The Return to
In-Person Meetings
Face-to-Face Essentials

Build an Onsite Health and Safety Strategy

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Since the pandemic began, health and safety protocols have changed as virus data shifted. Here’s a look at the staples you need to assist in keeping your in-person events safe.

While every association has pivoted in numerous ways since the start of the pandemic, there’s probably no internal staff team that has faced more uncertainty than the meetings department. And changes keep coming, as they plan for the return of safe in-person events.

In addition to adhering to shifting health and safety rules, association meeting pros will have other considerations to keep in mind as they craft their event’s safety plan. Among them: local gathering restrictions, along with COVID-19 vaccine and testing requirements.

Lean on Partners

According to Tim Turner, a certified COVID-19 compliance officer and executive producer at Freeman, an events production company, associations should turn to their venues and host location’s convention and visitors bureau to determine the safest way to hold face-to-face meetings.

“If you are in, for example, Texas, it’s far different than if you were up north here in Chicago,” Turner said. “Have those conversations with the convention center and the hotel to find out what the rules of the road are in that particular city, because they have a handle on it, obviously, much better than anyone coming from another city or state.”

Karen Groppe, senior director of strategic communications at HIMSS, a medical association, said that local Las Vegas partners were essential to its August HIMSS21 Global Conference going well. “Having those partners, they knew of our safety plan,” Groppe said. “The more key stakeholders who know about your plan and the messaging, the better.”

Vaccines and Testing

Many organizations are also adding vaccine or testing requirements for attendees. Both require some logistical forethought.

For organizations that know before registrations opens that they will have a vaccine requirement, it is easier to provide information to attendees from the start and allow them to comply during the registration process. And for groups that decide to require vaccinations after registration opens, Groppe said it’s important to communicate that updated information frequently and on as many channels as possible.

“The more key stakeholders who know about your plan and the messaging, the better.”—Karen Groppe, HIMSS

Also keep in mind that any proof of vaccination will require a verification process. HIMSS—which required all attendees, exhibitors, and staff to be vaccinated—outsourced verification to two companies. “They were able to help us verify vaccines prior to the event and then onsite,” Groppe said. “It took the burden of verifying vaccines off the staff.”

Besides a vaccine requirement, Turner noted that other organizations are requiring attendees to submit a negative PCR test 72 hours prior to the conference to be allowed entrance. Some conference sites are helping out: “There are many, many sites now that are doing onsite [rapid] testing,” Turner said. “Unfortunately, it is an investment.”

Whatever policy is chosen, it’s important to think through its enforcement. “What happens if someone forgets their card? What happens if they don’t bring it?” Turner said. “Those things, you’re going to have to work through as an organization.”

HIMSS’s vaccination policy was firm. “Our CEO and our VP of meetings made the mandate that there will be no exceptions to the vaccination requirement—none,” Groppe said. “We had a speaker show up who was not vaccinated. She had not had the second shot, and we did not let her in.”

That required a workaround for that session, but HIMSS made participant safety the top priority. In addition to the vaccine policy, HIMSS had attendees attest to the fact that they were vaccinated and that they would follow the rules. Having people agree to policies in advance leads to more compliance and less pushback over masking or other safety protocols.

Scenario Planning and Post-Event Protocols

Once your organization has determined its safety measures and vaccine and testing requirements, it’s important to create a plan that outlines various scenarios that could take place and how the organization might react.

“You need to have best-case [and] worst-case scenarios mapped out. You need to have that plan in place before you show up at your event,” Groppe said. “We had every scenario planned out.”

For example, Groppe’s team planned for a scenario where they had a COVID-19 outbreak at the conference.

“We looked at what could happen with that and how we would convey it,” she said. “We had to figure out what the messaging would look like, how it would be distributed, how we would communicate to attendees.”

In addition, keep in mind that your safety protocols and communication efforts aren’t necessarily finished when the meeting wraps up. Attendees should be asked to report if they test positive for COVID-19 within 14 days of the event. Turner noted that organizations can even ask about testing in post-conference surveys sent during that two-week window.

If you do have attendees who test positive, contact tracing and emails to those who may have been exposed may be needed. For HIMSS, “we had close to 20,000 people with us, and we had six reported cases,” Groppe said. Five of those cases were self-reported, and one was from the onsite tester. HIMSS communicated those results to attendees through its conference website.

No matter what safety plan associations decide on, the key is to work together to create the safest gathering possible.

“Associations are used to—when you have your annual conference—staff executes everything and anything,” Groppe said. “This year, we had a lot of trusted partners with us, executing key parts of our event, so that was a high trust level. Pick the right partners.”

Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now.

More from Face-to-Face Essentials

During a prolonged period of change, something had to give. Life and work have been reshaped and transformed, and that means people want different things. In planning future meetings, it’s time for associations to put the participant first and let the event follow.