Meeting Safely During a Pandemic
By Beth Buehler
Over the course of 10 consecutive days in early March 2020, I attended a media trip in Breckenridge and Aurora, spearheaded an editorial advisory board meeting, welcomed a crowd of 450 to the Colorado Meetings + Events Best of 2020, and attended the annual Meetings Industry Council (MIC) of Colorado Educational Conference and Trade Show in Denver. There were conversations that COVID was beginning to make its way into Colorado, groups were starting to cancel, and concern was etched on people’s faces. The day after a group from MIC skied Keystone, and two days later I heard chatter on the chairlifts at Crested Butte Mountain Resort that the ski area might be shutting down the next day. It was stunning how fast everything was moving.
It was March 14 and kind of like remembering where you were at when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, Princess Diana lost her life in a Paris car crash, and OJ Simpson was being chased in his white Ford Bronco. But who would have thought the impact of COVID-19 would last so long? It’s already eight months later as I write this. Meeting and event planners and suppliers are working furiously and creatively make meeting safely in person during a pandemic a reality. This was precisely the case for Destination Colorado’s 2020 Customer Appreciation Event (CAE).
Here’s a snapshot of how Destination Colorado and its partners demonstrated meeting safely during a pandemic and thoughts from organizers and attendees.
Plan within the parameters allowed by the destination and state
Destination Colorado teamed up with the Aspen Chamber Resort Association to show how a group of less than 50 or less could gather safely and in style on Oct. 7–8, 2020. Aspen was “grateful and fortunate to be the host destination this year, especially during a year of challenges we have never faced before,” says Sarah Reynolds Lasser, senior director of business development for the Chamber. “I am so appreciative that Destination Colorado still moved forward with bringing our customers together to meet safely and show our industry it can be done and to really move forward as we are trying to gather again and bring meetings back to life.”
Relationships with your local destinations and hotel reps are of the utmost importance emphasizes attendee Eric Barstow, director of sales for Visit Fort Collins. “Knowing who to call to figure out ‘OK now we need two spaces; we thought we could fit 100 people in one room, maybe now it is only going to be 50. Can we spread that over two rooms, and how are you going to get that done in a short timeframe?’ We are still in that mode where live meetings should be happening but there needs to be some flexibility within that.”
Gather a team of industry professionals
“We worked very hard with all of our partners in Aspen and worked very hard with Destination Colorado. We were creative, thoughtful, mindful and intentional with how we brought people back together in a safe manner. It was wonderful to celebrate with each other, to say hello in person and to really celebrate our industry together and find ways to move forward,” Lasser says.
Barstow was impressed with the creativity of those planning the event and both main venues, Aspen Meadows Resort and Hotel Jerome, and gathered ideas to take back to Fort Collins. “The old way of doing things still matters but flexibility within that is needed, so taking a ballroom where maybe you’re used to hosting 150 people and reimagining different sets where maybe a group of 30 makes more sense to space out,” he offers. “It’s been a breath of fresh Aspen air in the fall; you can’t really beat it. It is so good to see old friends, new friends and colleagues and get face-to-face. It’s a cause for hope and I think we are all looking forward to the next 18 months and what it has to offer.”
Safely generate the wow
“It is so great to be face-to-face with my colleagues and peers and really see how events are happening post-COVID,” says Chrissie Widhalm, senior sales manager for executive meetings at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. “I took a walking city tour of Aspen, and we got to experience some wonderful local culinary restaurants in town that were absolutely amazing. We went to the fine art museum to see some up-and-coming artists who were featured and displayed. We also saw some great shopping as presented by local Aspen artisans.”
She adds, “We can really move forward and have positive experiences. It’s time to meet live, and I think we’re all excited to be together. They have done an amazing job, there’s been so many great activities, and it’s been really great to see friends.
Meeting planner Kyle Jordan, managing director of learning and conferences for the Financial Planning Association, appreciated being able to see an example of meeting safely during a pandemic and what attendees might encounter in a physically distanced reception like the one held in Hotel Jerome’s spacious courtyard. “Coming together and being able to experience an evening like we have tonight is paramount to getting meetings back and showing people that we can do this successfully, we can do this carefully, and we can do this with the participants’ best interests in mind.”
He suggests, “That’s what these programs, like what Destination Colorado is hosting, are all about. Showing our participants that we have their safety in mind and that we can do this in a safe environment and still provide them a deeply experiential event where they can connect with others.”
Beth Buehler has been editor of Colorado Meetings + Events magazine for 15 years and helped launch Mountain Meetings magazine in 2013. She has planned numerous meetings and events and enjoys exploring Colorado.