By Samantha Stallard, Director of Marketing & Business Development
Whether working from home, social distancing, quarantined, exposed, or simply worried, every single one of us has been affected by COVID-19 over the last three months. Countless industries (maybe even every industry) have been impacted by the pandemic with events and experiential being one of the hardest hit.
Last week it was announced that Broadway will be dark for an entire month (its last shutdown, after September 11, 2001, lasted just two full days), the NBA, NHL, and MLB have all suspended their seasons, travel from European countries to the U.S. is banned for 30 days, and numerous festivals have been postponed until the fall (Coachella and Stagecoach) or canceled altogether (SXSW and E3).
For event professionals, what is usually our busiest time of year has suddenly come to a screeching halt. Instead of crafting event messaging, sending out invites, reviewing budgets, and finalizing vendor contracts, we're suddenly crafting cancellation messaging, sending out critical updates, reviewing money lost, and finalizing refunds.
The most important thing to remember during these challenging times is that canceling is the best thing to do. It's the ultimate lesson in guest management. I sat down with Concierge.com's Executive Director of Client Services, Sasha Milner, to get her take on the industry during this unstable time, including how to keep putting the guests first.
Samantha Stallard: What are your thoughts on the event industry's response to the coronavirus?
Sasha Milner: It's all of our collective responsibilities to prevent the spread of this disease until we know how to protect the vulnerable. When I say "all of our" I am referring to every human, I also think we look to anyone in a place of power or influence who can set an example. The loss of revenue, jobs, incredible experiences is heartbreaking, but we have to do our part to implement preventative measures for humanity, so cancelling events is sadly a part of that equation. And mandatory. These are unchartered waters for this generation so we need to be listening to the experts — the scientists, doctors, not the politicians.
SS: For those events that have not been canceled, what can event planners do to further protect their guests onsite?
SM: Event producers should strongly consider cancelling the event or offering digital participation. We live in a day in an age when there are numerous resources to telecommute and share information digitally. I believe if you are continuing to run an event against all of the experts recommendation, I do feel you are acting a bit reckless. That being said, I am not an infectious disease expert, but based on all I've learned, you should:
- Take great measures to sanitize and clean every surface — from doorknobs to faucets and everything in between.
- Provide antibacterial hand-washing stations and hand sanitizer in every room, every touch point.
- Limit human interaction — make sure any chairs are set with a considerable distance between attendees.
- Implement elbow bumps (versus hand shaking) and set up digital opportunities for networking that may be taken away when forced to keep our distance.
SS: For those events that have switched to digital (including SXSW), how can event planners keep the guest experience a top priority online?
SM: Event planners will need to focus on human interaction, participation, and satisfaction — not just great content. There are many tools that facilitate human interaction, and it may require multiple, but as long as you step back and focus on who your consumers are and what you want them to accomplish, with a little bit of research you should be able to customize your experience.
- Do your attendees just want great content? Great, capture your content from your experts and make it available for consumers on a website, in an email, or on your social channels.
- Do your attendees want an Instagram moment? Engage a tech company, like EventsTag, that can put a consumer in a digital space and allow for social media sharing.
- Is your event based on networking? Try virtual coffee dates. Set up numerous video chats and provide consumers with money to buy themselves a coffee, then help facilitate introductions and conversations.
SS: Many more events will be canceled in the coming days and weeks; how would you advise event planners to effectively communicate those cancellations with guests? What can they offer them to maintain a positive relationship between brand and consumer?
SM: We're in an unknown space and we don't know how long this will last. From my research, I believe that if we can put extreme and preventative measures into place now, while it will 100% disrupt the event landscape, hopefully, we can minimize the spread of Covid-19 and return to a world where we can attend large events. Moving forward, brands should be communicating with their consumers, providing full refunds if applicable, and offering access to content and engagement to maintain their audience. Again this can vary based on your event and your guest type, but clear, concise, and honest communication is mandatory.
SS: How can brands continue to plan their events for the second half of 2020 amid our current state of uncertainty?
SM: I think we do need to move forward, responsibly. All parties involved (venues, brands, consumers) will be fearful of losing money, so I think if each party can offer more flexible refundable policies, that will help us all start to move forward. We are all in this together, everyone wants to move forward but there is an underlying fear and known holding us back.
SS: Anything else you'd like to add?
SM: It's a scary time based on the amount of unknown we're living in and what may still be ahead of us. COVID-19 has, and will continue to impact the economy in extreme ways. When you look at the amount of businesses and industries impacted, it's hard to comprehend what's to come. Countless people are unable to work remotely, are losing their jobs, are in a contract roles, or are still being asked to show up (healthcare providers, parents, teachers, cleaners, or operations facilitators). I hope we can all move forward with empathy and compassion, helping the elderly and vulnerable populations, supporting our neighbors, talking the safe preventative measures, focusing on the humans and understanding that comes first. We will have time to rebuild.