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Business Smarts

Meeting Planners Reality Checklist 2022: Five Strategies for In-Person Events Now

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Don’t let the unknown spoil your plans for a great conference—here are a few ideas to help you future-proof your event.

“As an industry, we have to have more patience—and more grace.”

That might sound obvious and simple. But it’s not, says Dustin Arnheim, senior vice president of sales and customer experience for Visit Baltimore.

It’s a takeaway that Arnheim says he synthesized over the last several months while helping associations prepare for their first in-person events in more than a year and a half.

We talked with Arnheim about current realities and strategies meeting planners should consider as they prepare to host members in person at large conference venues, like the Baltimore Convention Center.

Reality Check 1: Embrace the Unknown

“We are still operating in the unknown, and we will continue to operate in the unknown” for some time into the future, Arnheim says.

Meeting planners need to do scenario planning so that they can be ready to adjust to a range of possible “what if’s.” What if new health mandates drive up cancellations? What if restaurants limit seating? What if the association board requires onsite COVID-19 testing?

Create table-top drills so the association events team can adjust agilely, Arnheim says. Walk through what could happen with as many variables as make sense for the association and the event, and strategize how to adapt.

That’s the only way in the current environment to be ready when the event finally arrives, he says.

Visit Baltimore, for instance, has begun monitoring the hours of restaurants and other venues near the convention facilities and sharing those with planners close to their events. “The goal is to arm associations with the information they need to communicate with their members,” Arnheim says. “We are trying to set everyone up for success and minimize surprises.”

Walk through what could happen with as many variables as make sense for the association and the event, and strategize how to adapt.

Reality Check 2: Communicate More But Email Less

Many associations regularly are short-staffed, but since COVID-19, event teams have been particularly hard hit by staff reductions. That might make people inclined to avoid meetings and phone calls in favor of the expediency of sending email.

Don’t do it, Arnheim says. “Pick up the phone and have that conversation. That’s a two-way exchange,” he says.

“We have less time now, but I think the best time we can commit is on the phone together, working through the challenges and really understanding each other, and really working to understand each other’s needs.”

Reality Check 3: Get the Health 311 From Your DMO

Arnheim encourages planners to lean on destination marketing organizations to help keep current on the latest health and safety requirements for their venues and for the locations.

The DMO is on the ground in the location. Its staff has exchanges continually with venue teams and with local government offices. Use those DMO connections to get the latest and most thorough health and safety information as soon as it’s available, Arnheim suggests.

To further ensure the safety of people coming to conferences, the Baltimore hospitality community undertook cleaning, disinfection and infectious disease prevention steps to receive the GBAC Star Destination certification from the Global Biorisk Advisory Council.

Reality Check 4: Understand That Different Things Matter Differently

“Business travelers are making plans later than they ever have, or closer to the date of travel, and they’re changing plans more frequently,” Arnheim says. Accessibility, always a consideration for meeting planners, is now a critical focus on a much broader scale.

Air lift matters, but what about people who want to drive? Is the destination easy to navigate? What type of parking is available? Can attendees come by train? Are hotels, dining, entertainment and shopping walkable from the conference venue? Overall general accessibility matters far more, Arnheim says.

Baltimore has the advantage of being accessible by car, train and plane to travelers all along the Eastern corridor. The convention center itself is adjacent to Charm City’s central tourism district, the Inner Harbor.

Reality Check 5: Still Do Cool Things

Given the unknowns and the reduced size of in-person events so far, an association might be tentative about trying something unusual. But it’s also the first time many people will be seeing one another again at a conference—in a long time. Provide memorable moments so they can network and reconnect, Arnheim says.

One way Visit Baltimore recommends doing this is by incorporating local artisans and makers into events. They add authenticity, diversity and a real-life slice of Baltimore, Arnheim says.

“We’ve set up makers rows at conferences. It gives busy attendees a chance to see and experience authentic neighborhood art and products from local makers—right at the venue.”

Something special is happening in Baltimore. Across the city, creative leaders are putting their talents into exciting new eateries, innovative redevelopment projects, stunning event spaces and world-class arts destinations. If you’re looking for a city that will leave your attendees raving about the experience, it’s time to put Baltimore on your list. Be surprised, meet Baltimore. Visit Baltimore.org/meetings.

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