During a pandemic, adaptability and flexibility have become a must for communications folks. Each day brings a new set of guidelines, research, and best practices. While the impacts of COVID-19 may vary from industry to industry, event planning is one standard communications function that has tested us all.
If you’re like me, you’ve had to cancel, digitize, and even execute in-person events during the COVID-19 pandemic. Events are critical to the success of our communications strategies. During the uncertainty of this pandemic, I launched a new bus line and held numerous public meetings. Through this, I’ve gleaned a few insights about success and safety for event planning during a pandemic.
Making the call: Virtual vs. In-person
Federal, state, and local guidelines are changing almost daily–not to mention the looming risk of a second wave. And while many in-person events and activities are returning, many people still aren’t comfortable participating. It’s up to you and your team to weigh the pros and cons of hosting an in-person event or tweaking it for a virtual experience.
Even before we experienced the impacts of the pandemic, virtual events became commonplace. Virtual conferences, career fairs, trade shows are cost-effective, scalable, and environmentally friendly. But what works for some isn’t going to work for all.
To help make your call, here are a few questions to answer:
- Are you able to create a safe environment and meet Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations for your event?
- What will turnout look like for a physical event vs. a virtual event?
- Will your event goals be able to be met online?
- Do you have access to the technology for the success of a virtual event?
While these questions may seem fairly obvious, they’re worth asking. No two organizations or events are quite alike. Weighing your options is critical to the outcome of your event and the perception of your organization.
Based on the questions above, my team and I decided to move forward with an in-person event to celebrate the launch of a bus line. While a virtual event would have been feasible for us, the physical nature of experiencing the bus left a lot to be desired from a virtual standpoint. Most importantly, we have continued to run bus service through the pandemic. We knew that we could host our event outdoors, at a distance, require masks, and keep the attendance at less than 100 people.
The same questions and approach led my team to transition public meetings from a traditional, in-person setting to being streamed via Zoom and Facebook Live. We had such great success; our approach to public meetings will likely now always feature a virtual component.
Executing and in-person event
Thanks to the CDC, there are many science-backed recommendations for hosting a safe event during a pandemic. First, regardless of location, make masks mandatory. While hosting an outdoor event is much safer than an indoor one, masks are still a critical component. In your efforts to require mask-wearing, you can also make custom masks for your organization or events to ensure all attendees have no excuses.
Location is everything during a pandemic. We all know outside is safer than inside, and larger venues are safer than smaller ones. However, it’s your job to maximize space for social distancing regardless of location. Get a larger area and limit attendance or seating capacity to maximize social distancing. You can even block off rows of seats, spread out seating, and use physical guides to keep guests distanced.
If you choose to have food and drinks at your event, go for the most seamless experience. Consider boxed meals and bottled beverages at a self-service or catered station. You can also cut out food and drinks and opt for high-value promotional items and a shift in timing to avoid a meal.
For my in-person event, we hosted an outdoor gathering at one of the stations along the bus line. The location was perfect, as we benefited from being under a highway overpass, which shielded us from the sun and rain.
We kept the guest list below 100 and ended up with an event turnout of about 75 people. Everyone was required to wear a mask, and it was easy to spread out. Instead of food and drinks, we handed out customized boxes of promotional items to all event attendees, as well as masks. The run of show included speakers at a podium, light mingling, and a bus ride to those interested.
Executing a virtual event
If you can accomplish your goals with a virtual event, you will need to choose what type of event you’re hosting. Will it be a sizeable multi-session event or a webinar? This will inform your choice of platform to make sure whatever you are hosting is successful. Do your research, as there are a lot to choose from right now.
Once you have your platform, date, and time, begin building engaging content. One of the cons of virtual events is the ease of distractions. Captivating content will keep your audience engaged. Be sure to provide instructions and planning for your speakers. And most importantly, practice several times before the day of the event. Dry runs are critical to a seamless virtual event. However, plan for some tech glitches and try to stay zen–things happen!
Don’t forget to transition your event promotion plan. And most importantly, follow-up with your attendees with a survey, recorded content, or even an invite to your next event.
When it comes to event planning, the show must go on. Remember, your in-person event can always have a virtual component.