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POV: 5 things I’ve learned about planning in-person events during COVID-19

I was responsible for the educational programming for our first in-person conference since the start of the pandemic. Here’s what I learned.

POV: 5 things I’ve learned about planning in-person events during COVID-19
[Source Photo: rawpixel]

As COVID-19 rates begin to fall this spring, many organizations may consider a cautious return to in-person events and conferences. But event planning is now much more complex than it used to be, and requires additional safety measures and flexibility to ensure your gathering doesn’t become a superspreader event.

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As the vice president of career development and conferences at the School Nutrition Association, I was responsible for the educational programming for our first in-person conference since the start of COVID-19. We welcomed approximately 400 attendees in San Antonio, Texas. 

The event was a good reminder that connecting face-to-face is an unparalleled experience. We’ve forgotten the power of spontaneous hallway conversations, the sound of chatter, the enjoyment of a meal together as a group, eye contact, body language, and audience reactions like applause and standing ovations. We received a lot of feedback following the event about how “refreshing,” “energizing,” “joyful,” and great it was to be in-person again.

For people not comfortable meeting in-person, we also offered a virtual event a week later. The dedicated virtual conference served as a backup in case we needed to pivot to a fully virtual event, and helped us limit the overall size of the in-person event. Planning a hybrid or virtual component requires significant resources and tailoring of content to create an engaging experience, but it made the conference more accessible.

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Here are five things I learned about planning an in-person event.

Communicate safety protocols in advance–and often 

Decide on your COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements by monitoring CDC guidance and understanding protocols of the city and venue of your event. After thorough research and discussion among our senior team, we decided to require all attendees, speakers, staff, and volunteers to be vaccinated or provide proof of a negative COVID test within 72 hours of the start of the conference. 

We used the CLEAR Health Pass app for attendees to upload their documentation. Most attendees successfully used the app, which sped up the process when they arrived on-site. 

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Agree to what safety protocols you are going to enforce, and make sure you are at minimum complying with the city’s policies where your event is held. For example, this conference was in San Antonio, Texas, where masking was preferred, not required. We followed the city’s guidance and, as conference organizers, our team always modeled wearing masks.

Partner with the venue to promote safety. The hotel where we held our conference had masks and sanitizer readily available and clear protocols for what happens if a guest catches COVID-19. 

Whatever safety protocols you decide on, communicate them, and enforce the rules. On-site registrations and last-minute guests were not allowed. Be ready to consistently enforce the rules and don’t make exceptions for spouses, VIPs, or people who want to register on-site.

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Create a safe and respectful environment

Attendees who decide to attend a face-to-face conference have weighed the option of staying home with the risks of travel. That said, keeping everyone safe is your responsibility, so promote social distancing as best you can. We planned on rooms set up with well-separated large round tables, six to seven people per table. In prior years, we may have allowed ten people per table. If people did not take masking precautions, spacing everyone out enforced some distance. 

Appreciate that people have different perspectives on masking and social distancing. In your communications, encourage people to respect each other’s wishes. There were many people wanting to hug, fist bump, or shake hands. Quickly putting out an elbow to do the “elbow bump” is an effective way to signal a need for distance. 

Here are some other ways to reinforce safety:

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  • Go paperless. Limit touchpoints by using QR codes on signs and having a conference app.
  • Communicate the location of nearby COVID testing clinics.   
  • Request that everyone attending the conference keep you updated if they test positive during or after the conference. If an attendee notifies you that they tested positive, keep their identity confidential, but communicate to other attendees that they may have been exposed.

Plan engaging programming tailored for a face-to-face experience 

The highlight of your first in-person meeting is that people are excited to see one other, share ideas, and catch up. Create opportunities for networking, brainstorming, and content co-creation at tables, and using the conference app. If the weather is warm or if you can rent heaters, plan for some outside activities like sharing sessions in small groups, or a morning walk.

Get ready for cancellations and have back-ups

Speakers, staff, and attendees will be more likely to cancel at the last minute. We had several cancellations, due to someone getting exposed or catching COVID. We had volunteers to backup staff and other speakers on standby for every session. Be prepared to “master the pivot” for any situation.

Also, have a plan in case any of the organizers fall ill. I ended up getting sick for a day during the conference. This created added stress for the rest of the team as I quarantined awaiting COVID-19 test results. 

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Prepare for your safety and the unexpected

Even if you are an extrovert, working an in-person conference can be overwhelming if you are out of practice. You may no longer be accustomed to interacting with so many people (plus masking) all day. It’s like a muscle that hasn’t been exercised. Plan for quiet time to decompress. 

Also, if you have been working from home since the start of the pandemic, getting “dressed” from head to toe takes more planning. Allow yourself extra time to get ready for the day. Additionally, walking and wearing heels or dress shoes will be a surprise. You may feel forgotten leg muscles!

Pack extra clothing, cold medicine, a thermometer, additional masks, vitamins, a COVID-19 at-home rapid test kit, and a warm sweater in case you get sick and need to stay on after the conference to quarantine.  

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Our first in-person conference was successful and our safety precautions worked. One attendee notified us they tested positive and quarantined during the conference. Following the event, I heard from two other attendees who contracted mild cases of COVID, though they were not sure if it was from the conference or the plane ride home. 

If you’re wondering, my COVID test came back negative. In pre-pandemic times, I’d have simply gone back to the conference as soon as I felt better. But taking care of ourselves and others has new meaning, and we must be thoughtful toward each other.


Jennifer Lewi, MBA, CAE, ACC, is the vice president of career development and conferences at the School Nutrition Association. She is also a career development coach. 

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