Is being a Liz like being a Karen? Or is being a Liz the event industry version of a Karen? The internet has made "being a Karen" famous by defining them as someone who is judgmental and tattletaley. After traveling a bit throughout the month of March and going to several in-person events throughout the month of April, I am definitely my own version of a Karen. The problem is, I don't have anyone to tattletale too. But I can document my thoughts in the hopes that they help someone else!
As more and more people are getting vaccinated, and a not-negligible chunk of the population chooses to not get vaccinated, and even more sizable chunk of the global population is not yet able to get vaccinated yet, we have a bit of a conundrum.
While in some public places, there may be police enforcement or fines being handed out, out in the real world of events (at least here in Texas), there are actually no COVID police walking around. When it comes to an event, it is truly up to the event organizers and/or the event venue to create and enforce any policies or participation standards.
In the last month, I have officially seen both extremes in post-pandemic gathering.
One was the extremely well-produced Marriott hybrid learning lab event. If you have not heard of this, reach out to your Marriott rep to see if they have one in your area. They have done an incredible job of showcasing everything from on-site COVID testing to food service to keynote seating to small expo booths to hybrid event technologies.
The problem with this showcase was that in the production of pure safety, they seem to have completely forgotten that there will be actual humans at the events… and that humans are the reason we’d want to get together in the first place.
It was so stark, lonely, impersonal, and depressing, that it did not make me want to book a group together for an in-person event. But it was a fantastic base to springboard my imagination around how to implement some of these suggestions and standards, and how I can jazz them up for a little more personality and fun. We will be doing some of that in our upcoming Secret Family Refresh at Atlantis in the Bahamas. But below I will give you a few of my ideas as a teaser.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I recently attended a private networking happy hour that started out seemingly fine... it was in an outdoor setting so people could spread apart, but the first thing I noticed was that none of the bar staff or waitstaff were wearing masks. I figured it wasn't a huge deal because there weren't a lot of people and it was outside... But it crossed my mind that this was a missing service standard that everyone else in hospitality is implementing, even if only for the feel-good optics.
But as the two-hour event proceeded, more and more people joined in the fun and got in line at the bar. There were no safety guidelines shared or posted. There were no safety-guideline-welcoming-remarks by hosts. And there was no pretty much no safety. No one was wearing a mask, and by about 45 minutes in, at least 150 people gathered together, with waitstaff meandering through them … still maskless.
I chose an outdoor high boy table on the far edge of the outdoor space to be away from the crowd… alone. And then I decided that it was probably smarter to just leave. Mind you, I am fully vaccinated so my risk is probably extremely low, but the entire setup felt unsafe to me and my spidey sense was tingling. So I made a decision to forgo hanging out with people I knew and I gave up meeting new people for serendipitous connections... I debated just putting my mask on and powering through, but with the loud music, it would have been nearly impossible to communicate, so I chose to leave.
In between these two extremes was the grand opening of our music venue Haute Spot, which attracted 500 people! It was a sold-out crowd as the venue can accommodate 2,000, but they have chosen to limit attendance to 500 right now. It's an outdoor venue, so by nature it feels safe-ish. They have good signage everywhere letting you know that you can be mask-less at your table while eating and drinking, but when you leave your table, your mask should be on.
All staff is properly masked, there are hand sanitizer stations throughout the venue, and you are not permitted to walk up to the bar to order - everything is ordered through an app and brought to your table so that you can safely stay in your bubble all evening. Just like the waitstaff would remind someone who's smoking that there is a designated area for that, they do a good job of reminding people who stand up without their mask that they should wear it when they leave their table.
It's not easy
From these three experiences, I know that safely gathering is possible, but it’s not easy… for the organizer or for safety-conscious participants.
If you are the event organizer, you have to truly think through the brand promise that you represent and how your safety decisions will affect the perception of your brand.
Marriott, for example, was impeccable in their safety standards, signage, and implementation, and I feel extremely comfortable holding an event there with their Connect with Confidence program…. However, as a hospitality brand, I was disappointed that they didn’t consider the “connecting” part a little more.
For the happy hour I attended, I definitely DISCONNECTED with that brand and will not attend any more of their events. However, they know their audience pretty well, so what was an uncomfortable experience for me, was just fine for the rest of the participants, who seemed to be loving every bit of this "return to normalcy." (Note: we are in Texas where there is no longer any statewide mask mandate.)
For Haute Spot, I felt proud, confident, and safe, and feel like I can safely go there for concerts every weekend, and even bring my family to some of their weeknight free concerts and grab some dinner and drinks. I feel like their safety plan is a beautiful happy medium of approachable guidelines and personal responsibility.
As I am planning my next gathering, or planning to attend someone else's gathering, here are a few ways that I’m approaching in-person events:
Remember when the music gets turned up, and the food and drinks get passed out, masks come off to consume and to communicate.
If I am the event organizer:
I will hold social events outdoors as much as possible, with plenty of space for the tables to be spaced out.
And speaking of tables, I will choose larger diameter highboys so people can spread out a little more around them. I may consider signage reminding people that a max of 4 people per highboy helps them stay at a safer distance.
I will lower the music volume (let’s be real: no one likes to go to networking events where you can’t actually network because the music is too loud, anyway).
If I am a participant:
I will choose an area that has plenty of open space around, far from the source of the loud music, and use that as my home base for conversations.
I can "go fishing” to find people to chat with by putting my mask on to venture into the crowd, introducing myself to someone, and leading them back to my safe zone to talk (“Hey, I’d love to catch up with you! I left my drink on my table, wanna chat over there?”)
I will wear my mask when I leave the table.
Remember that your decisions affect the perception of your brand.
If I am the event organizer:
Participants will take the cue from the hosts of the event. Just like on Zoom, if I am the host with my camera off, my participants will have their cameras off, too. At the event, with whatever mask choice I make, my participants will either follow my lead or disengage with my brand.
If I am in an expo environment and have to have plexiglass on my table for safety, I'll think of fun ways to make it work … I’ve never seen a successful plexi shield… every one I’ve seen ends up with the people leaning around it to talk. What if I gave participants a dry erase marker, asked them to draw a hat, then we both have to have the entire conversation “with the hat on” by positioning ourselves properly in front of the plexi?
I heard of one event in EMEA where they used a soccer theme and had staff dressed as referees with yellow cards and red cards. When participants missed a safety guideline (mask below nose or clusters of people), they could get yellow-carded in a fun way that kept spirits (and safety) high.
Remember that you are in charge of how you wish to participate.
If I am a participant:
It’s okay to ask the event organizers what their safety guidelines are if they do not share them in the pre-event logistics email.
It’s okay to participate at the level of my comfort. If I feel safe with my group and my surroundings, I should enjoy myself! But I will remember that not everyone is feeling so carefree just yet, so I need to have some empathy for the folks at the far edges at the outside table. I can network with them, too, but keep my mask on until they let me know they are comfortable removing it.
It’s okay for me to sit this one out, or check out the event and then leave.
So yeah… I’m an event Liz. I make judgements and decisions that affect how I will participate with your brand in the future based on the decisions you make at the event you invited me to. Will this mean I get invited to fewer events? Possibly. Probably. As an extrovert, that stings. I hate being left out! But it also means that I will eventually find other like-minded people when I seek out the kinds of interactions I want to have.
I’d love to hear about your experiences as you begin to emerge from your cocoon and experience in-person events again! There are no experts out there. We’re all experimenting and learning. The only way this is going to work is if we keep sharing our learnings with each other!
Liz Lathan, CMP is co-founder of Haute Dokimazo, sparking profitable relationships anchored in genuine connection through rousing shared experiences and conversations. Explore the #HugLife community for event professionals and Convo, a new year-long program for marketing and sales executives.
Haute Dokimazo is part of Haute Companies, a family of companies that believe in human connection, from events to media (podcasts, videos, and more) to direct mail to swag to entertainment talent management to strategy session facilitation. Contact Liz at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.