As planners in many wintery destinations hunker down and return to virtual events as the safest way to engage their audience, those in warmer climates need to start thinking about outdoor venue options.
Credit: The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel
Safety in the era of Covid is hard to guarantee, and event planners are feeling it. Nervousness around travel and events has all but shut down the industry, and venues and organizers alike are figuring out how to minimize the risk of in-person experiences while they learn the ins and outs of virtual options.
Pfizer’s recent announcement of a vaccine that appears to be over 90% effective may mean that the end is in sight. But with only 50 million doses ready for distribution by the end of this year — enough to cover 25 million people at two doses per person — it may be some time before we can dispense with our preoccupation with Covid safety.
One way people can still gather amid rising cases is outdoors, where restrictions on group sizes are typically less and people can normally stand closer together. Shifting to the great outdoors may not allow you to forego safety measures entirely, but it does reduce the risk. Moreover, it has a number of other benefits that your attendees will enjoy.
For example, thanks to Southwest Florida’s subtropical climates, the upcoming winter season actually means even more comfortable outdoor temperatures. Many of the venues under The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel’s purview were able to gain valuable experience with outdoor events during the hot summer months, and the region is more prepared than ever to host extended outdoor meetings and speaker sessions.
Risk Reduction in the Great Outdoors
The general consensus is that meeting outside is less risky than meeting indoors. One Japanese study even suggests that indoor settings are 19 times riskier than outdoor ones. This is because the risk of transmission through aerosolized particles decreases when you’re not trapped in an enclosed space where they can accumulate over time.
Outdoors, ventilation usually happens naturally with air flowing freely. This means that the primary risk factor reverts to March assumptions about airborne transmission — in other words, we mostly have to worry about larger droplets that tend to fall to the ground within a relatively short radius of five or six feet around the person emitting them. Masks and some social distancing still make sense, but there is a much lower burden of accounting for overall crowd numbers and duration of exposure.
With that said, moving events outdoors requires some know-how. How can event planners account for infrastructure demands, the variability of weather, and the impact on the surrounding environment?
Credit: The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel
COVID SAFETY WITHOUT SACRIFICING IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE
Even in a virtually ideal winter climate like that found in Fort Myers and Sanibel, outdoor events demand knowledgeable partners and careful planning.
Most hotels, venues and restaurants in the region have experience with hosting outdoor events, and some of their open-air facilities were even designed with business meetings in mind. The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel VCB can provide guidance on the specific amenities offered at each of their area’s many outdoor establishments. The VCB can also provide more detailed information on the local venues that have upgraded their livestreaming capabilities to meet the new demand for hybrid events. Along with adding state-of-the-art livestreaming technologies, the following venues have hired on-site, newly certified virtual event specialists to monitor, manage and enhance their hybrid setups:
- Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort
- South Seas Island Resort
- Luminary Hotel & Co.
- Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort & Spa
- Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village
What to Look for in an Outdoor Meeting Venue
What exactly makes a venue suitable for outdoor meetings? An argument could be made that any establishment with a lawn could potentially accommodate open-air gatherings, but in reality, the design of an outdoor space can make or break its viability for a hybrid setup.
To gain a better handle on the logistics of shifting meetings and other business events outdoors, we spoke to Rhett Wilson and Kevin Hodder of the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa.
Credit: Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa
Based on their own experience with setting up outdoor events on their artificial-grass lawns and wooden decks, they recommend looking for a venue that is not only nestled in a spectacular setting, but also comes with an existing infrastructure for open-air meetings. This way, planners can take advantage of the best of both worlds: They will have the convenience of an easier setup, and the benefit of scenic outdoor views with lower transmission risk. In practical terms, this means thinking about a venue with:
- A flat and level surface area, preferably covered in a durable material like artificial grass
- The supplies and the structures required to build secure tents, preferably ones that allow for maximum ventilation with removable walls
- A business model that works to minimize the event’s environmental impact
In addition to its warm winters, The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel has the advantage of a relatively flat terrain. Most venues in the area feature leveled outdoor spaces, and some have the added benefit of artificial grass and expansive patio decks.
Flat, resistant surfaces can withstand all kinds of footwear; they can also more easily support the construction of stages for speakers as well as temporary roofing structures in the event of rainy weather. Taking advantage of existing infrastructure can be both more cost effective and less disruptive to the natural landscape than trying to build on a virgin site.
Outdoor Health and Wellness in the Covid Era
Providing an immersive experience of the surrounding landscape can be one benefit to outdoor events, but attendees who have likely been cooped up by the pandemic also have reason to appreciate other activations that take advantage of the great outdoors.
Some venues in Fort Myers and Sanibel have even noticed an uptick in spouses accompanying their partners on business trips — possibly because the trend towards homeschooling and working remotely gives families more flexibility, but also likely because many want a little reprieve from the confinement of lockdown.
A venue with ample outdoor attractions gives both attendees and their guests a chance to enjoy a little leisure while also heeding safety concerns.
Credit: The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel
OUTDOOR GROUP ACTIVITIES
While the ability to facilitate outdoor group activities may not always have been a top criterion for B2B event planners, there has never been more incentive to seek out destinations that offer a variety of outdoor options for team-building activities.
On The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, outdoor activities are some of the most popular among business travelers. These include:
- Fishing excursions and tournaments, offered both inshore and offshore through Southern Instinct Charters
- Golfing at one of over 90 courses in the region, including The Dunes Golf and Tennis Club, Old Corkscrew Golf Course and Raptor Bay Golf Club
- Sailing courses with Offshore Sailing School
- Paddleboarding the Calusa Blueway with Lovers Key Adventures or Sweet Water Paddle Sports
- Kayaking and canoeing activities with Estero River Outfitters or Tarpon Bay Explorers
- Wildlife, sunset and shell-collecting ecotours with Pure Florida or Adventures in Paradise
- Yoga on the beach or Flamingo yoga at Everglades Wonder Gardens
These kinds of outdoor activities can encourage team bonding by allowing attendees to enjoy lower risk social interactions at a safe distance. Further, most of these activities involve exercise, which has benefits for both mental and physical health — priorities that shouldn’t be neglected at a time when many are experiencing higher levels of stress.
A beautiful natural setting can also go a long way to improving the attendee experience. Just being surrounded by Fort Myers and Sanibel’s white-sand beaches, lush mangrove forests, and wildlife-rich preserves can itself have a calming effect. If attendees want to explore any of these areas at closer range, there are several options for taking advantage of the locale’s comfortable outdoor winter temperatures with tours by boat and by foot:
Tours and Walkabouts
- Cultural sightseeing on the streets of the Matlacha fishing village with its colorful low-rise buildings and string of art galleries, some of which offer outdoor art classes
- Touring local farms that embrace sustainable practices and sometimes offer farm-to-table options — options include the ECHO Global Farm, Buckingham Farms, Rosy Tomorrow’s Heritage Farm and Southern Fresh Farms
- Taking the Key West Express ferry service from Fort Myers Beach
Although these activities all take place primarily outdoors — even the ferry has a sundeck — it’s still important to make social distancing and other hygiene measures a priority. Many of the activities listed above are now offered with enhanced health and safety measures in place. Look for providers who have extended the time in between bookings to allow for the sanitization of any equipment used, and on shared boats, make sure that the capacity is limited to roughly half the normal number of occupants.
OUTDOOR WILDLIFE ATTRACTIONS
While crowded city centers may be best avoided at this time, venues with access to nature reserves hold more appeal than ever. The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel is rich in biodiversity, with over 50 nature reserves spread out across the region’s 100 islands.
The opportunity to connect with wildlife, in particular, can allow attendees to enjoy a unique and invigorating experience during their down time. Planners hoping to give their attendees a taste of nature should look for destinations with landscapes that make it easy to spot animals in the wild.
Credit: The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel
Fort Myers and Sanibel’s subtropical habitat is home to a remarkable variety of wildlife, including manatees, bottlenose dolphins, loggerhead sea turtles and over 245 species of migratory birds. Much of the coastline is surrounded by shallow, crystal-clear waters over white-sand beds, making the region ideal for spotting sea life in its natural habitat.
“The manatee is one of the Gulf’s most iconic and friendliest animals, and most people never forget their first experience seeing one of these gentle giants. Another animal that loves our warm water is the dolphin. Pine Island Sound has one of the largest populations of bottlenose dolphins in the world.”
JILL VANCE, Director of Sales for The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, VCB
Vance recommends taking a charter cruise for dolphin sightings as they often play in the boat’s wake or jump right alongside it. For those intent on seeing a manatee, a trip to the region’s Manatee Park will give attendees the chance to see this vulnerable species in a non-captive warm water refuge, and the optimum viewing period runs from December to February.
Outdoor Events and Environmental Stewardship
Event planners can reinforce their commitment to environmental protection simply by encouraging attendees to see these animals in their natural habitat rather than a captive environment.
A region that takes conservation seriously can also allow attendees to feel like they are part of a larger effort to cherish our natural wonders. The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel has a land preservation program called Conservation 20/20, which protects over 30,000 acres spread out throughout the county. All of these preserves are open to the public for hiking and wildlife observation, and several offer fishing, kayaking, canoeing, and horseback riding adventures.
For those who want to incorporate a little corporate social responsibility into their business events, these nature preserves also offer volunteer opportunities that can be adapted into team-building activities. Other eco-conscious wildlife attractions include the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) with its Visitor Education Center (VEC), and the J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge with its mission to protect over 245 species of migratory birds. Without disrupting the region’s pristine environment, attendees can bring home photos of rare birds or an exotic seashell discovered on a beach-combing ecotour.
Credit: The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel
Reflecting on the worldwide plight of loggerhead sea turtles, Jill Vance added, “Efforts made right here on The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel are helping bring them back from the brink of extinction. I’m a firm believer that you can tell a lot about a destination based on how they treat their animals, and we truly love our animals.”
It may be harder than ever for guests to feel connected with an event’s local surroundings these days, but eco-conscious interactions with wildlife can offer a doubly beneficial alternative: Not only is it a safer option than large metropolitan areas given the risk of Covid, it can also reinforce the importance of treating nature with respect.
Outdoor Hybrid Event Technology
While being outdoors offers many benefits, it does make the planning of hybrid events all that much more challenging. What kind of technology do you need? Will it demand additional staff?
How do these factors relate to the physical environment?
Wilson and Hodder provided some helpful insights on all these fronts. One of their top suggestions is simply to use outdoor furniture instead of trying to recreate the indoor experience outside. Being outdoors automatically generates an atmosphere that is both invigorating and relaxing, and patio-style seating only contributes further to this impression. It also has the benefit of being more cost effective, mobile, and weatherproof than traditional banquet hall tables and seating.
In terms of technology, a reliable WiFi connection is key, and it’s advisable to ensure that any electronic devices like modems are adequately shielded under tenting. Once again, a flat, durable surface like artificial grass can also go a long way to making the setup process simpler. Additional staff will be needed, both to set up the connection and troubleshoot any issues that may come up. A generator or a nearby power source will also be necessary.
To stage a hybrid event at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point, Wilson and Hodder estimated the cost at anywhere between $10,000 to $30,000 for 50 in-person attendees and 150 virtual ones.
They also highly recommend using bluetooth headphones, which are admittedly somewhat cost prohibitive. With that said, they noted that the cost per attendee improves at scale. As Wilson explains, “There’s a fixed cost because of the labor involved in setting up the system, but then at that point, the more people you have, the more affordable it becomes.”
THE ECO-CONSCIOUS ARGUMENT FOR BLUETOOTH HEADPHONES
While outdoor meetings offer unique opportunities to connect with nature, they should be managed in a way that respects the surrounding ecosystem.
On The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, for example, the local wildlife includes a number of protected species like the Southern bald eagle and the loggerhead sea turtle. While these animals present the opportunity to give attendees a once-in-a-lifetime connection with nature, preservation should remain just as much of a priority as admiration.
To be mindful of sustainability, environmental stewardship and wildlife conservation, the Hyatt Regency recommends using bluetooth headphones.
Noise pollution has a well-documented negative impact on the environment and wildlife. With headphone technology, attendees can enjoy the safety of socially-distant seating without compromising their ability to hear the event’s speakers, all while respecting the serenity of the surrounding wildlife.
“It’s a nature reserve setting, so you wouldn’t want a loud blaring conference speaker disturbing the serenity of the resort and the surrounding area.”
RHETT WILSON, Director of Sales & Marketing, Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa
“This is a system that’s been in place for years with the silent DJ concept, but it can work just as well for outdoor meetings and speaker sessions.”
KEVIN HODDER, Director of Events, Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa
Ideally, guests should be able to admire the beauty of nature without disrupting it, and new advances in technology can actually aid this effort.
Planning indoor events during a spike in Covid cases is fraught with complications, but the option to move some activities outdoors can help to offset many of the risks that come with large public gatherings.
To maximize efficiency and minimize the environmental impact, consider venues that already have the infrastructure in place to facilitate outdoor gatherings complete with seating and a stage, as well as wall-less tenting where necessary.
For planners who want to demonstrate that they value health and wellness beyond limiting the risk of Covid transmission, destinations like The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel that offer multiple outdoor activities are a great choice. Local nature and wildlife attractions are an additional perk to keep in mind.
Finally, while staging a hybrid event outdoors can be challenging, a venue with experience in hosting ‘plugged in’ outdoor gatherings can help to make the experience run as smoothly as possible. Attendees looking for more guidance on the amenities available at each venue can submit an RFP to The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel.