Planning Events in the Age of Coronavirus: Tips from 5 Experts
Ever since the Coronavirus — also known as COVID-19 — was declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be a “public health emergency of international concern” on January 30, 2020 (on March 11th it was deemed a global pandemic), it has caused considerable disruption to a number of industries that revolve around gathering large concentrations of people in one place. The Meetings and Events space has taken a particular hit, with event planners and organizers — who already hold the dubious honor of having the fifth most stressful job on earth — scrambling to contain the logistics around canceled, postponed or compromised functions.
Caught between a rock and a hard place (as of this writing, the virus is causing considerable consumer anxiety, but there’s a lack of clarity on how it impacts U.S. force majeure clauses), many organizations have had to make swift decisions about whether to throw in the towel or take a business-as-usual approach. Some tech giants have opted to cancel their conferences, while others are substituting their in-person events for online versions. Other major conferences are forging ahead, including CONEXPO-CON/AGG & IFPE.
If the constantly changing news cycle surrounding the issue is giving you a major case of the event planner sweats, you’re not alone. Looking for actionable tips that would help organizers make informed decisions, we spoke to industry subject matter experts in the event technology, crisis communications, event logistics and event psychology arenas. Here’s what we learned.
Team Attendify: From a logistics standpoint, what are the primary elements event organizers and other company stakeholders should be taking into account as they decide whether to cancel, postpone or go through with their events?
Isaac Watson, Owner and Executive Producer, Kickass Conferences: Evaluate your existing technology stack, your budget, and the risk that holding your event will carry. For example, many organizers are considering virtual or hybrid events, and if you’ve already hired a videography crew, the costs of adding broadcast might be easier to justify if you can deliver a comparable experience online.
Take a close look at your budget and contracts to make sure you fully understand cancellation policies and deposit deadlines so you can really see how much canceling will set you back. If you’re in too deep with your venue or hotel commitments at this stage, open the lines of communication with your vendors to see if rescheduling is the wiser alternative to outright cancellation.
Lastly, risk is not just about financial loss if you choose to cancel, but also about the risk of spreading the virus that your attendees bring into your gathering. If your event takes place in a deeply affected area, or your attendees are drawn globally to attend your event, your risk is higher than if you have a small event of a few hundred locals. Use fact-based reasoning and logic to determine the best course of action.
Each event has a unique set of circumstances, so at Kickass Conferences we’ve been working with our clients to monitor the COVID-19 spread and develop an action plan specific to their event. In each case, we’re reviewing and recommending public health measures, cancellation policies, and above all, clear communications procedures to all parties involved — attendees, speakers, sponsors and vendors. We’ve also created a COVID-19 Plan of Action template for our events that I’m happy to share.
[BREAKING NEWS: President Trump announced that the government will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days beginning Friday, March 13, 2020.]
Leah Woomer, Director of Events and Programs, Area 1 Security: There are a number of factors to consider, including the current state of outbreaks in your event area and guidance from state and local officials. Also, analyze whether the event could be held virtually rather than in-person. If reviewing a cancellation or postponement, consult your legal team and insurance carrier to understand the legal implications on vendor/venue contracts, as at this time it is uncertain whether the current warnings from the CDC fall under force majeure and/or impossibility clauses.
If you decide to move forward with hosting the live event, consider promoting messages in advance of the event that discourage people who are sick from attending. On site, provide messaging around preventative actions and have extra supplies on hand for staff and participants (soap, hand sanitizers, etc.) and have a disaster preparedness plan in place.
Team Attendify: Once an organization has solidified a plan of action regarding the status of their event, what are the key steps they need to take to get that message across to their existing and potential attendees? Are there best practices in terms of crisis communications that would pertain specifically to the event industry?
Tami Nealy, VP of Communications and Public Relations, Find Your Influence: Once a plan of action to move forward, cancel, postpone or change to an online forum has been decided, the immediate next step is to communicate with all constituents. From attendees, site organizers, sponsors/exhibitors, internal stakeholders and even corporate investors/advisors, share your decision quickly and with as much clarity as possible. You may not have dates or times of postponed or online events finalized yet, but assure everyone impacted that you will keep all channels of communication open and provide additional updates as they are available.
Before sending a single message externally, be certain every employee of your company is prepared to respond, not just your communications and marketing professionals. Share FAQ’s and company statements. Offer internal stakeholders a second level of contact information for inquiries that need more attention.
Use every communication channel available to share your plan outside of your business. Update your event website, and send emails and text messages when possible. Leverage every social media channel you own and direct viewers back to your website where you can post longer form messages or videos that are in sync with your crisis communications plan.
Team Attendify: So, in this scenario an event pro’s options are basically that the function will be canceled completely, postponed, canceled but substituted with a virtual event or held live as planned. Walk us through how event organizers can leverage technology to hold a virtual event. Are there ideal components of the tech stack that they need to consider?
Keith Johnston, Managing Partner, i3 Events and Publisher, Plannerwire blog: There are many options for live-streaming a virtual event, and many of them are very, very good. Remember, this is not new technology; it’s been around for many years. When looking for the tech to run your virtual event, I am working from a few assumptions:
- Coronavirus is not only crushing our health, but it’s also killing our budgets. Cancellations ain’t cheap.
- Your organization is looking to go back to a live meeting as soon as possible, so you should not be investing in long-term solutions.
- Whatever tool you choose, it needs to be easy, because not everyone has an event tech hanging out in their office lunch nook, making tea and waiting to plug in a soundboard, lights and a camera.
Now, you won’t have control over the hardware your speakers are using, so let’s assume they’re using their phones or laptops to record and broadcast video (and to be honest, since this is a temporary fix anyway, this is something you can do as well). A modern smartphone is a 4K movie production studio in your pocket. Just make sure that everyone uses a microphone (you can get cheap lavaliers for phones on Amazon for $15), and that they’re shooting in well-lit areas with the light in front of them and not behind them to record.
For the software portion, I will narrow the field down to my two favorites right out of the gate:
HeySummit is my go-to online conference tool, because it works out of the box for all skill levels. Basically, the platform allows you to host an entire conference online with tons of features, including registration, speaker onboarding, marketing tools and more. And the coolest part is that HeySummit is just the shell of the conference; you can add the video component of your choice, including YouTube and Vimeo, the two most popular options. This is important because some sessions can be live while others are pre-recorded. And the price of HeySummit is really reasonable: Only $99 per month if you have less than 7000 attendees.
My second option is BigMarker, a browser-based webinar platform that handles marketing, registration and onboarding, and also allows you to send your video feeds to Facebook and YouTube Live. The cost for most use cases is about $159 a month, but that is only for 500 attendees. For me, BigMarker works best for programs that will be viewing a lot of slide decks or handouts. Another big bonus is that you can embed the webinar on your event website.
Both of these platforms offer free trials, so you should give them a spin to see which works best for your event team and speakers. Remember, the best technology is the technology that you use.
Team Attendify: Okay, great. And if the event is still being held live, are there technological solutions out there that would help attendees feel more secure in their networking endeavors? Ways that they could attend the event but still keep more of a distance?
Keith Johnston, Managing Partner, i3 Events and Publisher, Plannerwire blog: For those that are going forward with live meetings, there are not a whole lot of advanced technological solutions that will keep you Coronavirus-free, but there are some that will help. I once had someone tell me that even a Post-it note is a form of technology, so we should not forget things like making sure the venue has enough automated hand sanitizer stations. Also, in any potentially dangerous situation, information is king. Get a good news app. To track the virus’ spread, head to a dashboard from a trusted entity like the one created by The Center for Systems Science and Engineering, which pulls in information from the World Health Organization and other credible sources.
One last thing to remember is to leverage the technology you already have. Use your event app to send out updates and reminders to all attendees. Even I forget that shaking hands is now a no-no, so a gentle reminder can do wonders for the health and wellness of everyone in attendance. You can also build custom pages into your event app to keep people informed of the dos and don’ts of attending in the age of Coronavirus. At a client event last week, we added informational pages on how to greet each other, what symptoms to look for, and even included local maps for hospitals and urgent care centers. Attendees want reassurance, they want to know that you are looking out for them, and they want to know that you are acting in a smart, thoughtful way. By being transparent and sharing as much information as possible, you make huge strides in easing their fears.
Team Attendify: From an attendee psychology standpoint, what are some key levers that could be pulled to get them to make the transition between a live event and a virtual event easier, if an organization decides to go that route?
Victoria Matey, Co-founder, Matey Events: Human nature is that we are cautious about changes. Even worse, when changes are forced upon us, it’s not something people take easily. So the first thing to consider when you decide to make the transition to a virtual event is the emotional state of your attendees. Recognize what they may feel and get ready to create positive emotions around the changes.
Aim to make change seem like no big deal for your attendees. People are already frustrated and fearful about the cause itself; they also foresee there might be a lot of uncertainty related to practical issues. To reduce their stress, make sure to:
- Increase communications and be as detailed as possible about how the event will run.
- Be available to answer questions.
- Talk about benefits to ease any regret many attendees would naturally feel.
The second step would be to leverage positive emotions before, during and after your virtual event. Find ways to cheer up your participants before the event starts, integrate entertaining, joyful moments during the event and make sure to end on a high note.
Team Attendify: Victoria, I’ve heard you speak before about the power of “framing” to introduce change. Can you explain this concept and speak to how it might apply to easing attendees into a virtual event?
Victoria Matey, Co-founder, Matey Events: One common example used to explain framing is this: When people are offered two options of ground beef — one labeled as 10 percent fat and the other as 90 percent fat-free — they prefer the latter despite the fact that both options are in fact the same thing. Science clearly demonstrates that what impacts their decision is how the offer is framed! Build on this concept and promote your virtual event as an opportunity, a different but equally full-value way to achieve the goals your attendees have, rather than a lower-grade or forced option.
In the same vein, another thing you can do is to leverage the phenomena of social proof. Work with your most influential event community members and get their buy-in for a virtual version of your conference, then communicate their support to the rest of your audience, both via the event’s own channels and the influencers’ channels.
Team Attendify: What’s the best way to make sure virtual event attendees are still engaged, despite the fact that they’re unable to have face-to-face interactions?
Victoria Matey, Co-founder, Matey Events: Online engagement differs vastly from offline engagement. In a virtual environment, attendees’ attention is even harder to capture and keep, and that coupled with technical issues can present challenges. Yet, there are proven methods for making the virtual learning and networking experience positive. A few of the most important are:
- Create a much more fast-paced learning environment by shortening the length of sessions. Education should be provided in bite-sized nuggets to avoid participants getting distracted and/or bored.
- Adjust the event format so that participants can be involved as much as possible. That way you’re creating a sense of belonging, making them feel like they’re in control and providing an opportunity for co-creation — all of which is even more crucial in the absence of a live experience.
- Leverage great event tech tools and virtual summit platforms to provide networking opportunities. It’s important to not limit interactions to just chats or contact list options. For instance, take advantage of the polling and Q&A features in mobile event apps, and offer online one-to-one business meetings to make real-time interactions and networking efficient.
Team Attendify: So if the event moves forward live as originally intended, what’s the best way to use event psychology to allay attendees’ fears about participating?
Victoria Matey, Co-founder, Matey Events: I can’t highlight this enough: Emotions are key, and the event organizer’s goal should be to create positive associations with your event. One of the best cures for fear is laughter. So if you do move forward with a live event, make sure to integrate as much fun and stress-reducing activities as possible.
Take for example the fact that people are afraid of shaking hands these days. Even if they decide to attend a live event, that fear is still going to be there on a subconscious level. And yet no matter how reasonable such a precaution is, a lot of people feel awkward for not wanting to compromise between their health and the usual social etiquette (“I feel awful about refusing to handshake, but I equally feel awful when thinking it can make me sick.”’)
Identify such contextual pains and work to make them fun instead of stressful. In the example above, you can come up with a specific — and safe — way for attendees to say hi to each other, then announce it as an event’s signature greeting. The key here is to make it official, legit AND fun. This helps remove any awkwardness and turns the change into a unique feature built on positive emotions, one that attendees will surely appreciate and remember.
Team Attendify: Isaac, Leah, Tami, Keith and Victoria, my heartfelt thanks for taking time out of a (understatement of the year) chaotic period in the events industry to share best practices with other meetings pros.
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