 2 weeks! Now here we are almost a full year after the events world was demolished by COVID-19 and we have some exciting (although underwhelming) news for event professionals and event seekers in the New York and Connecticut areas. Both states have similar event guidelines beginning this month. Keep reading to see what’s happening!

📢PSA: If your event is during the summer, please do not begin to worry! Think about how much changed every week in 2020 and where we are now. The biggest difference being the vaccine roll out. I am not an expert nor a fortune teller, but based on last year I expect updated guidelines for the summer.

New York Wedding & Catered Event Guidelines as of March 15, 2021

  1. Venues may operate at 50% capacity with a maximum of 150 people per event.
  2. All attendees must be tested prior to the event.
  3. Upon entering the event, attendees will be required to sign-in with updated contact information to assist with potential contact tracing.
  4. Masks must be worn at all times except when seated, eating or drinking.
  5. Dancing is permitted! HOWEVER, the dance floor must be split into zones with at least 6 ft in between each zone. Guests may only dance with those in their immediate party, household or if seated at the same table. Guests can only dance in their zone. If you have a live band or performers without masks, they must be 12 ft away from guests and/or have a physical barrier.

Connecticut Wedding & Catered Event Guidelines as of March 19, 2021

  1. Venues may operate at 50% capacity with a maximum of 100 people for indoor events and 200 people for outdoor events.
  2. All attendees must be tested prior to the event.
  3. Upon entering the event, attendees will be required to sign-in with updated contact information to assist with potential contact tracing.
  4. Masks must be worn at all times except when seated, eating or drinking.
  5. Venues must notify local health departments of large events, above the social gathering limit, in advance.

I hope this news brings you a little joy! Stay positive and ready for the future.

All information was found on credible state government websites March 3, 2021. This information is not final. Expect updates on the most current available guidelines in your area.

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Embracing Digital First

We can build a better future by embracing and supporting a digital first mind set. What is a digital first mindset? As defined by Wilson Fletcher Consultants, “digital-first means approaching any new opportunity, or problem, with the assumption that the solution should be as digital as possible”. It sounds scary and some are opposed to this theory, but most of our daily lives already revolve around digital technology! The opposition is change and change is good.

Thinking back to the March 2020 shutdown, there were thousands of events unable to host in-person and being unfamiliar with the virtual alternatives caused a ripple effect of devastation. Associations and organizations who pivoted survived, while others closed indefinitely. Learning from our mistakes, our industry is now making the transition to hosting hybrid events and rebuilding our risk management plans. It is important that we adopt the digital first mindset as it will future proof our business by forcing us to prepare for all possible outcomes.

If we have learned anything over the last seven months, its that nothing can fully replace the in-person experience, but technology can certainly keep us connected and moving forward. Let’s continue to innovate and find creative ways to improve our industry through the use of a digital first mindset. It can be as simple as always having a webinar scheduled as back-up, digitizing all files or utilizing online tools for marketing and communication. There are many steps we can take. Its important that we just start.

Bonus Definitions As we find more ways to support this mindset beyond beyond the zoom room, here are three acronyms that are used interchangeably yet are very different.

  1. Virtual reality (VR) is when a person is completely immersed into an artificial world. Think about being in your living room then putting on VR goggles to be in the rain forest. All you see is the rain forest with no signs of your living room.
  2. Artificial reality (AR) is when technology overlaps the real world. Pokemon Go is the perfect example of AR. You can be hiking up a mountain and be next to Cubone…even though you can’t touch it. If Pokemon Go wasn’t your style, think about when you are looking for furniture online and can “place” the couch in your living room to see how it looks.
  3. Artificial intelligence (AI) on the other hand is technology that can think like a human. It can answer questions, solve problems, make predictions and replace mundane tasks. Siri and Alexa are examples of AI. How many times a day do you ask Siri a question because you don’t want to research it yourself? The greatest event AI I have seen over the last few months is translation AI. This allows anyone to translate the presentation into their native language. This is fantastic for event producers as they can now reach a much greater audience, have a more diverse group of presenters and create a more inclusive experience.

Hope these bonus definitions help clear up any confusion!

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The Future of F&B

The food and beverage industry pre-pandemic had been continuing to culminate as chefs around the world were pushing the envelope on ingredients, preparation and presentation. Now those supply chains that chefs relied on for the best ingredients have been broken and new safety requirements have been established to keep associates and guests safe. The new question we are all asking ourselves is “where do we go from here?”.

Virtual Eats Connecting virtual attendees to a food experience is a great idea! Whether you are sending snacks, wine and cheese or dinner it makes guests feel appreciated and connected. The question has come up in my MPI community asking if its worth it. I say yes. Think about that feeling you get when you receive a package or a gift, it sparks so much joy. If an Amazon package can do that, I am 100% confident a curated gift from you to your attendees will do the same. Here are a few box ideas: local snacks from a specific destination, chocolate tasting and cookie decorating. You can even turn some of these into a team building/networking session!

Buffets Buffets have always been my least favorite (even before the pandemic) as I never liked the idea of multiple people touching the same serving utensils and food sitting in chafers. Safe to say I LOVE THAT WE ARE RETHINKING BUFFETS! Before the shut down, many venues were moving towards single serve displays in lieu of classic giant hotel pans and serving bowls. This helped the lines move faster and kept the stations cleaner. As events begin to re-emerge, I believe this trend will continue and we will see more pre-packaged or pre-plated stations with plexiglass barriers.

Cocktail Service Cocktail or butler service is when a server roams the event room with a tray of food or drinks. As much as I like this style of service, it seems to put the server at the most risk. An idea to keep your team safe while still providing the same variety of appetizers is to make individual small plates with the selection of hors d’oeuvres. This can be set-up as a self-serve or server staffed station with plexiglass. You should consider your staff’s health just as much as you do with your guests. Everyone’s health and safety is important.

Floor Plans & Rotation Think about the last conference or gala dinner you planned, worked or attended. What did the rooms look like and how did they feel? Maybe for you, the rooms are packed, sometimes almost shoulder to shoulder, and there is an enormous buzz from the chatter and the energy. Now think about planning, working or attending that same conference today. Probably not going to happen. If you are starting to plan your annual conference for 2021, think about what will need to be different and speak with your venue regularly as mandated restrictions may effect your expected event revenue and contract obligations. Here is a crowd density calculator to assist when it comes time to create your floor plan.

Your floor plan will greatly impact your food & beverage service as the number of guests permitted in a space will be limited. It may mean moving towards meal rotations or shifts that would extend your food & beverage service times and increase staffing costs.

Sustainability & Cost Even though pre-packaged items will be the leader of food service, it is extremely important that we choose sustainable packaging. This could be re-usable glassware, recycled paper, bamboo or seaweed materials. Sustainability doesn’t stop with packaging. It goes deeper to where the food is sourced, how it was farmed and the used labor practices. When you have the choice, speak with your venue chefs to see where your food is coming from. Supporting local farms reduces carbon admissions by reducing delivery distances, ensures better & healthier in-season produce that has not been artificially ripened by chemicals, and keeps local farmers and their teams employed. Eco-friendly products may be more expensive; however they are the right choice for the environment and our communities.

If I have learned anything from the food, beverage & events world, its that those in this industry never pass on a challenge. Yes the industry that we know is in jeopardy, but I am confident these talented minds will recreate and elevate the guest experience.

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Developing Sponsor Packages for Hybrid Events

This should not be a surprise to anyone- the future is hybrid and the future is now. As we begin to plan for 2021 conferences, meetings and events, we need to rethink what sponsor packages offer and how they will be incorporated into both in-person and virtual experiences. What is important to our sponsors? What is important to the organization? How do we show value to our sponsors and add value for our attendees?

Here are three tips to consider:

#1 Sponsor Packages MUST have In-Person & Virtual Benefits Think of it as part of your risk management plan. Looking back at all the conferences that were cancelled in 2020, how many of your sponsor packages didn’t have a plan to pivot to a virtual platform? Did you have companies sponsor a breakfast or cocktail reception? Branded lanyards? Extra-large booth space or high traffic location on the trade show floor? Maybe it included tickets to attend the event. How many of those sponsors asked for their money back? While I hope the ladder didn’t affect too many, it is important that the packages are created to easily transition into a virtual only event that still provides value to the sponsor should we ever be in another lock-down situation!

One idea is to take a mealtime sponsor package (i.e. breakfast, cocktail reception) and turn it into an event box for attendees. These event boxes, like ones from Brilliant Event Box* can be mailed to virtual attendees and used as welcome gifts or break-time boxes for in-person guests.

#2 Think Outside of Your Industry With any business event, there are the expected core sponsors. If you plan an events trade show for instance, your core sponsors will be hotels, venues, caterers and transportation services. In this example, your core sponsors may have been hit hardest by the pandemic and not able to donate. By thinking outside of your industry, you may be able to find donors that have excelled and would greatly benefit from being in front of your audience. Some examples are tech companies, fitness equipment, learning platforms, designer brands and remote office furniture. Remember to brainstorm outside of your norm to find sponsors that help your organization and provide value to your attendees.

#3 Small Contributions Huge Impact Now hear me out. We all want whale sponsors, those that donate thousands of dollars at once. Catch a whale and your organization is set. However, since the pandemic has caused an unpredictable future, many businesses are holding their dollars a bit closer making finding that whale all the more difficult. Instead, appeal to a larger audience through smaller donations. It can be as simple as adding a button in your registration that allows attendees to match their registration to support another member attending or adding another registration tier that gives attendees an extra benefit (1:1 networking, speaker meet & greet, etc). One donation is small, but many will add up and provide one more revenue source for your event.

When times change, your strategy must change. When your strategy is working, reevaluate and see how it will hold up in a time of crisis. Bottom line, always strive to make it better and never settle for “how its always been done”.

*Brilliant Event Box is a new virtual event box service I am launching. Message me with questions and if you are interested in adding to your next event!

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The Look & Feel of Hybrid Events

Raise your hand if your in person event was cancelled and transitioned to virtual?

Raise your hand if you tried to recreate the in-person experience virtually?

In the first few month of quarantine, we were focused on getting our events online and making them happen. Now that we have become accustomed to the virtual event world, our next step is to think about how we can create an engaging hybrid experience.

Hybrid is truly two separate experiences- virtual and in-person. Although it can be challenging, developing two ways that achieve your event’s goals and objectives will make for a successful hybrid event (…and we are planners so we say bring it on!). Let’s face it, your in-person plan does not translate very well to the screen. We need to adapt and find ways that will engage a virtual audience. As I begin to plan for next year, these are the thoughts that are running through my mind.

Apps
The look and feel is super important. Joanne Dennison, CMP (amazing CMP instructor if you are prepping for your exam!) always says to “sit in the attendee’s chair” when you plan. From that perspective, I want to make sure that the platform and application we select can be used by both audiences that transfers well between mobile and desktop and one that does not need to be downloaded is a plus. In-person attendees can use the app to view the conference schedule and schedule one-on-one meetings with other attendees. Hybrid attendees can use either application to view the conference schedule, attend sessions, meet new people in brainstorm sessions and schedule one-on-one meetings with attendees and sponsors. Using an app that takes place of any printed conference schedules and handouts will ensure that your audiences have the most up-to-date information plus it will save money on print costs and is a win for the sustainable future of events.

Should we meet?
A question that has been popping up is “Should we plan to have virtual attendees meet in-person attendees?” Before you answer, ask yourself will having both sets of attendees help to achieve the meeting’s goals and objectives? If the answer is no, then continue to plan two separate experiences. If the answer is yes, think of creative ways that will integrate the audience. One idea is to create a webcam networking lounge where attendees can schedule time to have group discussions. This popped in my head when I thought back on a group discussion I participated in between young professionals in CT and students in Belize! We gathered in a shipping container that had a microphone & speaker for the space and a giant webcam of the students. It felt like we were literally in the same room! Even though the logistics may look different (I’m guessing no shipping container!), the idea can be used to have a group discussion between your in-person and virtual attendees.

Networking
In-person networking will pretty much be the same experience we are used to… except for talking with masks and maintaining physical distancing. I saw a picture floating around twitter that had three color coded bands for attendees to wear- one for people who are comfortable with handshakes and hugs, one for people who will socialize but no physical touch and another for people really trying to keep their distance. I love it as it helps everyone to respect each other’s boundaries and comfort levels while still being able to create meaningful connections. Virtual networking on the other hand can seem like a challenge, but with the right process it comes with ease. My MPI WestField chapter hosts a virtual networking lunch monthly using zoom breakout rooms. The meeting is for an hour with a 5-10 minute group topic discussion then breaks into smaller sessions 2-4ppl twice. That way the group gets to personally meet 6 people during the hour. When planning your virtual conference, schedule multiple networking sessions to give your attendees the chance to meet as many people as they can in a successful and structured way. The webcam lounge discussed above can also be used for networking between both attendee groups.

Sessions & Fitness
There are multiple ways to plan and host your sessions. What you choose will depend on if that format will meet your goals and objectives (yes this is the question you ask for everything!) and if you have the means to do so aka the funds. Here are a few combinations to consider: in-person with live in-person presenter or live virtual presenter, virtual with live virtual or in-person presenter and virtual with pre-recorded sessions and live q&a. Some of these choices allow you to cross utilize content between both groups such as having an in-person keynote speaker live streamed for a virtual session; or having a live virtual yoga or fitness class both groups can join.

After-hours
Like everything discussed above, there are ways to cross utilize content that allows everyone to have fun and unwind. The after-hours event ideas are endless, so here are a few to get your creative juices flowing. Host a virtual game show or trivia night. I find these to be the most fun and engaging activities. People really get into it! Or you can send a wine, cheese or chocolate tasting box to your attendees for a virtual wine and cheese night!

I hope these ideas help you in creating an amazing hybrid event. YOU GOT THIS!

5 Recap Points

  1. Use an app that is both mobile and desktop friendly AND both in-person and virtual attendees can use.
  2. Create opportunities for in-person and virtual attendees to meet ONLY if it supports achieving the meeting’s goals and objectives.
  3. Respect attendee comfort levels during in-person networking and schedule ample networking opportunities for virtual attendees.
  4. Choose session styles that bring the most value for your attendees. There is opportunity to cross utilize content between group.
  5. After-hours events should be a moment to unwind and have fun. Plan activities that attendees choose to participate in.