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Event orchestration | 19 August 2021

The Comprehensive Guide to Coronavirus for Events and Conferences

Brandon Rafalson

Planning a virtual event during COVID-19 and the Delta variant? Here’s your go-to guide to confidently communicate with attendees, sponsors, and partners.

Event marketers are no strangers to last-minute changes and crises. These usually have to do with speaker cancellations, unexpectedly long registration lines, poor WiFi, and other last-minute challenges that may seem like a big deal in the moment but absolutely pale in comparison to the global buzzkill that is coronavirus.

From April to June 2021, with rising vaccination rates, it was starting to look like some organizers in different geographies could begin returning safely to in-person events. However, the rise of the Delta Variant has caused many organizers to once again pause in-person programs to once again (brace for everyone’s favorite term) pivot.

Some organizers have been able to successfully resume in-person events by implementing strict health rules and minimizing attendee size, while many others are investing in hybrid event platforms to power digital-first experiences. Others yet are once again canceling or postponing their events.

We understand there’s a lot of uncertainty around COVID-19 and the Delta variant, your events, and the health of your team and your attendees. That’s why we’ve put together what we hope is a commonsense guide that’s light on the panic and heavy on the practical advice.

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5 Facts About COVID-19 Event Planners Should Know

By this point you’ve probably been inundated in literature around what COVID-19—the disease caused by the most recent strain of coronavirus—is. There’s also a good chance that you’ve encountered some sensationalized coverage of the illness. Here’s a grounded review of what you need to know:

  • Contagion Levels: While there have been monumental advancements in prevention and treatment, it’s important to grasp the scale and seriousness of the pandemic. On August 20th, the World Health Organization reported global confirmed cases at 209,201,939 (nearly 3x when we last updated this article in December 2020) with 4,390,467 confirmed deaths. America still bears the worst of it, accounting for nearly 39% of all cases worldwide. (WHO)
  • The Delta Variant:  While there have been multiple variants of COVID, the Delta variant “causes more infections and spreads faster than earlier forms of the virus that causes COVID-19.” The CDC reports that getting vaccinated and wearing masks can reduce the spread of this variant. (CDC)
  • Face masks: Masks are still the best way to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Most states and local businesses are now requiring that guests wear a mask to enter. The World Health Organization labels masks as “a key measure to suppress transmission and save lives.” We expect protective face-coverings to be part of the future of events for some time. (CDC)
  • Social Distancing: Keeping at least 6 feet apart is an important part in stopping the spread. Many businesses are also limiting max capacities to make it easier for customers to distance themselves. As the event professionals continue to embrace a hybrid event, social distancing will continue to be a requirement and will help on-site attendees feel more safe and comfortable attending events. (CDC)
  • Travel: “People who are fully vaccinated with an FDA-authorized vaccine or a vaccine authorized for emergency use by the World Health Organization can travel safely within the United States.” If you do have to travel, follow up-to-date guidelines to keep yourself and those around you safe. (CDC)
  • The Vaccine: In the latest news, Pfizer’s vaccine has proven to be 95% effective in their clinical trials. The race to find and distribute a vaccine has been an ongoing focus since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Pfizer) Several studies by the CDC reveal that while Pfizer and Moderna vaccines may lower the risk for hospitalization they are less effective against the Delta variant. Meanwhile, it appears that Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson booster shots may be advised in the future. Even with these vaccine updates, we predict it will be some time before organizers resume larger in-person events.

For the most up-to-date information visit the dedicated knowledge centers on the WHO and CDC websites, and check with your local health organization.

8 Steps You Can Take To Protect Your Attendees from COVID-19

The events industry is going to be feeling the effects of COVID-19 and the Delta variant throughout the rest of 2021, and likely into 2022. If you do plan on bringing attendees on-site, here’s how you can keep them protected and minimize risk.

1. Create a plan and communicate it with all stakeholders

Create a crisis communication plan that will assure your partners and attendees that you are taking COVID-19 seriously and let them know exactly how you’re following the guidelines. It will also help you more confidently welcome your attendees to an event.

The best place to create and maintain a communication plan is on a webpage of your event website. More on this in sections 3-5 below.

The first stakeholders you’ll want to communicate with are your attendees. Create a transparent plan that tells them what to expect and answers questions they might have about attending your event. Consider including a contact tracing log as well to ensure attendee are aware if they’ve come in contact with the COVID-19 virus.

You’ll also want to create an internal communication plan that details the action items and processes to take, should anything happen. Think about questions like: Who is communicating with and guiding attendees? Is there a building management team that needs to be notified? How will you communicate to attendees?

You can find more on crisis management from Deloitte.

Below is an excerpt of the external preparedness plan from HIMSS20, a gathering of roughly 45,000 global health change-makers from around the globe. You can see the full preparedness plan for HIMSS20 here.

Update: As of March 5, HIMSS20 has decided to go virtual but their detailed plan still serves as a model example for event organizers.

On-site Preparedness Plan

  • While the risk remains low at this time, we cannot ensure a virus-free environment. HIMSS20 will be a handshake-free meeting. We recommend the HIMSS elbow tap.
  • We are working with Orlando Health and Dr. Phillips Hospital (closest to convention center) to provide extra medical support as needed on site.
    • Screening protocols for EMTs and Nurses on site
    • Telehealth access to ER physicians to host virtual visits as necessary
  • There will be three medical offices on site at the Orange County Convention Center. One of the medical offices will be dedicated to addressing both flu and coronavirus symptoms and will be staffed by a trained medical professional with direct access to the Florida Department of Health and an Epidemiologist.
  • HIMSS and the Orange County Convention Center will consult health teams at Orlando Health when necessary.
    • Should screening reveal an elevated risk for an attendee, the person will be isolated immediately to prevent exposure to conference participants.
    • Further, the Emergency Department teams at Orlando Health Centers will be consulted to ensure the risk to conference attendees is proactively managed to ensure the safety of all conference participants.

Best practices for creating a preparedness plan:

  • Coordinate with local health officials
  • Reach out to all meeting spaces, hotels, and venues
  • Determine steps for identifying and isolating attendees with elevated risk
  • Plan to circulate literature around COVID-19 prevention throughout your venue
  • Have hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes on-hand

For more information on creating a preparedness plan, see the CDCs Interim Guidance for event organizers.

2. Maintain an Update Log

Another way that you can let your attendees, partners, and speakers know that you are taking COVID-19 seriously is by maintaining an update log.

You can also include contact tracing in your update log. For example, by sending ‘exposure notifications’ to let attendees know about possible contact.

The RSA Conference—a gathering of thousands of cybersecurity professionals that wrapped up at the end of February—kept a running list of updates leading up to and even after the event. You can find an excerpt below. You can see the full list of RSA conference updates here.

Below are updates on how the coronavirus is impacting RSA Conference and what attendees should know and do while at the event. Additional information about the coronavirus and its global impact can be found on CDC and WHO websites.

February 25, 2020

Today, the City of San Francisco declared a State of Emergency to begin preparations around any future coronavirus outbreaks. The City stated that residents and visitors remain at low risk for becoming infected with the coronavirus and that the number of cases within the City remains at zero. This declaration will enable the City to accelerate emergency planning measures and more effectively respond to any outbreak by securing funding and ensuring that public health officials have the resources they need, including the ability to monitor for cases, investigate potential exposure through contact and quarantine new cases.

We remain in contact with the City, local health officials and are monitoring the CDC. 

To read the press release from Mayor London Breed’s office, please visit https://sfmayor.org/article/city-san-francisco-moves-proactively-prepare-possible-novel-coronavirus-activity-community

February 21, 2020

We learned today that Verizon has decided to no longer participate in RSA Conference 2020 as a Gold Sponsor. We understand and respect their decision…

Best practices for maintaining an update log on your event website:

  • Add the time and/or date to your updates to demonstrate that you are actively monitoring the situation
  • Share the latest information from local health officials
  • Share the latest updates on your preparedness plan
  • Direct your audience to other updates or preparedness plan pages if applicable

3. Proactively Update Your Attendees

Maintaining an update log on your event website will help provide answers for attendees, speakers, and partners who are seeking information about your event. To beat them to the search, plan on sending regular updates over email, social and push notifications (if you’re using a mobile event app).

Here’s how folks approached communicating with attendees in 2020 to keep in mind for 2021.

Below is an email excerpt from SaaStr founder Jason Lemkin. SaaStr is one of the largest conferences for SaaS executives and VCs in the world.

Update: Following guidance from Santa Clara County, the organizers of SaaStr opted on March 5 to postpone SaaStr annual and merge it with an event hosted later in the year.

Subject: Subject: SaaStr Annual is 10 Days Out! And We’ve Added Important Health & Safety Rules

coronavirus-guide-for-events-and-conferences-SaaStr-email-min

Here’s an example of how SaaStr’s founder updated attendees on Twitter:

This is a great example of a short and sweet update that will make attendees feel more prepared about what to expect from your event. You can use platforms like email to go in-depth about updates and utilize social media and push notifications for a more digestible version.

Best practices for updating attendees over email, social media, and push notifications:

  • Share the latest updates on the status of your event
  • Reference the latest updates from local health officials
  • Reiterate your preparedness plan
  • Direct your audience to other updates or preparedness plan pages if applicable
  • Update everywhere – if you send out a long email update, create a short social update to go with it

4. Establish Health and Safety Rules for Your Event

Creating clear guidelines and rules for your attendees to follow at your event may seem strict, but it provides extra protection for everyone attending your event and protects you as well.

MPI recently held their WEC grapevine event, and safety was their top priority. They created a Duty of Care plan to show attendees the steps they are taking to make them feel comfortable and safe.

duty of care - the commonsense guide to coronavirus and events

Best practices for establishing health and safety rules for your event:

  • Give your attendees ample heads-up of your health policy over email and other communication channels
  • If your policies may result in attendees being prohibited from attending event or may otherwise result in excluding them from the event, have a clear (and generous) refund/registration transfer policy in place
  • Be very clear in describing what is allowed, what is prohibited, and what is advised

5. Creating a Sanitary Environment at Your Event

As mentioned above, your preparedness plan should include the steps that you are taking to create a sanitary environment. It’s important to follow up-to-date CDC and WHO guidelines when creating this plan. These steps should be followed through during the onsite experience.

Below is another example from MPI’s WEC Grapevine event. They also included the Commitment to Clean Guide from their host venue, Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention.

commmitment to clean guide - the commonsense guide to coronavirus and events

Best practices for creating a sanitary environment:

  • Provide attendees with hand sanitizer at registration
  • Create designated sanitation sites stocked with hand sanitizer and disposable disinfectant wipes
  • Wipe down microphones, iPads, and other technology equipment after each use
  • Remind attendees of hygiene best practices through signage and over email, social media, or push notifications through your mobile event app
  • Consider asking your attendees to sign disclaimer waivers when they register on-site

6. Future-Proofing Your Event Strategy

While in-person experiences are an irreplaceable part of events, if it’s a choice between having an event virtually or not having one at all, most organizers are choosing to move to virtual. We’ve seen many brands, including the likes of HubSpot’s INBOUND, embrace a digital-first approach to their event strategy where a large virtual experience forms the foundation for the event

In 2020, the event industry made the shift to virtual in a matter of weeks after the start of the pandemic.

In fact, brands like Google, Adobe, BluePrism, and Okta all decided that a virtual event was the best case scenario for them. If you are moving your experience to virtual for the first time, you may want to review the messaging from this time period. Below is an example of messaging from Adobe that was shared on the Adobe Summit website:

Each year, we look forward to hosting our customers, partners and employees from around the world at Adobe Summit and Magento Imagine to talk about the future of customer experience, unveil the latest product and platform innovations, and get inspired together as a community.

Over the past few weeks, we have been closely monitoring and evaluating the situation around COVID-19 to ensure we are taking the necessary measures to protect the health and wellbeing of Adobe Summit attendees. As a result, we have made the difficult but important decision to make Summit/Imagine 2020 an online event this year and cancel the live event in Las Vegas.

While we are disappointed that we will not be together in-person with our community this year, we are excited to host Adobe Summit as an online experience.

You can also find an example from Google for Google CloudNext here.

Digital-first, hybrid events are still new territory for event planners, which is why industry leaders have been coming together at events like Agents of Hybrid to share best practices and carry the conversation forward.

Companies are starting to embrace the benefits of a hybrid event strategy. For example, Acronis recently hosted their first ever hybrid event on the Bizzabo platform: The Acronis Global Cyber Summit.

Over 3 days, the Acronis team broadcasted in-person sessions from a live TV studio in Seattle while also live streaming live sessions from the Acronis headquarters in Switzerland. featured 70 sessions from workshops and networking sessions to panel discussions. The event featured 9,500 attendees from over 126 countries, driving reach and event ROI.

Best practices for taking your event virtual:

  • Demonstrate that you have been monitoring the situation closely and frame the decision as being in the best interest of your attendees, speakers and partners
  • Communicate with any affected partners over email. Hopefully your contracts stipulate terms for last-minute changes like this. Otherwise you’ll need to determine a solution that is amicable for all parties involved
  • Prepare a strategy for communicating and coordinating with your speakers remotely

7. Postponing or Cancelling your Event

In the first few months of COVID-19, a lot of organizers contemplated postponing or even cancelling their events. Now, we have seen the benefits of virtual – cost savings, reach, data – and event marketers are getting the hang of this domain.

In several sessions at our recent virtual summit: (Almost) HYBRID, our speakers mentioned the idea of planning virtual-first with potential in-person extensions. In a panel with CNBC’s Jonathan Meyers and events thought leader (and current Bizzabo VP of Global Events) Devin Cleary, Devin shared with us how he is “looking at curating regional gatherings with very select invite-only programs, bespoke moments.”

almost hybrid - the commonsense guide to coronavirus and events

However, if you do have the flexibility with enough of your vendors and speakers, it may be worthwhile to postpone your event until later in the year. To see how other companies went about it, here are a few examples from top brands, including Qualtrics and Coachella, that decided to postpone their 2020 events.

Below is an example of a postponement announcement from the Game Developers Conference.

After close consultation with our partners in the game development industry and community around the world, we’ve made the difficult decision to postpone the Game Developers Conference this March.

Having spent the past year preparing for the show with our advisory boards, speakers, exhibitors, and event partners, we’re genuinely upset and disappointed not to be able to host you at this time.

We want to thank all our customers and partners for their support, open discussions and encouragement. As everyone has been reminding us, great things happen when the community comes together and connects at GDC. For this reason, we fully intend to host a GDC event later in the summer. We will be working with our partners to finalize the details and will share more information about our plans in the coming weeks. 

For more information, please visit our Frequently Asked Questions page: www.gdconf.com/faq

Worst case scenario, you will have to cancel your event. After months and sometimes years of work, it can be a very difficult decision to pull the plug but it might be the right choice. Here are a few examples of how leading companies, like Amazon and Google, have handled the decision to cancel.

If that does happen, know that you’re not alone. Mobile World Congress, Cisco Live Melbourne, and CERA Week are just a few of the many events that have been canceled due to COVID-19.

You can find an example from Cisco Live Melbourne’s cancellation announcement below.

Cisco Statement on Cisco Live Melbourne

Due to ongoing concerns about the current outbreak of Coronavirus, Cisco has made the difficult decision to cancel Cisco Live Melbourne scheduled for March 3-6, 2020 in Australia. Our customers, partners and employees are our top priority and we strongly believe this is the right decision given the current circumstances. Our thoughts are with those directly impacted by this situation.

Making the decision to cancel an event can take a big emotional toll. It’s OK to express that in your cancellation messaging. Here’s an example of how the VP of Marketing at Outreach broke the news over LinkedIn regarding the company’s decision to cancel their annual conference Unleash:

Best practices for postponing or cancelling your event:

  • Demonstrate that you have been monitoring the situation closely and frame the decision as being in the best interest of your attendees, speakers and partners
  • Reach out to attendees at least one week before the event day to save out-of-town travelers from making the trip
  • Check with your venue and vendors to see if you are contractually covered. If not, see if you can work something out. Chances are that vendors will be understanding of the global moment and will prefer to maintain the relationship they have with you
  • Communicate with any affected partners over email. Hopefully your contracts stipulate terms for last-minute changes like this. Otherwise, you’ll need to determine a solution that is amicable for all parties involved
  • Have a clear (and generous) refund/registration transfer policy in place for attendees

8. Creating a Hybrid Event

News of the vaccine possible being ready by the end of the year means we will likely see a second industry shift, this time from virtual to hybrid. These hybrid events will combine the best of virtual and in-person in a new format that allows event organizers to safely bring back live experiences while still realizing the benefits of digital.

Health authorities will have the final say when it comes to protocol for hosting events, and might require that enough people are vaccinated before hosting in-person experiences. However, we’re optimistic about the implications the vaccine will have on event organizers’ ability to host events.

We believe that hybrid events will play a big role in the future, which is why we invited event marketing leaders from top brand to join us at Agents of Hybrid to discuss their predictions for the industry and share how they are planning their own hybrid events.

According to our recent Evolution of Events Report, 97% of event planners agree that we will see more hybrid events in 2021. This is an overwhelming statistic and shows that event planners are largely on the same page when it comes to adopting hybrid as part of their new event strategy.

evolution of events report - the commonsense guide to coronavirus and events

Event planners aren’t the only ones who are confident about the hybrid future. Bizzabo was humbled to receive a $138 million investment in the future of events. This recent round of funding demonstrates the case for hybrid and solidifies that the events industry is headed in an exciting direction.

Wrapping Up: Keeping a Level Head

There’s no denying that COVID-19 and the Delta variant pose a serious challenge to the events world. Millions of dollars in revenue have already been lost and more is to be expected in the coming months.

But here’s the thing, in our conversations with event professionals—even among those who have had to virtualize, postpone, or cancel their events—there still is an unflappable belief in the power of events to build communities and serve as a valuable channel for driving business outcomes.

The events industry has hit a roadblock.

Fortunately, as the VP of Events at an enterprise company recently shared with me, the number one quality of event professionals is resilience.

Note: If you are a Bizzabo customer whose event plan has been affected by COVID-19, reach out to your Customer Success Manager for information on how we can assist you.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 4, 2020 and has since been updated for relevancy.

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