New event protocol: The logistics of meetings in the next phase of COVID

Peter Tonguette
For Columbus CEO
AmericanHort Culitvate21 conference attendees visit the trade show in the Greater Columbus Convention Center on Sunday, July 11, 2021.

The Columbus Chamber of Commerce usually holds its annual meeting the first week in February.

Last year, that wasn’t a problem.

“We were really lucky—I mean, really lucky,” says Don DePerro, president and CEO of the Columbus Chamber. “We got that annual meeting in, and it was a great success. We had nearly 1,200 people in Battelle Hall at the [Greater Columbus] Convention Center.”

Just a month later, when COVID-19 hit, in-person events and meetings of any sort, and particularly those of that size, became instantly inconceivable. With state health orders prohibiting or restricting gatherings, nearly all live events in central Ohio’s business community were put on hold.

“We had 306 groups that were scheduled to meet here that basically canceled between 2020 and 2022,” says Dan Williams, vice president of sales at Experience Columbus. “That represented about $319 million in direct spend for our city, so it was just tough.”

In fact, since its annual meeting a year-and-a-half ago, the Columbus Chamber’s only major in-person events have been two editions, last August and this past May, of its annual fundraiser “Play to Work,” a golf and tennis event at the New Albany Country Club.

“We did have it last year,” DePerro says. “We didn’t want it to be huge.”

Now, with the lifting of state health orders due to the declining COVID-19 threat, DePerro is one of many area business leaders looking forward to the resumption of in-person events—events that, experts say, can be done safely with proper adherence to protocols.

In June, Ohio State University’s Office of the Chief Wellness Officer, College of Nursing and College of Public Health, issued recommendations on how best to safely reconvene attendees at in-person events.

The recommendations include mandated mask wearing for the unvaccinated and encouraging mask wearing even for those who have been vaccinated. If events include attendees from both pools of people, six-foot social distancing is also advised. Prepackaged meals are suggested, and surfaces should continue to be disinfected in adherence to CDC guidelines. Above all, though, the emphasis should be on vaccination.

“The most important thing is for people to get vaccinated,” says Bernadette Melnyk, chief wellness officer and dean of the College of Nursing at OSU.

Businesses, though, aren’t waiting for the entire population to be vaccinated. According to Williams, over 80 events are scheduled to take place in Columbus through the remainder of 2021.

“We don’t necessarily know what those are going to look like,” he says. “With reduced budgets all over the country, some people will be able to have 10; some people came out of this much better than others. . . We don’t know how many attendees are going to come.”

While large-scale events will not return to pre-pandemic numbers immediately, a number have already taken place or are on the books. In mid-July, AmericanHort, an organization that represents the horticulture industry, held its major annual event,

“Cultivate’21,” which typically draws over 10,000 attendees, at the Greater Columbus Convention Center. Then, Aug. 14-17, a hybrid version of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ annual meeting is expected to bring around 2,000 to the convention center.

AmericanHort Culitvate21 conference attendees depart the keynote address for the trade show in the Greater Columbus Convention Center on Sunday, July 11, 2021.

Yet that excitement is tempered by the nervousness some feel about going back to an in-person business world many left behind over the past year, and concerns about the Delta variant. Williams emphasizes the need for businesses to place trust in “the destination” hosting the meeting.

An AmericanHort Culitvate21 conference attendee makes her way through the trade show in the Greater Columbus Convention Center on Sunday, July 11, 2021.

“They’re looking for the destination to be the forthright expert,” says Williams, who points to Columbus event facilities, including the convention center, Nationwide Arena and the Hyatt Regency, having received the Global Biorisk Advisory Council’s GBAC STAR accreditation.

“The majority of our visitor touchpoints [are] GBAC-certified, which is a third-party entity that is all about the validation of cleanliness and sanitation,” he says. “Our practices are going to make you comfortable with our destination. . . Safety procedures and cleanliness are still very important.”

Similarly, Melnyk says that something as simple as a company providing its guests with a fact sheet of frequently asked questions relating to pandemic-era protocols and procedures can help ease worries.

“People do have anxiety about re-entry,” she says.

Derek Grosso, the founder and CEO of Columbus Young Professionals Club, agrees that communication between event organizers and attendees is key.

“Almost treat it like a new orientation—a new-member orientation or a new-hire orientation,” Grosso says. “Let people know, and keep constant updates through email and through social media . . . ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing.’ There are a lot of people who don’t ask those questions.”

Before a company’s first in-person event is even scheduled, leaders can take steps to address employee depression or anxiety. “People have been attempting to cope with the pandemic with unhealthy behavior,” says Melnyk, pointing to alcohol use and unhealthy eating habits. “Companies need to be really concerned about this, not only for their people’s engagement and productivity, but for absenteeism and turnover rates.”

With an unknown number of people reticent about returning to in-person events, virtual or hybrid meetings are sticking around for some time. As it has since the start of the pandemic, the Columbus Chamber plans to continue budgeting for events to take place either virtually or, if possible, in-person.

And DePerro says that virtual trade shows had been gaining steam even before the pandemic, including those with international speakers. “This has spawned some incredible software development and platforms by which you can have breakout rooms and multiple speakers,” he says.

Before the pandemic, Columbus Young Professionals’ “Coffee with a Cause,” a long-running series of panel discussions featuring leaders of nonprofit organizations, would draw 40 to 50 attendees in person, but the series’ pandemic-era virtual installments have generated thousands of views online.

“Even if we were to host it in-person or hybrid, we wouldn’t even get that many people to show up,” says Grosso, adding that other events, such as an expanded series of “open-air markets” that Columbus Young Professionals runs, by definition have to take place live.

Most leaders agree that many are ready to resume face-to-face events and meetings. For example, the Columbus Chamber has been conducting one-on-one virtual consultations with members since last year, but, DePerro says, “Now everybody is asking for in-person meetings.”

“The members that want to meet in-person, we’re going to meet in-person,” he says. “We’re going to go out and see their business; we’re going to talk to them.”

In the end, each of us will go back in our own way and in our own time—something businesses need to keep in mind, too.

“For some organizations, it’ll be real quick,” Grosso says. “And others it may take awhile. It may take a year, a couple years, or a couple months, but I think patience and understanding ... go a long way.”

Peter Tonguette is a freelance writer.