Planning Events With Social Distancing


After shutting down the entire world for months, shops are opening with restrictions and people are getting out more. During the reopening of Las Vegas casinos, the dealers are the primary ones wearing masks, as gamblers strive to read facial expressions. Conferences and other events will soon follow. Despite what you see, the deadly virus remains among us at least through year 2021.

Social events during coronavirus are not dead. They are just more complicated. Whether for weddings, seminars, or scientific conferences, if you are an event planner, you are scrambling to follow social distancing guidelines. You cannot prepare as usual with the addition of hand sanitizing stations.

Traditional Capacity Calculations

Formulas vary among event planners, and antiquated online tools do not calculate social distancing. An event for 50 people has spacial capacity requirements that differ from those with 500 people. Typical standing events may estimate a 6 square foot (1.8 square meters) area per person. This has historically provided comfortable mingling room. Some people stand closer. Others are wallflowers.

In the absence of COVID-19, mixed seating requires an average of about 8 square feet per person. Allow room for chairs. So events where everyone sits down requires at least 10 square feet (1 square meter) per person. Auditorium seating requires clear line of sight. Support pillars, nooks and crannies can reduce the usable capacity of a room. Classroom desks can average 18 square feet. Dining tables consume up to 40 square feet for each person. Floor exhibits also consume space. So you may calculate 100 square feet per person.

Massive Amounts of Room Required

Social distancing changes the formulas. People are advised to remain 6 to 10 feet away from people who do not live in their households. Some guidelines recommend 50 percent or even 25 percent capacity. An exhibit floor may require a venue with more than 400 square feet per attendee! An event for 500 people can now require a building that is 800,000 to a million square feet. What about an event for 5,000 or 50,000? There is a reason why sports stadiums have cardboard cutouts in the audience.

Lengthening events and staggering attendees is something to be considered. A 2-day annual conference might repeat presentations over a 4-day period. Any plans should take into consideration local laws and guidelines. Will the building owner reduce the normal rate by there quarters for one quarter capacity? More likely, the cost of events will increase. This needs to be reflected in attendee admission fees.

Beyond the main auditorium, you must factor in restroom capacity. Can the parking structure support social distancing? Are food and drinks being served within the auditorium? People must remove masks to eat. What about concession stands? Will people stand in lines 6 feet apart? Do nearby restaurants support social distancing? What about hotels and airlines?

Exhibits Calendar

If attendees do not have PPE, will event organizers provide face masks and sanitizer? How often will you sanitize communal spaces during the program? Do you recognize that older adults are more susceptible to coronavirus? Are there liability issues if a significant number contract COVID-19? How will on-site security handle people who disregard safe hygiene and social distancing? New Orleans requires restaurant patrons to provide information for contact tracing in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

These complexities increase cost for organizers and attendees. Also consider that few of your loyal participants feel safe enough to attend. You could rent a million-square-foot facility for a dozen exhibitors with a couple hundred people.

Virtual Conference Migration

It is apparent why an increasing amount of event organizers are streaming to Zoom and telecon­ferences. This does not help airlines, hotels, and restaurants. The quality of the broadcasts depends upon equipment of participants. Those with smartphones and poor wifi connections will see less than those with large computer screens with wired internet connections. Video can become jerky. Audio can get out of sync or some viewers might drop the video call.

Despite inconsist internet connections, virtual conferences are the favored solution for the foresee­able future. Perhaps attendees can divert travel and hotel savings expenses to a good computer. You might merge a hybrid physical and virtual conference to reduce foot traffic. Perhaps 50 to 100 people can pay a premium to attend in person, deliver virtual presentations, and network with one another.

Highlights of scientific conferences include poster exhibits that feature the latest scientific research, seminars that cater to special interests in breakout rooms, and cocktail areas for networking. Events need some interaction. After all, events have the purpose of gathering the best minds together to exchange ideas. How can this be replicated virtually? Zoom has a breakout room feature, where subsets of partici­pants may be diverted. Events can have 1-way or bi-directional video. You can also enable pre-registration with Zoom.

How can you handle poster exhibits? You can publish e-posters online. This provides a different experience than passing by long aisles of poster displays. People might not even visit the website after leaving a virtual conference. Consider having more frequent breaks during seminars—perhaps every 20 minutes. During such times, share a carousel of posters with background music. The same can be done for 15 minutes prior to beginning a session.

Tag e-posters with relevant categories so they are searchable. Make good use of social media and text alerts with real-time links to appropriate web pages. Follow up with emails that feature specific sections on a website with or without private login requirements.

Get Scientific Posters

Advertisers pay top-dollar for Super Bowl commercials. But they run the same spot later for less and post them on YouTube and other websites for more visibility. Poster exhibitors can consider publishing their work on their own company website and others as well.

As you can see, the role of event planners has not withered away. Good plans are more essential. The task may seem daunting. This just increases the value of event planners. Focus on how events with social distancing can be enjoyable, profitable, and safe. #MaskUp

Get Masks Today

Have you attended a conference recently or in the past? What are your concerns now? What precautions will you take at future events?

Kevin Williams is a health advocate, local editor, and writer of hundreds of articles for multiple web­sites, including: A Bit More Healthy, KevinMD, and Sue’s Nutrition Buzz. He was a 17-year Neutrogena Research and Scientific Affairs graphics con­sul­tant.

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