After over a year of lockdowns, social distancing and limits on gatherings, conferences are back with a vengeance! Some of us can’t get back to in-person events soon enough. But for others, the thought of returning to ‘normal’ life is nothing short of terrifying.
Yes, social distancing is no longer a legal requirement. But the number of new cases is still high. And, let’s face it, many of us just aren’t used to social contact right now – especially with strangers!
So, what does this all mean? Well, if you’re planning a post-pandemic conference, you’ll need to think about how you can keep everyone feeling safe and confident – both those who can’t wait to hug every new contact they meet; and those who are a little more uncertain. Here are some ideas to help.
1. Go hybrid
A hybrid event allows your attendees to choose whether they’d like to attend remotely or in person (check out our ultimate guide to hybrid events to learn all about them). So, as far as we’re concerned, it’s the perfect way to make sure all your attendees can have their preferences taken into account during your conference.
Just make sure that you place as much focus on the virtual elements of your hybrid conference as you do with the in-person elements. It’s important that those who are attending your event virtually feel just as important as those who are present at your physical event venue, and that they receive just as much value.
For example, we’d recommend making sure that you’re utilising a virtual event platform that allows you to maximise your hybrid event audience engagement, using tools such as live polling, Q&A and live chat. Preferably, you should also make it possible for your virtual attendees to network with those attending in-person, as well as amongst their fellow remote attendees.
Although we love hybrid events for times like these where not everyone is yet comfortable returning to in-person events, going hybrid also comes with a whole host of other benefits. Just a couple include reduced carbon emissions (due to fewer attendees travelling to a physical event venue) and increased accessibility. So, we believe hybrid events will be around long after Covid has become a distant memory.
2. Use breakout spaces
While some attendees will relish the idea of being in a big room full of people, others might find it intimidating. By providing multiple breakout spaces, you can avoid too many attendees gathering in one place and allow delegates to mingle in smaller groups should they choose to.
If possible, try to ensure that some of these breakout spaces include outdoor areas. Studies have shown that it’s easier to catch Coronavirus indoors than it is outdoors, so giving your attendees access to fresh air is likely to help them feel safer and therefore more relaxed.
If you want to go a step further, you could even consider creating breakout spaces with different levels of social distancing. For instance, you might have one large space where attendees don’t need to observe any social distancing rules at all. However, another space might require attendees to wear a mask in order to enter.
If the room where your main stage is located is big enough, you could even designate sections of the auditorium to mask wearers and leave other sections to be populated by attendees who’d rather say goodbye to social distancing altogether. This way, your attendees can choose which spaces they feel most comfortable entering and tailor their experience to their preferences and level of confidence.
3. Communicate safety measures in advance
For delegates who are concerned about attending a conference in person, it will be helpful to communicate how your event will work in advance. This will help them to avoid having to worry about whether or not they’re going to feel safe, or about what’s expected of them.
You should include details about:
- Whether or not masks will be required.
- If masks are required, at what points.
- Whether social distancing will be in place.
- The capacity of the event.
- Any other safety measures, such as enhanced cleaning or one-way systems.
For ideas of the kinds of safety measures you can put in place to keep delegates and staff safe (and, of course, to help boost delegate confidence), download our free Safer Events White Paper. You can also read all about Covid testing at events and how to make your delegates feel confident attending in-person events in our dedicated blogs.
Ideally, you should communicate what safety measures you plan to put in place right from the point where attendees book their tickets. Then, attendees can make a clear and informed decision about whether your event is one they’ll feel comfortable attending before committing to it. If your conference is hybrid, this information will also be valuable in helping them to decide whether they’d like to attend remotely or face-to-face.
However, if social distancing measures have changed since you first advertised your conference, we’d recommend sending your attendees a welcome pack in advance of the big day, with all the information they need. This way, you’ll be able to reassure your attendees of the safety of your conference and let them know what’s expected of them so that everything runs smoothly when the time comes.
4. Focus on the ‘why’
Since the arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic, we’ve become accustomed to virtual events such as meetings and conferences. Although they arose out of necessity rather than choice, there are a ton of positives that they’ve brought with them for attendees. Think less travelling, better work-life balance, reduced cost…
This means that you have to be really clear about why attendees should attend your in-person conference – what will they gain that they can’t gain in the same way from accessing a virtual conference?
This is a particularly important question to answer now, while there’s still a health risk involved with in-person events. But it’s a question that’s likely to stick around for a long time yet.
One of the most likely reasons is connection. After being stuck at home for the best part of a year and a half, we’ve all missed out on forming real-life relationships and on collaborating face-to-face (as opposed to over a video call).
By putting the idea of connection and collaboration at the forefront of your conference, and building your communication, content and entertainment around it, you’ll be able to give your attendees a clear reason to attend. If, on the other hand, you find that there isn’t a good reason to hold your conference in person, it might be that you need to rethink your event’s format.
5. Social distancing wristbands
Since social distancing has become optional in the UK, it can be hard to know how to greet somebody. Is it okay to go in for a hug or a handshake? Or is it safer to stick to a rigid wave from two metres away?
One solution to this problem is actually a popular post-pandemic wedding hack. However, we see no reason why it couldn’t work equally as effectively at a conference. It involves placing buckets of colourful wristbands at the entrance of your venue, which signify different levels of confidence.
Red wristbands are for attendees who feel most comfortable maintaining social distance. Yellow wristbands are for those for are comfortable getting a bit closer but would prefer to minimise touching. And green wristbands are for those who are comfortable forgoing social distancing altogether, such as hugging and shaking hands.
By asking every attendee to wear a wristband relating to their level of confidence, you can help remove those awkward greetings we’ve all become so accustomed to. But, even more importantly, you can help those less confident attendees to easily and politely communicate the fact that they would rather not touch. Ultimately, it’ll make for a more pleasant and frictionless experience for everyone.
As you can see, even though social distancing rules have been lifted in the UK, that doesn’t mean events such as conferences can be delivered exactly as they were before the pandemic. Instead, it’s likely to take a while for audience confidence to return to pre-pandemic levels, and it’s important that the events we plan in the meantime reflect that.
Don’t yet have a venue for your conference? We've compiled a list of our favourite hybrid event venues that could be perfect. Or, if you'd like some hands-on support, simply get in touch with our event experts.