Over the last few months, like many of you, we dove head first into the world of virtual events, producing conferences and conversations and concerts. But is there anything quite as nourishing to the soul as a fifty-thousand person sing-along in a gorgeous park on a beautiful day? Is there anything more exciting than sitting in an audience listening to someone you admire speak off-the-cuff, and knowing you might have a chance to meet them? No! There is no substitute for the energy that flows through a space when humans gather to celebrate, to experience artistic creation, or to quench their intellectual curiosity. We need events. Which is why we have to be absolutely thoughtful and methodical as we prepare for events to reemerge in the new normal.
As event production experts, it has always been our responsibility to create solutions for every contingency, and to address new challenges through thoughtful assessment, collaboration, and special plans and procedures that can be communicated clearly and carried out effectively. We’ve done this in response to stages collapsing. We’ve done this in response to public safety and security issues. We’ve done this in response to the severe weather that’s become a “new normal” over the past decade. And we’ll do it again now, as we acclimate to the reality of the pandemic.
Throughout the quarantine, we’ve been hard at work trying to stay on top of the latest developments and assessments from public health experts. We’ve been studying various reopening guides, as well as plans from specific organizations, ranging from major hotel and casino operations to the latest guidance from the CDC. And we’ve tapped friends and colleagues from across our industry to get their thoughts and work through our own. We know the vaccine will be more widely available and change things in time, but for now, we’re erring on the side of caution.
Here are some top-line takeaways:
Five Event Truths for 2021 and Beyond:
1. Cooperation is required. It is imperative to get buy-in and cooperation from attendees, and to communicate and enforce event safety guidelines without exception. This begins with pre-event communications, plus training and compliance across all staff, vendors, contractors and artists. We will now be running events while enforcing masks, social distancing, use of hand sanitizer, enhanced cleaning measures, and more. We need to approach gently, and spend some time on both education (know-before-you-go) and on winning hearts and minds (it’s our responsibility to keep each other safe.) We need to hold fast to the welcoming, service-forward way in which we value our guests, while enacting our safety measures with military precision.
2. Events may be less profitable, and more expensive to produce. Limiting event capacity while investing in increased safety measures ranging from thermal imaging to health screenings, to personal protective gear and increased sanitation (general and personal), and increased marketing efforts for patron education, will change the financial model of events — or the events themselves. Clever producers should diversify and incorporate new revenue streams, but in general, the increased expenses will make some events impossible to produce. Event sponsorships are hanging in the balance. In order to maintain the longstanding relationship between events and brands, we need to refresh the value proposition and find new, meaningful ways to incorporate and present the businesses who invest in bringing people together. These partnerships are vital to our future success!
3. Increased risk. Regardless of the size or scope of an event, producers need to demonstrate that they have done their due diligence and followed all available recommended protocols for safety and sanitation. The Event Safety Alliance recommends that events have a specific Infection Mitigation Coordinator responsible for crafting, communicating and overseeing the implementation of clear and demonstrable sanitization and safety plans. In addition to health and safety coordinators, contract tracing notification systems should be implemented to swiftly notify attendees of a possible exposure if a confirmed case arises after the event.
4. Events will be more wasteful. Sigh. We, along with so many of our colleagues, have been huge advocates of pushing our industry towards reducing environmental impacts of events. In our careers, we’ve seen the elimination of plastic water bottles and the implementation of free water stations. We’ve seen the elimination of single-use items, such as ketchup packets in exchange for pumps. So, it’s upsetting to see that progress reversed, as we likely return to individually packaged everything, from water, to condiments, to utensils wrapped in plastic, not to mention the additional waste we might encounter from disposable face masks, plastic gloves, personal hand sanitizer, etc.
5. Virtual events are here to stay. While nothing replaces genuine human interaction only experienced when we gather together, virtual events provide fewer barriers to entry and greater access. Whether location or travel is an issue, or the cost to attend in person is not financially feasible for some, virtual events allow for more eyeballs and engagement with your content and message. Many of our clients are reimagining future events as a hybrid of both virtual and live, with smaller and more curated live events that focus on engagement and connection.
Moving forward, there’s a lot that can be done to safely reopen for events and bring people together to create magical moments in the new normal. While we hope that the vaccines will eventually be widespread and things gradually get back to normal, as of now, we’re preparing for a “new normal”. Our takeaways below include recommendations from the Event Safety Alliance, as well as other reports and conversations. One thing we’re sure about is that there are a lot of tremendously bright, knowledgeable and experienced people in our industry who are actively collaborating to make our world safe for events once again.
Ten Takeaways for Re-Opening Events After COVID:
1. Engage a Health Coordinator. Each event or venue should be engaging with an Infection Mitigation Coordinator — an area expert on the current health and safety guidelines who can create, train and oversee the implementation of safety protocols for the event. This person will be the “area expert” on mandates from local government and health officials, in contact with the appropriate health & safety agencies, and in charge of maintaining pristine records of all precautions taken, from keeping logs of when high-traffic areas such as bathrooms are cleaned, to recording and reporting any potentially infectious patrons.
2. Decrease your event capacity & maintain social distancing. Social distancing is the new Tetris. Each venue provides a unique design challenge when it comes to creating safe space for patrons, but it’s not just the venue. Social distancing needs to be considered throughout the event, from ingress and egress, to lines for food and beverage, to preventing crowding in bathrooms, or at the front of stages. Depending on the size of the event, it may be necessary to increase staff to enforce the rules.
3. Masks & PPE will be mandatory. Without a crystal ball, it is hard to say how long we will need to wear masks, but there is a good chance they will be with us through 2021. Event staff should mask up, even if patrons do not, to protect the integrity of our industry. Events, venues or sponsors might want to collaborate on providing disposable masks for patrons to ensure that all masks are sanitary and approved for use by the appropriate health organizations. Second to that, producers are going to have to be explicit with patrons prior to the event about safety protocols. Event staff should also be wearing gloves, particularly where transactions are being handled, or personal items touched.
4. Box office & security will change. As we try to limit the number of touchpoints and potential risk of exposure, we have to consider what it means to touch multiple paper tickets, to search bags, or to pat people down. We need to be looking at paperless ticketing, and evaluating how we handle bag-check, either by eliminating bags all together, or by allowing only clear, see-through varieties that allow security staff to examine a patron’s belongings without touching them. Larger events have long had wands or pass-through metal detectors, but those processes frequently end in pat-downs. Security staff will have to wear fresh gloves for each interaction, with some form of hand sanitizing in between.
5. Temperature taking will be a thing. Patrons will learn to expect some variety of non-invasive health screening before entering an event. Any patron with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or above will either not be allowed within the venue or event, or they will have to go through a secondary screening process, which may include rapid testing for COVID-19.
6. Everything will move slower. We might need an app for that. Between social distancing, health screenings and time consuming sanitization processes, it’s reasonable to expect the process will take longer. It’s also reasonable to expect that lines will be longer, which will present its own challenges to public safety where lines may overflow into streets, etc. To thoughtfully prepare for that, we need to consider things like tiering invitations with different arrival times, or creating digital solutions by which patrons can schedule their own entrance times. Likewise, egress plans have to be amended to ensure that patrons can exit a venue without being overcrowded. This may prove to be more difficult, as people are generally patient and compliant when they want to get in, and less so when they’re ready to bolt.
7. Clean is the new black. Event producers and staff are going to become very familiar with the CDC’s guidelines for disinfecting, including what solutions are effective on each surface type. We should expect to see high-traffic areas in both the front and back of house cleaned at hourly intervals throughout events. Workers at every level should be prepared to log their cleaning activities, and have their personal hygiene practices monitored on the job. Regular, thorough cleaning and record keeping is going to be a key factor, both in health and safety, and in limiting liability for producers.
8. This is a moving target. As we’ve learned over the past few months, things can change by the day. As events producers, we have to make it our job to stay on top of the latest developments, and to design contingency plans that allow us to be nimble. While the work groups, planning sessions and detailed plans have gone a long way in helping us wrap our heads around the future and provided some detailed and practical next steps, continued education and evaluation will be required. All the more reason to be engaging that Infection Mitigation Coordinator!
9. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Every event presents a unique combination of challenges. A music or sports venue where seats can be eliminated to create space will have different requirements than a floor show or festival where people tend to crowd in front of a stage. Indoor venues have air flow and filtering considerations, whereas an outdoor venue has fresh air included. We have to be prepared to look at each event and scenario individually, create a specific plan for that event, implement it, and then evaluate and continue to tweak as we establish best practices.
10. Messaging is everything. Event producers are going to have to allocate a significant portion of their messaging to clearly communicate event protocols and expectations. We will have to be explicit in describing what is required to attend, and what patrons can expect throughout the event. This will likely include sharing detailed information about the event safety plan. No matter how established the event, we will have to earn the trust and confidence of patrons, as well as staff, crew and talent. From a practical standpoint, this means that events need to be looking at increasing or relocating resources, from real estate on the website, to social posts, to marketing budgets.
Times change. At the end of the day, we have to change and adapt to meet the time we’re in. The Panacea Collective is doing just that. We’re approaching this challenge as an opportunity to expand our expertise to meet this critical moment. We’re excited to help our clients design events that can be fun as well as functional, safe as well as profitable, and to be a part of establishing those high standards and best practices moving forward. Does it feel like a big hill to climb? Sure. But we’re ready for it.