Still on the fence about returning to in-person events? You’re not alone: Only 18% of event professionals say they’re fully confident about it.
But if you’re one of the 42% of organizers with in-person event plans in the works, you might be looking for a lead to follow –– or a roadmap to borrow.
Enter Amelia Ibarra. As SaaStr’s senior vice president and general manager, she led her team through the ups and downs of planning the first large conference in the San Francisco Bay Area since the pandemic began.
Amelia spoke with us at IMEX about how to plan events in the face of uncertainty.
If in-person events are on your mind, now’s the time to take a page out of Amelia’s very valuable playbook. Here are some of her hard-earned lessons and best practices for planning an on-site event in 2022.
Anticipate obstacles ahead of time
Unfortunately, you can’t fully eliminate the pandemic-related risks and uncertainty around returning to in-person events. But you can take cues from the SaaStr event team by preparing for potential challenges.
Evidence shows our brains crave certainty, so anticipating obstacles helps turn the unknown into the known and can subsequently soften any unexpected blows. It might seem counterintuitive to plan for challenges, but it can boost your confidence and ease your stress –– particularly in the midst of pandemic-related uncertainty.
Here are a few tactics Amelia and her team have added to their playbook to help navigate today’s heightened uncertainty around in-person events.
Create a set of must-follow rules
To help address public health regulations and mitigate COVID-related risks, the SaaStr team turned to a health and safety partner for guidance.
But with constant changes at play, Amelia's team still struggled a large-scale in-person event. So, they created a set of fixed rules they’d adhere to regardless of future fluctuations in regulations or evolving social norms.
With a focus on attendee comfort and safety, the set of must-follow rules for SaaStr Annual 2021 included:
- Proof of vaccination requirements,
- Wearing masks in indoor spaces, and
- Rapid COVID testing for all on-site participants.
Creating fixed guidelines for an in-person event also frees up headspace and time for the event team to focus on giving their community a high-quality experience. After all, event success will always come down to creating value for attendees.
Have a backup plan for your backup plan
Real talk: Uncertainty has always loomed around in-person events. Speakers have missed flights, shipments have been delayed, and caterers have arrived late.
While unanticipated issues with on-site events aren’t new, an ongoing global pandemic certainly increases the odds you might have to pivot.
For Amelia and the SaaStr team, the key to event success is always adopting a community-first approach. That’s why they proactively created backup plans and scenarios, then clearly communicated those plans to their entire event community in advance.
To follow Amelia’s lead and make sure you’re keeping your event community top of mind consider:
- Drafting a pre-mortem of what could go awry and how you’ll pivot if one (or more) of those situations comes to pass.
- Creating and communicating contingency plans with your event community, so everyone is on the same page.
- Preparing to go virtual or hybrid if needed –– and having an event platform waiting in the wings –– to make sure the show will go on.
Expect fewer on-site attendees
How does your event community feel about travel right now? Whether people are willing to travel to your event or not, they might have limited options due to COVID. 21% of event professionals say travel limitations are a major challenge for in-person gatherings.
SaaStr Annual 2021 drew thousands of in-person attendees last summer. But with the expectation that travel constraints would lead to fewer on-site attendees, Amelia and team set their expectations early around the event’s smaller size relative to years past.
To drive inclusivity and address travel restrictions, Amelia suggests:
- Surveying your community to get their feedback on returning to in-person events.
- Organizing local and regional events, which are increasingly popular among attendees.
- Adding an online experience so your in-person event can include virtual attendees who are unable or unwilling to travel.
8 Steps for a safe and successful return to in-person events
Now that you understand how to navigate some of the anticipated obstacles related to in-person events, you’re ready to chart your own course.
Read through these steps to learn best practices and strategies you can apply.
Step 1: Select the right venue
Finding a venue team that values the health and safety of your community –– and who will support you in that effort –– will make your planning process much smoother.
Consider what will delight your on-site attendees and make them feel comfortable.
Explore indoor-outdoor venue options
Give some thought to finding a venue with indoor and outdoor spaces where everyone can spread out and fresh air is plentiful. This will provide room for attendees looking to avoid large clusters of people.
From there, map out the floorplan to determine which features will be inside and which ones will be outside. And be sure to factor in extra logistics and costs, such as Wi-Fi setup, technical infrastructure, and inclement weather provisions.
Consider creating a list of requirements with your attendees in mind so you leave no stone unturned during the venue search.
Seek enough comfortable space for social distancing
When it comes to personal interactions at events, attendees might have different comfort levels. Some folks are understandably uncomfortable getting up close and personal (respect the bubble), and per public health guidelines, those 6 feet of social distance go a long way, so they’re sure to have a place in your in-person event playbook.
Be sure to factor in whether your venue’s maximum capacity will accommodate personnel and attendees with extra space for social distancing (especially in break areas).
You can quell the additional uneasiness some people feel in crowds with visual cues. For example, during Hopin’s July 2021 hybrid event, Illuminate, on-site guests were offered color-coded bracelets, so they could passively convey their comfort level with physical contact while networking.
Make your attendees’ lives easier by eliminating the need for awkward conversations about physical boundaries.
Pursue flexible contract terms for peace of mind
If event professionals have learned anything the past few years, it’s that circumstances can quickly change. So, look for venue providers offering contractual flexibility:
- Cancellation and postponement terms in your contract let you recoup some, if not all, of your funding if your event is canceled or delayed.
- Force majeure clauses in contracts help protect you from liability due to unforeseen and unavoidable external events.
- Event insurance offers financial protection to in-person event planners in the face of potential adverse circumstances.
Consider venues with a commitment to clean spaces
Even pre-pandemic, the events industry guarded attendees’ safety. Now, venues like Marriott hotels are increasing their commitments to cleanliness and safety precautions for guests.
Search for a venue that prioritizes attendee health. From touchless check-in kiosks and hand sanitizer stations to prepackaged meals and lineless food service, many venues are using innovative solutions in an effort to keep health and safety at the forefront.
Step 2: Give the people what they want
The key to event success hasn’t changed: put people first –– always. Putting your audience ahead of everything else will get you most of the way there in terms of knowing how to cater to attendee preferences and comfort levels onsite.
To level up your audience-first approach, keep the following health and safety considerations in mind.
Consider proof of vaccination, masking, and rapid testing requirements
Look to your audience (and, of course, CDC guidelines and local public health regulations) to inform your in-person gathering’s health and safety protocols. Attempt to anticipate how your event audience will react to proof of vaccination requirements, COVID testing, or similar health measures.
Consider implementing some or all of the following non-intrusive and convenient measures so your attendees feel your care for them:
- Make it convenient for your event community to upload proof of vaccination pre-event.
- Use passive thermometers for temperature checks.
- Provide rapid testing kits for attendees to use at home.
- Partner with local health organizations and medical suppliers to carry out precautions.
- Up your budget to account for the health and safety items that will support your community –– don’t let the additional spend blindside you later in the planning process.
If you’ll ask your on-site attendees to mask up, think about making it a cool, branded swag experience. Not only will it ease frustration for participants who forgot their masks, it’s also a unique opportunity to help your attendees relive your in-person event every time they wear your branded face covering post-event.
Cater to comfort when it comes to food and beverage
A lot has changed during the pandemic, and one of those changes is the increased demand for specialized diets and a more health-centric approach to food and drink. Woo attendees with a fantastic food and beverage experience that adds value to your in-person event.
Here are some ideas for safely providing options that satisfy your attendees’ tastes:
- Ask attendees about dietary preferences or restrictions ahead of time so you can create bespoke culinary experiences.
- Offer organic and health-conscious options to satisfy a variety of dietary requirements.
- Provide grab-and-go, single-serving prepared meals and snacks so your community feels confident about safe food preparation and handling.
- Acknowledge the movement around decreased alcohol consumption by serving pre-packaged beverages with low-alcohol content and more sophisticated non-alcoholic options that go well beyond a can of soda.
Leverage touchless technology
Many event professionals are turning to event technology for automation –– and it’s making the event industry safer and more efficient in the process.
Here are ways to use technology-driven automation to add value to your on-site attendees’ experience:
- Automatic doors
- Touchless check-in kiosks
- Scannable mobile QR codes for instant badge printing
- Touchless hand sanitizer dispensers placed around the event
- Motion-sensor toilet facilities
Step 3: Set expectations and focus on value
After two years of participating in hyper-convenient and lower-cost virtual events, convincing people to attend in person means catering to an evolving set of attendee expectations and value propositions.
In fact, 80% of event planners say the return on time and investment for on-site attendees is the most important factor when planning in-person events today.
So, how can you make the in-person experience worth it for people? The answer lies in upping the ante on your in-person engagement strategy so that putting in the effort to be onsite is all worth it in the end.
Engage attendees by design
83% of organizers say the biggest benefit of on-site events is deep connection and engagement.
To make good on the perception and expectation that being together in person produces strong human connections, focus your event design on just that: meaningful connections and conversation.
Much of the content featured at the in-person events of yesterday can now be delivered and consumed virtually. So the benefit of actually being there has to be –– at least in part –– meaningful networking opportunities and experiences that prioritize conversation over content.
To capitalize on these expectations, consider transforming your in-person event into a community forum that gives attendees a way to purposefully collaborate. Take it a step further by designing a connection-centric space where participants can come together to innovate and work on new ideas.
Create an “IKEA effect” experience
“Events should be a place where attendees make something that they can actually go on and use the following day,” Gould says. “And where you, as the event host, are remembered — because you were the facilitator of that making.”
Events geared toward facilitating creation will attract interest and deliver on the promise of providing long-lasting attendee value. This ability to create something together, in person, is poised to be increasingly important in driving attendance at future on-site events.
Promote personalized benefits
Want people to be extra eager to attend your in-person event? Use your event marketing materials to tell a story, connect with your audience in a personalized way, and show people why the event is genuinely relevant to them.
This will be key for effective in-person event promotion in 2022. Wondering where to get started?
Storytelling is a powerful tool. Use it to evoke emotion and interest with your audience by positioning them as the hero:
- What are their circumstances now?
- How are they feeling presently?
- What circumstances do they want to improve?
- How do they want to feel as a result?
- What obstacles are they facing today?
- How will your event be a guide to overcoming their obstacles?
- How will their circumstances change for the better after they’ve attended?
Event audiences will be drawn to seeing themselves as the main character in your story, and eager to experience your event because of what it has to offer and how they stand to benefit as a result.
Step 4: Communicate proactively and continuously
Clear and consistent communication is the best way to ease your attendees’ minds and ensure participants know what to expect. Here are communication considerations for each stage of your event:
Make pre-event and day-of-event communication clear
Communicate frequently with your community before the event so they can easily register, prepare, understand what they’re participating in, and avoid any unwelcome surprises upon arrival.
Post your health and safety requirements on your event’s website and proactively use email and social media to keep everyone up to date. Make sure your audience is aware of any contingency plans you have in place, and if you need to activate one of those plans, let them know.
On the day of your event, post clear signage so there’s no room for confusion when it comes to navigating the experience from start to finish. If circumstances change, adjust your signage accordingly.
Use post-event communications to keep conversation flowing
People enjoy being appreciated, so remember to thank attendees for joining and let them know how they can continue to engage with your event community to extend value and ROI for all.
Consider using surveys to invite feedback as a way of developing your post-event offerings and future event strategy. And don’t forget to send any on-demand session recordings or other types of event content to attendees, so they can continue to engage with your live event — well after it concludes.
Step 5: Manage partnerships for mutual success
Your attendees should be your priority, with every decision you make centered on delivering value to them.
But don’t forget to roll out the red carpet for your partners too.
Include your sponsors and partners in community discussions
Nearly one in three event professionals considers creating more sponsorship opportunities a key benefit of in-person events. With that in mind, attract attendees by weaving sponsors and exhibitors into the fabric of your on-site engagement strategy.
Sponsors and partners want to be immersed in your community to build trust with your audience and drive authentic engagement with them. So communicate with partners accordingly –– as part of the community — especially now that plans can change at the eleventh hour due to COVID variants and other pandemic-related disruptions. Aim to build a community that’s in lock step, so you can fluidly adapt to fluctuating circumstances at a moment’s notice.
At the end of the day, over-communicating to stay in sync with your partners is a solid approach. This will help avoid confusion that could spoil the on-site attendee experience or erode relationships with key stakeholders and partners. Your best bet is to keep everyone on the same page.
Step 6: Rethink your in-person guests’ agendas
Your attendees likely feel exhausted and find it challenging to focus these days. Pandemic stress has hit some harder than others. Understanding this and knowing what your attendees are up against is essential to building a high-quality agenda.
Focus on event attendees’ attention
There’s no need to draw attention to the concentration struggle, but you can embed seamless accommodations into your event:
- Plan frequent breaks to give attendees respites.
- Schedule shorter events and event sessions to sustain attention.
- Record sessions for attendees to watch on demand later.
Carve out time for connections
To align with today's expectations, in-person events should help people create something valuable for their lives or organizations. And this is a key consideration when mapping the event schedule.
Consider allocating time and opportunities for networking and collaboration. Your agenda could offer collaborative workshops, breakout sessions, coffee chats, roundtables, panel discussions, and so on. Ultimately, you want an in-person event to provide shared experiences that build bonds and produce ideas that thrive well beyond your event.
Hang on to hybrid as an option
Is hybrid really the future of events? It looks like it — 63% of event professionals think their upcoming events will be hybrid. After events went virtual during the pandemic, having an online option for every on-site experience is now an audience expectation.
Hybrid’s benefits are tough to beat –– increased inclusivity, less of a time commitment, no need to travel, lower cost, and COVID restrictions no longer equal obstacles for participating. Adding a virtual experience allows your community to engage from anywhere.
Step 7: Budget and staff accordingly
You don’t want in-person event sticker shock, nor do you want to be understaffed. Before planning, consider the budget and staff you’ll realistically need to support health and safety protocols, assist attendees, provide catering, and bring on-site experiential elements to life.
Here are some helpful takeaways for funding and staffing your in-person event:
- Download an event budget template to create and track your budget.
- Offer sponsorship opportunities and paid on-site or premium ticket types to offset costs.
- Consider how in-person elements might lengthen your event planning timeline.
- Evaluate how you can best use your event team resources to create a safe and comfortable environment.
- Factor in extra resourcing and budget considerations for hybrid events to support on-site and virtual attendees.
- Choose specific team members to handle certain responsibilities on event day.
Delegate effectively for a seamless event. For example, make one team member responsible for important in-person communication with your attendees and the rest of your team.
Also, consider delegating these responsibilities to different people on the event team:
- Event safety and health partner coordination
- On-site attendee coordination for questions and information
- Sponsor liaison and experience management (for things like catering, logistics, and setup)
Step 8: Support in-person events with technology
Event technology can help bring a wider audience into your event through virtual components, and improve your on-site experience.
Nearly 75% of organizers think the main advantage of hybrid events is opening attendance to a larger audience of virtual attendees.
Consider some of the ways in which an event management platform can add value to your in-person event by:
- Delivering event information, agendas, and offering connection opportunities.
- Improving sustainability through mobile apps that can replace paper handouts and tickets.
- Streamlining registration, event websites, ticketing, and attendee communications.
- Delivering a straightforward contingency option in case circumstances require going virtual.
This roadmap to returning to in-person events will help you safely and successfully plan a community-driven, in-person event, one step at a time.