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Working together to plan and execute a safe and successful live event

December 14, 2020
Reading time: 8 min
As part of our mission here at HopSkip, we're committed to helping educate and build confidence among planners, hoteliers, and all of our industry partners. We will continue to bring you Live Event Success Stories with the goal of showcasing live events that were held responsibly, safely and successfully. We'll be sharing each stakeholder's perspective and lessons learned whenever possible.
HopSkip had the opportunity to sit down with Wendy Kavanagh, CAE (President of GSAE) and the other key players involved in making the 2020 Georgia Society of association Executives Annual Meeting, held live this past August with 113 members in attendance at the Hyatt Regency Savannah, a success.  
Some of the key members involved in making this event a success:

What were the top few things that made you feel confident that you were set up for success to plan, promote, travel to and host this event?

The Event Planner: Wendy Kavanagh, CAE (President of GSAE)

Wendy: First our partnership with the Hyatt Regency Savanah and Visit Savannah was key. We looked at the value of holding our first face to face meeting since COVID-19 through the lens of several factors including governmental regulation, community and financial impact, and through attendee perspectives. This combination led our Board of Directors to decide to move forward because they felt this event would be both safe and successful.

The Attendees: Mary Wheatley (Executive Director at Rheumatology Research Foundation)
and Ashley Goodin (Executive Director at RTA)

Mary: First was my relationship with GSAE and the trust in the organization in its ability to innovate and communicate safety protocols. They were great in communicating physical distancing layouts with limits, and mask wearing. Also I was motivated as I have been working remotely since March, but at the same time I didn’t feel like I was forced to go. It was my choice to go for my own professional development, and I performed a cost benefit analysis. I got tested before I went and when I got back.

Ashley: The first thing was the clear communication of the expectations of the attendees. There was no shame in not attending, but GSAE said here are the protocols that you must follow to come in person. We all knew what to expect and what we were getting into from policing to contactless processes. We felt the plan was worked all the way through.

The City Visitors Bureau: Joe Marinelli (President of Visit Savannah)

Joe: The CEO of the Savannah Chamber of Commerce set the example and started to hold live events and our organization, Visit Savannah, is part of the Chamber. Our Mayor had taken a conservative approach in mid-May and wanted to see a Good Housekeeping-type seal of approval before GBAC even came out. We then launched Savannah Safe. This new initiative was an effort to reach out to our local business community to ask them to doing their part to participate in our safety pledge and help to get the community back open again. The pledge totals as of Nov 1., were 706 local area companies – which exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations. Visit Savannah then created the Savannah Safe Personal Pledge for visitors to our city to make a similar commitment to the new protocols.

The Host Hotel: Michelle Gortemoller of Hyatt Regency Savannah

Michelle: The biggest keys for success for GSAE’s meeting started with creating the video showing attendees what to expect with our new COVID-19 safety protocols in place. Secondly, the changes from our fitness center using signup sheets to allow deep cleaning. Thirdly, the GBAC accreditation for all Hyatt properties in combination with having a hygiene manager in place.


How did you find out that your attendees would be willing to travel to and attend a live event? Did you receive any feedback from your attendees leading up to or following the event regarding if they felt safe?

The Event Planner: Wendy Kavanagh, CAE (President of GSAE)

We called our sponsors directly and polled attendees on their willingness to attend. Yes, we assured them that all protocols mandated by the CDC were being followed as Georgia was still not as strict with their COVID-19 restrictions at the time, however Savannah had just ordered a city-wide mask mandate. This alleviated much wariness from attendees that had expressed some prior. No cases or transmission of COVID-19 were reported after the event.

The Attendees: Mary Wheatley and Ashley Goodin

Mary: At my organization we spoke about attending because we have a moratorium on staff travel as it relates to professional travel. There are no face to face meetings that are required for work but since it was professional development we were able to make an exception. We are also very supportive of GSAE as a whole

Ashley: As the executive director with RTA we have no travel bans but the real question was were we comfortable with risk? But the communication from GSAE and the Hyatt Regency Savannah was key in ensuring our comfortability to go forward.

The City Visitors Bureau : Joe Marinelli, President of Visit Savannah

Joe: We’re following the data that tourism research organizations, such as Longwoods International, Destination Analysts, and the US Travel Association are producing on a regular basis. We are very tuned into travel trends and sentiments happening around the country and doing our best to stay nimble with our messaging.


How do you ensure that a live event can be held safely in your property?

The Host Hotel: Michelle Gortemoller, Director of Sales and Marketing, Hyatt Regency Savannah

Michelle: We meet CDC, State and local mandates and standards. We also have GBAC accreditation. In Georgia, we have to follow the 196 people max limit to allow physical distancing. Also we changed our F&B protocols to focus on individually wrapped foods and served meals. To keep contact as minimal as possible, we also instituted room cleaning upon request.


How did you find out that planners would be interested in holding a live event during COVID-19?

Michelle: It was a combination of reaching out to planners for a “temperature check”, telling them what we are doing from a proactive safety approach, and then let’s talk about how you want your event to take place. For GSAE, Wendy Kavanaugh (Executive Director) said it is vital for us to hold this event and discuss the climate of our community at the meeting.


Did you feel safe leading up to or following the event?

The Attendees: Mary Wheatley and Ashley Goodin

Mary: I felt nervous going in because my husband and I have been quarantining since March and it was the first time I was going to be travelling and in a hotel. Visit Savannah did such a great job in communicating to us places we could go and activities we could do and be safe. It's one thing to hear the protocols but its even better when you see it. Compliance was 100% and made me feel safe within my group and no one complained from what I saw from an attendee perspective. I came back so happy that I attended and happy to be with everyone again!

Ashley: In terms of before, we had a COVID-19 scare in my family and we decided to all test and communicated with GSAE that if anyone comes back positive we are not attending. We had no positives and GSAE allowed us to go. We wanted to respect the event and fellow participants. We’re all in this together from the venues, to the organizers to the attendees.


Did you receive any feedback from your attendees leading up to or following the event regarding if they felt safe?

The City Visitors Bureau: Joe Marinelli, President of Visit Savannah

We have hosted three mid-size and larger events recently. The Georgia Chiefs of Police totaling around 450 attendees in July, GSAE in August with 125 attendees, and the Georgia Airports Association in September with 150 people. We have stayed in communications with the Executive Directors of each organization to see if they have seen any spike in COVID cases since their conferences. Thus far, its only been one or two, which is a testament to their planning and a testimonial to how well our convention center and Hyatt Regency Savannah have managed the events.

The Host Hotel: Michelle Gortemoller of Hyatt Regency Savannah

GSAE sent out a survey to see how many attendees were interested in going and that was an impetus to go forward with the event from a safety standpoint. Since we have started holding meetings again, we have had no confirmed cases. We are very strict about masks being worn properly and at all times other than eating/drinking while on site.


Were the hotels’ safety protocols and communication of them a deciding factor in choosing the property?

The Event Planner: Wendy Kavanagh, CAE (President of GSAE)

Not for this event because we signed a contract a year earlier prior to COVID-19 and were comfortable with the protocols the hotel implemented.


What did the Hyatt Regency Savannah do to ensure safety compliance?

The Event Planner: Wendy Kavanagh, CAE (President of GSAE)

They supplied signage throughout the space, outlining Georgia Governor Kemp’s Executive Orders, physical-distancing requirements, and mandatory mask usage. Temperature checks were offered daily as well to any attendees who wanted one. Hyatt Regency Savannah’s “Know Before You Go” flyer and hotel staff video, “Safety First, Wellbeing Always,” walked guests through their experience from hotel check in to check out. Hyatt’s hotels are also GBAC accredited now. Hotel staff, as well as GSAE staff, stressed the protocols often to make sure everyone was following them.


Were hotels’ and GSAE’s safety protocols and communication of them a deciding factor in choosing to attend?

The Attendees: Mary Wheatley and Ashley Goodin

Mary: Absolutely   

Ashley: Yes absolutely.


In your opinion, what kind of job did the hotel and GSAE do to ensure safety in regards to physical distancing, masks, sanitization, signage?

The Attendees: Mary Wheatley and Ashley Goodin

Mary: Our wonderful host, Wendy Kavanaugh, would reinforce protocols constantly. We had meals and tables to get F&B from which were color coded so each table had a corresponding food station to minimize traffic. Other food items were individually packaged. I have never used that much hand sanitizer in my life but it was great with ventilation and with the hotel holding almost all the doors open with the room set ups extremely spaced out. Microphones and AV equipment were cleaned after each speaker. Masks were worn at all times. Signage was great, such as showing elevator capacity with physical distancing. Also the hotel lead by example with mask wearing and GSAE did a great job with meeting space usage.

Ashley: Yes, they led by example from both sides. Leadership from hotel all had masks on and face badges so everyone could be recognized. This communicated that they wanted to make a connection but wanted to be safe too. Nonverbal communication was also key from both parties. Conversely, I went to a different event a month later, and the hotel staff was not visible for the most part, lacked signage, and set the expectation that the staff wasn’t interested in enforcing safety protocols. Compared to GSAE’s event, it couldn’t have been any different!


How was the process of creating physically-distanced room layouts? Space to rooms ratio?

The Event Planner: Wendy Kavanagh, CAE (President of GSAE)

We mapped out every inch of the hotel space from elevators to sanitization stations to the airflow to make sure everything was physically-distanced and following safety protocols. Hyatt had their own standardized cleanliness plan. When we were inside the meeting spaces, we had the entire space to ourselves and enjoyed high ceilings with great ventilation. Our audio-visual equipment from J&SAV was disinfected between each speaker and the breakout rooms also had microphones to ensure safe presentation delivery. Our meeting rooms were set to less than 25% capacity with physically distanced space between each attendee and the speakers.

Room set ups included:

  • Crescents of four forward-facing chairs or
  • 6-foot tables with a chair on either end
  • Speaker area of at least 6 feet at the front of each room
  • Thorough room cleaning between each session


How did masks and social distancing affect attendee networking?

The Event Planner: Wendy Kavanagh, CAE (President of GSAE)

Masks do force the wearer to project their voice as it can muffle volume. Receptions and special events included both large indoor and outdoor venues – including games like cornhole, golfing options, and physically-distanced beer tastings. We wanted to make sure people had numerous options to engage with one another, not just navigating the awkward process of unmasking, eating/drinking, and trying to get back into a conversation.


How did masks and physical distancing affect attendee networking?

The Attendees: Mary Wheatley and Ashley Goodin

Mary: I originally thought it would be difficult because of trying to speak with a mask on. But you got used to it really quickly. The physical distancing was something we had to get reminded of just because of human nature and that we know each other. But my peers, hotel staff, and Wendy all constantly reminded us. Body language was huge as well. I don’t think it interfered with networking as people were really good with eating and drinking then putting their masks back on. With the reception it was indoor/outdoor which was great.

Ashley: From an attendee perspective it was challenging but accommodations were made. We were able to still mix and mingle. Utilization of all the space that was available to have safety distanced but private conversations was brilliant. We were still able to achieve some semblance of the activities. There was less of a focus on merchandising but more so on attendees being able to accomplish their goals.

HopSkip will be releasing the individual interviews of each of the participants in the upcoming weeks so be sure to check them out and stay tuned for more live event success stories from the meetings and events community!


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