Even as the first vaccine programs roll out, Covid continues to loom large as a public health threat. While in-person events may become increasingly possible, it is still too early to abandon safety guidelines. But what is the best way to enforce these rules?
Cases are still rising in both North America and Europe, and new strains of the virus have been found in the UK and South Africa. The recently approved vaccines may bring hope, but even in the US, they won’t be widely available for the general population until late May of 2021. Moreover, it’s still uncertain whether they will fully protect against asymptomatic transmission.
In short, event planners can expect to face pandemic-related restrictions for at least the next six months. With the public’s patience running short, how can they convince attendees to keep following the rules?
Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to guarantee attendee compliance with social distancing and mask wearing policies, but some tactics have proven more successful than others and planners may need to innovate and adapt. Ultimately, it is as much about effective communication as it is about consistent oversight, and both require careful planning from start to finish.
To learn more, EventMB interviewed multiple industry professionals for their take on health and safety enforcement at live events.
The Government Model for Social Distancing Ambassadors
The concept of a ‘health steward’ or ‘social distancing ambassador’ (SDA) has been trialed in several major US cities, and the idea is spreading to the event industry. As the name implies, an SDA is employed to promote and monitor compliance with public health and safety (H&S) rules. Generally, governments have turned to this model as a less confrontational alternative to police enforcement.
Some kind of SDA system has been implemented in the following US cities:
Although there are some differences from region to region, they all recommend leading with positive reinforcement and friendly messaging. Stricter approaches, like calling 911 for police backup, are treated as a last resort.
Seattle’s instructional pdf, for example, offers the following drop-down options on its “Direct Intervention Report” template:
- Asked to Disperse
- Social Distancing Reminder
- Called 911
While NYC has instituted heavy fines for anyone caught violating H&S rules, the SDAs don’t have the authority to issue official charges on their own. Instead, they are there to monitor the situation, and to encourage the people who are already open to persuasion.
HOW CAN THIS MODEL BE APPLIED TO EVENTS?
Singapore, for example, has both a nation-wide SDA system and specific regulations for events. Early on in the pandemic, the Singapore Tourism Board collaborated with private event organizers to develop compulsory safety protocols. While the country has made headlines for deterrents like fines (and sometimes even prison sentences), they also provide top-down support for event planners. For example, they have developed mechanisms for local venues and conference organizers that help international event organizers with their H&S obligations.
Practical Strategies for Enforcing H&S Rules at Events
Of course, Singapore is a relatively small nation when compared to countries like the United States, where regulations can vary significantly from region to region. In most parts of the world, venues and event planners are left to figure out effective H&S strategies largely on their own.
Fortunately, the event industry is nothing if not resourceful. We spoke with three event planners who helped to develop an innovative new program: the Pandemic Compliance Advisor for Meeting Professionals course, now offered through Health Education Services. While many of their ideas could be applied to various situations worldwide, the curriculum was designed with the US context in mind.
Clarify H&S Expectations Before the Event Begins
According to Mary-Ann Urbanovich (MS, CMP-HC), one of the event planners behind the Pandemic Compliance Advisor (PCA) program, health and safety messaging needs to start right when you announce the event. When planners make their expectations clear from the outset, prospective attendees know what they are buying into.
In some ways, this opportunity to set the ground rules gives event planners an advantage over government-backed H&S ambassadors. Unlike the general public, event participants are actively opting into an event’s code of conduct.
Heather Seasholtz (CMP, DES), another founder of the PCA program, recommend reinforcing H&S rules at multiple points:
- In pre-event marketing
- On the event website’s general info page
- During the registration process
Make sure that the event’s registration form asks, “Are you compliant with wearing a mask?”
If the answer is no, engage the prospective attendee in a conversation. For example, if they have a complicating health condition, the planner might politely suggest avoiding the event altogether. This ensures consistent enforcement of mask wearing rules, without neglecting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — or the respect owed to those it’s designed to protect.
Shannon Majewski (CPM, CMM, HMCC, VEMM) also contributed to the PCA curriculum, and pointed out that registration forms are often completed by assistants rather than by the attendee personally. With that in mind, she recommended including a statement to the following effect: “I attest that I am completing my own registration and agreeing to the code of conduct personally.”
If the attendee later expresses resistance, the event planner can remind them of their contractual commitment.
Venues can use a similar tactic when setting out the terms of their contracts. We spoke with Mary Clay, the Associate Director of Events at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort. Clay tells clients upfront about her venue’s “three touches” policy. If attendees continue to disregard mask wearing and social distancing rules after three warnings, the venue will be forced to withdraw its services and shut down the event early.
Maximize Social Distancing Reminders at the Event
While some kind of warning system is necessary, it’s also important to realize that many attendees have the best of intentions. Some may simply fall back into old habits of talking at close range. Others might forget to put their masks back on after having a snack. Attendees are being asked to change many of their most fundamental social behaviors, and it’s incumbent on event planners to give them all the support possible.
One idea that Urbanovich shared was to remind attendees about the event’s code of conduct when they go through the health-screening process at the doors.
Clay has put this idea into practice at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe, where a Nevada state mandate requires that all attendees have their temperature checked before entering an event. The resort uses these temperature checks as an opportunity to explain their policies about social distancing and mask wearing with a face-to-face conversation.
Printed informational material is another way to drive home the message. Clay explained that at sit-down meals, the venue has started putting a postcard-sized bullet list of its H&S policies at each table setting. Since guests have to move it to begin eating, it becomes difficult to overlook.
Seasholtz suggested a number of other tools:
- Signage and floor decals that help attendees to visualize 6 feet
- Slides in the meeting rooms
- Push notifications on the event’s mobile app
Rethink Food and Beverage to Minimize the Risk of Non-Compliance
When designing an event, it’s key to think about the venue itself. Good ventilation and adequate space are essential for reducing transmission risk, but can a building’s layout influence attendee behavior?
Majewski believes that it does. She recommended choosing a meeting venue that has a separate breakout room or dining area. This allows organizers to conduct meetings and meals in different spaces — the simple process of moving from one room to the next gives attendees a physical reminder to put their mask back on.
Urbanovich explained the psychology:
“If you’re used to being in a general session, you’re used to having hard candies on the table and a bottle of water, or coming from a meal and bringing your beverage with you. We need to change that mindset—no beverages in the meeting room.”
As the Associate Director of Events at a major venue, Clay observed that access to alcohol is the number one predictor of attendee non-compliance. The Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe relies on three key strategies to mitigate this phenomenon:
- Host drinking events outdoors.
- Allow networking activities to continue until 10 pm, but alcohol service stops at 9.
- Always serve food with drinks.
Keep the Event’s H&S Messaging as Positive as Possible
Even event planners with all their ducks in a row still need to think about how to approach attendees who are neglecting H&S rules.
Despite setting down a hard line, each of the professionals interviewed for this post emphasized the importance of showing compassion. Just as the government’s SDAs are instructed to initiate contact by using positive reinforcement and gentle reminders, industry professionals recommend leading with a positive message.
According to Seasholtz, there are few more persuasive motivators than a sense of community and a shared responsibility to protect one another:
“Safety and health relies on everyone. The code of conduct is meant to protect staff, attendees, speakers—it started with sexual harassment and discrimination—but it’s the same premise when it comes to health.”
Urbanovich echoed this sentiment:
“Duty of care encompasses everybody, not only the meeting planner and the stakeholder. It’s also the obligation of the attendee to say, ‘I’m being responsible for you.’ It’s full community involvement.”
By the same token, event planners should always give attendees the benefit of the doubt. Majewski mentioned that she once forgot to put her mask back on after finishing a restaurant meal, and that experience has given her a new appreciation for how best to approach attendees. “It is important to approach them on a fairly consistent basis and not assume that people are attempting to be defiant,” she explained. She recommended starting with the simple question, “Can I offer you a mask?
Clay agreed that a simple act of generosity can help to set the right tone. Her venue keeps a ready supply of free masks and sanitizer.
Clay also recommended an overall messaging strategy from a standpoint of compassion. At her events, she frames the hotel’s H&S policies in terms of a duty to protect its staff. At the same time, she explains that the resort’s ability to continue hosting events is ultimately at stake:
“It’s all from a stance of caring for people and being empathetic. I don’t want my staff’s risk of exposure to be any higher than it has to be. Another good talking point is that we’re able to do these events because we’re doing them safely.”
The rules are designed to keep everyone safe—which is itself a prerequisite for keeping business running.
Predetermine the Event Protocol for Each Stage of Escalation
When an olive branch fails to do the trick at her events, Clay’s next step is to frame the situation in terms of her staff’s professional obligations and personal safety. She will tell the event organizer, “My servers cannot approach you or your guests without masks.”
In a similar vein, Urbanovich urged event planners to set clear protocols for handling confrontational attendees: “We highly recommend any planning team to have scenarios worked out in advance. How are you going to mitigate a situation? What is the escalation process, and who needs to be involved?”
This kind of forethought will ensure a coordinated and consistent plan of action, with no mixed messaging from different parties. Are all the event’s ‘health stewards’ on the same level? Can someone with more authority be called in for especially difficult cases?
Urbanovich recommended involving the top brass within the client’s own organizational structure. For example, associations could ask the chapter’s president to make an announcement or send a direct warning, and corporations could turn to the department head. “If necessary, be prepared to bring security in.”
The PCA team even recommended incorporating attendees into the monitoring system. Majewski explained, “Treat everybody attending the event as a safety ambassador by creating a safe way to report others. Not only does it empower those individuals to self-protect, but it also creates an awareness of being watched.” To keep the reporting process as discreet as possible, Urbanovich suggested adding a reporting mechanism to the event app. Of course, the responsibility for confronting non-compliance does not fall on the attendees themselves.
Clay explained that at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe, even the banquet staff is never asked to approach attendees about following H&S rules. Instead, banquet captains with special training are usually responsible for handling the initial ‘reminders.’ When dealing with particularly uncooperative attendees, they can call on the resort’s top-ranking staff. They, in turn, have the authority to make the final decision to stop all service and force the event to close.
Clay added that they will only remove individual attendees with the pre-arranged consent of the event planner. Some other venues, like the Postillion Hotels, will remove problematic attendees as part of their standard operating procedure.
Social distancing ambassadors and health stewards can be part of an effective H&S strategy, but they can’t be added as an afterthought. Social distancing and mask wearing protocols need to be considered at every stage of the event-planning process. That means:
- Setting clear expectations in pre-event messaging
- Making attendees consent to a H&S code of conduct beforehand
- Reminding attendees of their obligations (e.g. during the health-screening process)
- Using the event’s physical space to reinforce messaging
- Developing tactics to mitigate the influence of alcohol
- Leading with a positive message (e.g. by encouraging compliance and offering free masks)
- Developing a clear plan of action for different scenarios
- Mapping lines of authority in the escalation process
While every event planner knows that there is no such thing as a foolproof plan, thinking ahead can go a long way to making an event run as smoothly as possible—and the stakes have never been higher.