With physical events and social gatherings requiring attendance restrictions and physical distancing, many event organizers and planners are wondering how they can facilitate networking at their event while following the mandates and keeping attendees safe from the coronavirus. While early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, hosting a virtual event was the obvious solution. But, as things slowly creep back towards a new sort of normal, people are starting to assemble yet again. Certainly, safety needs to be a priority but that does not mean that your in-person or hybrid event has to be an isolating affair without meaningful networking opportunities and plenty of social interaction. With a little careful thought and consideration you can help foster social connection and bring people together!
With strict social distancing guidelines in place, the pressure is on planners and venues to keep people safe. A good place to start is by choosing a venue with GBAC STAR facility accreditation. This program assesses 20 different elements of a venue’s risk management strategies and operating procedures. The program ensures that the facility has proper cleaning and disinfection techniques, adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), proper knowledge and education around risk management and assessment, and enforces conformity and compliance in all areas.
This means that should an instance arise during the event that prevents people from following social distancing guidelines to the letter, you can be assured that the risk of contamination is minimal. And, in order to keep their accreditation, the venue will need to maintain its compliance so you can be sure that venue staff will be on board with your event staff in enforcing the proper six feet of distance between attendees when physical barriers are not available.
One way to help people network while maintaining physical distance is to create an attendee directory. Your registration platform will collect the data for you: name, contact information, place of work, job title. List this information in a directory on your event platform, through an event app, or through a private portal on your event website so that all attendees can find and connect with people during and after the event. This directory will eliminate the need for close physical contact and can take the place of swapping business cards as attendees can virtually exchange information through saved contacts in the directory.
Organizing attendees into smaller groups makes it easier to manage the numbers. These groups will attend sessions, keynote addresses, meals, and presentations together. You can organize attendees in a few different ways. You can include a questionnaire as part of your registration process and group people together by interest, industry, or goals, depending on the nature of your event. When hosting an industry event, consider grouping people with different but associated job titles to facilitate useful networking connections. For example, if you are running a real estate industry event, consider grouping real estate agents, brokers, home appraisers, mortgage brokers, and developers together. If your event is drawing an audience from across the state or country, consider grouping people based on region. To use the real estate example once more, it is likely more valuable for a real estate agent to be connected with people in their own community than it is to be connected with someone on the other side of the country. Avoid grouping people that are likely to already know one another. If two people work at the same company, in the same town, it is unlikely that they need your help getting to know each other. Consider your event venue and limit the group size accordingly. Numbers of 6-10 are a good place to start. This can allow you to keep each person in the group appropriately distanced but also allow you to keep the groups themselves distanced from one another.
Event gamification is a growing trend in the events industry. Event hosts love it because it can increase audience engagement and encourage teamwork and networking. Gamification can include things like trivia, scavenger hunts, polls, virtual escape rooms (or physical ones, depending), and quizzes. If the gamification type you choose has a physical component, make sure to limit the groups as mentioned above. And, you will need to try and limit the number of groups in one place at the same time. This can be difficult with something like a scavenger hunt so if you have not fully worked out how to manage large groups, take that game online through an event app or virtual event platform. Gamification gives teams a goal and encourages them to work together to achieve it. It fosters bonding and collaboration, creating meaningful connections that will extend beyond your event.
Use decor elements in creative ways to promote social distancing while providing networking opportunities. Plan for specific networking sessions. Schedule them throughout the day and plan enough of them so that every attendee has the opportunity to participate. You can’t put everyone in the same room at the same time so you’ll need to take care in your planning. Once participants are in the meeting room, you can seat them at tables with plexiglass partitions or table dividers to protect the attendees. This will allow participants to see one another and to share ideas back and forth without facing any increased risk. If you do not like the idea of table dividers, you can create different arrangements with tables and chairs. By putting tables together, for example, you can create one large table and place the chairs so that each participant is still observing proper social distancing measures.In common spaces, like the lobby of a conference venue, it can be hard to maintain physical separation. Again, use decor to manage people’s movements and actions. Use event branded pillows that say “To respect social distancing, please do not sit here” to keep people apart. This allows attendees to make use of the space, chat with one another, and network without being too close. Large plants and floral arrangements can help block off spaces and prevent the room from feeling empty. Social distancing measures and gathering restrictions can ‘look’ awkward and unseemly if you fill some of the empty space with a floral wall or large plants, it will look better and keep people where you need them. --The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly turned much of the world on its head and altered the way we approach live events. But physical separation does not have to destroy your planned networking event. In-person social gathering is restricted but not impossible. Employing some of the above recommendations will allow you to host a networking event, conference, or trade show without increasing the risk faced by attendees. Maintaining social distance while still enabling networking will be what provides value to your audience and leads to increased registration and attendance.
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