Event Management

Epidemiologist Says the Future of Events Will Be Small and Local

Skift Take

We spoke to Dr. Brian Labus, epidemiologist and health sciences expert at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to prepare event professionals for the challenges of the next few months. The future looks daunting, but there are safe ways to go back to business.


The event industry is buzzing with a heated debate about how and when we should go back to business. Confusion is mounting over what business meetings will look like in the next six months and beyond.

In the place of clear leadership and guidance, we are watching a very weak and baffling response from different countries and U.S. states. Here are some developments just over the past two weeks:

  • Italy banned any type of indoor event for the time being, but allowed outdoor events with up to 1,000 attendees.
  • Germany has made a distinction between trade shows and mass gatherings, virtually giving the go-ahead to re-open the sector.
  • Austria is set to open cultural events for up to 1,000 attendees from August 1st.
  • The state of Indiana is reopening events with up to 250 attendees from June 14.
  • China is reopening to trade shows and conferences.

There doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits-all solution that reflects the united front most countries adopted when events were shut down.

With the industry wounded and layoffs in full swing, the need for a clear direction is stronger than ever.

Many planners are just following what the local government says. Others are more cautious. They are waiting to understand better what the implications of reopening will be.

I sat down with Dr. Brian Labus, Assistant Professor in the School of Public Health at UNLV. His research focuses on communicable disease surveillance and he is currently studying the use of social media to identify restaurants associated with increased risk of causing foodborne illness.

Dr. Labus is very close to the development of security measures in Las Vegas, a destination still licking its profound wounds of the crisis.

If you want the quick takeaways, here they are:


Key Takeaways & Actions

  • Small meetings are more controllable. The fewer people, the more manageable the risk and potential fallout. There is no ideal number of attendees, but 50 seems to be a reasonable cap.

  • Local is safer. Keeping events local and making sure only locals can attend can sensibly decrease the risk of transmission. If a community has a low incidence of community spread, the risk is more controllable.

  • Keep sessions at a 30-minute maximum. If you want to decrease the risk of transmission, plan for sessions that last up to 30 minutes, allowing attendees to avoid prolonged contact in an atmosphere where the virus may be accumulating.

  • Testing at the door is not practical. It requires time to process tests, and attendees may get infected over the course of the event, especially if it lasts longer than one day.

  • Masks are essential and should be made mandatory. They decrease the risk. Consider handing them out at registration.

  • Meetings should be a single day — half a day preferably. A multi-day event increases the risk of attendees wandering around and contracting the virus, e.g. as they make their way to and from the venue or interact with staff who are not staying onsite.

I asked Dr. Labus for science-driven answers to the burning questions event professionals have on their minds. This is what he shared.


Would you attend an event today? 

I would not attend an event right now.

People seem to think that, having reached the peak and started to make that turn towards a decrease in disease, the risk has gone away completely. That’s the wrong way to look at it.

When we closed most of these events in Nevada, we had about 140 cases total. These days, we’re still seeing reports of a hundred cases a day coming out, so the risk is still there. We’ve gotten so used to hearing about it that we have become desensitized to the risk — but that risk is still the same.

A lot of people are at risk of disease transmission. If we bring them together in any type of event, whether it’s a trade show or a birthday party, bringing people together increases the risk of disease transmission.


Is physical distancing enough in closed environments?

As soon as you bring people together, there’s a risk of transmission. The best way to spread the virus is the interaction between people.

So if you take people and put them together in a small enclosed space for an extended period of time, the risk of disease transmission goes up.

The other problem we have is a lot of people have no symptoms whatsoever. So you can’t screen the sick people out of those admitted. Some attendees may unknowingly spread disease in a room because they don’t even know they’re infectious.


Is testing at the door a solution to run meetings safely?

If you’re talking about a one-hour business meeting or an afternoon where people are together, that’s one thing. If you’re talking about an event that goes on for several days, you might have people that were negative at the beginning who become positive over the course of that event. So even if you could screen everybody and know their disease status, you would basically have to screen them every single day. That simple screening isn’t going to be enough in most cases.

The other thing is the delay between when you take a sample and when you get a result, which translates into a delay in letting people into the event. It would be just like having a metal detector that took 15 minutes to give you an answer. 


Logistically, it doesn’t work out if you want to do that for anything more than just a few people.


Are planned gatherings different from mass gatherings?

Even at planned gatherings, you’re going to have a problem where people come together. The whole idea of a trade show is that you’re going to certain booths, you’re meeting with people. It’s a social event.

People don’t attend face-to-face events to try to spread out at equal distance in a facility. Even if you limit the number of people who come, there are people still trying to demo their products. You’re trying to get near them; that’s the whole purpose. Attendees will still gather together and try to come in close contact with each other.

There’s really no way through any type of planning to get people to spread out because the whole purpose of these things is to come together and socialize for business or social purposes.

And so you’re telling them to show up and meet each other but don’t meet each other, and that that’s a really strange message for people to understand.


What are the signals we should look at for a recovery?

If we can see effective control through a number of different indicators, that may indicate less risk in the community.

The one that I look at the most is the number of hospitalizations. If we are trying to increase testing, we’re going to have more cases reported. That’s not unexpected. Hospitalization, though, isn’t driven by the availability of testing, so that gives you a better idea of what’s happening with the disease at the local level.

The problem we have in Las Vegas is that we’re attracting people from all over the world. Las Vegas could have no community transmission, but if you are inviting people in from the lowest and the highest transmission areas in the world, it doesn’t matter what’s happening locally. As soon as you bring people from outside your small geographic area, you introduce a level of risk that depends on their current local rate.

You have to look at what’s happening globally or in the cities where all those attendees come from.


What’s the safe size for events? Many companies point at 50 people.

Well, it’s an arbitrary number, but we have to select something, and I think that’s probably a good cut-off between small and large meetings. It’s more of a practical concern than a scientific one; it’s not like 49 people versus 51 poses a different risk.

When we started closing businesses, we did the same thing. People said, 250 was the cap, then 100, then 50, then 25, and finally 10. None of those numbers were based on science, but the larger the group, the greater the risk of a lot of people being infected if something goes wrong.

So it’s really more just a practical approach where companies and planners have to decide on something to give their employees some guidance. Otherwise, you’re either saying that they can’t travel to anything at all or they can. This gives them some kind of middle ground where they can make decisions about some types of travel.


What duration of an event is considered safe?

Well, when we look at contact tracing, there isn’t an official number, but health departments are considering anyone with either 10 minutes in close contact or 30 minutes in close contact (on the short end for either one) with a known case to be worth pursuing.

So any meeting we put together is going to be longer than that. So whether it’s an hour or two hours, that falls within a higher risk category of exposure. The more time we spend together, the higher the risk, but I don’t think we can quantify it and say, “well, if you have exactly this many hours, it’s safe or unsafe.” Basically anything over a few minutes of contact is going to put you at a higher risk of disease transmission.


What about masks? Do they help?

Masks do nothing for you as the wearer, but are effective in protecting other people if you are expelling infectious droplets. That’s why we recommend wearing masks in all of these situations, whether you’re going out to the grocery store or meeting with other people.

So whether you’re in a place where masks are mandatory or merely strongly recommended, it’s less risky if everyone wears one. If that is the difference between having your event and not having your event, you would make people wear a mask.


What is a safe timeline for business to go back to normal?

Well, I think business as it used to be is a long way off. There will be some interim steps towards normalcy as we get more comfortable coming together with some social distancing still in place. But I think going back to a time before we’d ever heard of this virus is a very long way off.

It’s really difficult to say what’s going to happen because the virus is basically deciding the timeline.

We don’t really have much say in it, and we’re doing things that make it easier to spread disease every time we open restaurants or businesses. We’re inviting that risk of increased spread. That’s why we’ve been very cautious in how we do it. Trying to mitigate that increased risk.

That said, we’ve never done anything like this before. We don’t know what works best and what doesn’t.


Could going local and small be a good strategy?

Oh, absolutely. Small, local events are definitely recommended over national or international events because you’d take out that travel piece, you take out the lodging piece. You just have the same people that are in your community right now, and you’re merely bringing them together in a slightly different way.


Update May 27, 2020: Corrected initial report that events are banned for the remainder of the year in Italy with current suspension.