We just completed a 10-day journey to site visit Dubai and the Maldives for a program scheduled for later this year and had the privilege of experiencing COVID safety protocols and learning things to implement in our future programs. Personally, I have been in lockdown with my family for most of the past year, quite nervous about the virus and wanting to stay as far away from crowds as possible. Hopping on a plane and meeting people halfway around the world was quite a psychological journey for me, and it took me a couple of days to really adjust and get comfortable with it, and to learn the new and different way we have to be human. The truth is, it's not the same out there. But with a little planning and grace, we can work our way back to living again.
As always, we love to share our learnings with you as you begin to plot your event programs for this fall and early 2022! Obviously things are changing by the day, but here's a few observations and things to consider as you start site visits and program planning.
Health tests and forms
The first thing to know as an international traveler is that a rapid COVID test is not the same as a PCR test... The rapid COVID test is not accepted by airlines because the accuracy is around 80%.
Also, a regular PCR test is not as useful as a quick PCR test for most countries with a 72-hour test result requirement. The PCR test offered at your local pharmacy generally takes 2-3 days to receive results, which may not arrive in time to meet your 72-hour deadline to travel. Make sure to find a location for a 24-hour PCR test and you MUST have printed results for your flight. Over the course of our trip, we had 3 PCR tests. One to leave the US and get into Dubai, one at our hotel in Dubai to get into the Maldives, one at our hotel in Maldives to get back into Dubai & the US.
There are services to help your event attendees through this process, and after searching around just personally to accomplish what was needed for a trip, I think that adding in a budget line item for a company like Vital Circle is worth considering to help attendee manage this part of their experience.
Next are the country-specific health forms: Our gate agents were very patient with us as we learned about the forms and had to fill them out on our mobile devices at the ticketing counter, but knowing what’s needed (and screen-shotting the QR code or approval screen) is ideal. Some countries have the digital version, but on our journey back into the US, we found that the paperwork to come into JFK in NYC was actual PAPER. Our trip was multi-legged on the way home, leaving Maldives, entering UAE, and then entering the USA, so there were layers of forms to complete for the full trek home.
We tried out business class because our program intent is to buy out business and first class to bring our executives to the location. On Emirates, the first class cabin is a very solitary, isolating experience which is not right for our talkative group, so we agreed on business class for more social interaction. Coach seating was not full, allowing passengers plenty of room between them (but who knows how long that will stay in effect).
No matter what class you were traveling in, everyone was required to wear a mask at all times except during food service. Sleeping with a mask on is certainly not optimal, but it’s required (with a face mask and eye mask on, I felt like I had been kidnapped and thrown in the trunk of car!). Flight crews all had full body aprons, face masks, and eye shields, and all food was overwhelmingly wrapped and covered in plastic (leading me to worry about the poor turtles... if we thought plastic straws were a problem for them... ugh!).
Knowing that everyone on board had been required to test negative within the last 72 hours and that airplane filters block and capture 99.97 percent of airborne particles over 0.3 micron in size made being on a plane for over 13 hours feel pretty safe overall.
Once we landed, immigration procedures were the same as always, with the exception of social distancing signs (which were difficult to conform to in a winding queue, but most people tried), and the requirement to show your health form confirmation before being allowed through, as well as the printout of your negative PCR test. Currently, with travel so limited, there were almost no lines for us (why can't it always be like this!!), but if you are bringing a group through the travel process, it might be worth investing in a premium access line if the country you’re traveling to permits it.
Travco arranged gate-side pickup for us and drove us to the immigration lines and talked us through the immigration and health forms process - this was an incredible service that we'll be adding on for our group.
Working with a DMC, travel company, and hotels
Globally, fist bumps have replaced hugs and handshakes and friendly bowing has replaced cheek kisses for initial greetings. In both Dubai and the Maldives, we found that all the staff at the Anantara The Palm Dubai and Naladu Private Island had already been fully vaccinated, but still wore a mask for our safety. Our transportation made us feel a bit like we were inside a shower curtain due to the plastic dividers between the driver and the passenger and the back seat. Despite these obvious physical barriers, the staff at the hotels, as well as our DMC partner Travco in Dubai and at Naladhu Private Island in the Maldives kept their masks on and were extremely friendly, which helped to overcome the physical dividers in hospitality. Even in outdoor environments where they permitted us to be mask-free if we were comfortable, their staff always kept their masks on, unless we specifically asked if they were comfortable removing them for photos.
In Dubai, more than 60% of everyone had been vaccinated at the time of our trip there and the only time we felt even slightly uncomfortable was when we visited the Dubai Mall on the way to the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building). While everyone was masked properly inside the mall, social distancing was not well-maintained in the crowded mall hallways... ah, humans.
However, at tourist attractions and on site visits to properties, all elevators were limited to 4 passengers, so we had to have special approval to put all 5 of us and our guide in the elevator together. In some instances, we were declined permission to ride together and had to meet on the right floor in separate elevators.
In the Maldives, they take COVID precautions very seriously because if even one case is confirmed, the entire island goes into lockdown. You can imagine how detrimental this is to the economy and just to get everyday supplies into the island. All resort staff was fully vaccinated unless medically prevented from receiving a vaccine, and all staff wore a mask at all times (indoors and outdoors). Dining tables were spread further apart than normal and F&B was served (rather than buffet style). This was not just "COVID theatre" here - they take everything very seriously because the economic health of their islands depend on it.
So now we wait and see if all these precautions were successful and we remain virus-free. While we didn't use any electronic devices for contact tracing, our Travco team in the UAE and our island team in the Maldives assigned a set of hosts to stay with us throughout our time there, limiting daily travel director or tour guide interaction for easy tracing, should any of us turn up positive. At our accommodations in both Dubai and Maldives, while both were operating at capacity, contact with other guests was practically nonexistent other than passing them in the lobby or at the beach. As you site visit and plan locations for your program, looking for properties with this feeling of seclusion might be something to add to your qualification list.
For larger groups, leveraging a company like Proxfinity or Vital Circle is a good consideration for being able to launch post-event communication to the people affected if anyone should test positive within 2 weeks of the program.
Back in the USA
I have to admit that the most unsafe we felt was when we returned to the USA. Although JFK in NYC has deployed the National Guard to have all incoming passengers complete a health form upon arrival, inconsistent mask usage, lack of enforcement of mask-wearing, zero social distancing in lines, and a general lack of personal responsibility in the airports was disheartening. There was still plenty of space for us to spread out and stay away from the masses in general, but it was strange to see after being in countries where most people took the guidelines more seriously.
On the plus side, this makes international destinations extremely attractive, in my opinion. We also found the people we met along our journey to be so much more friendly than we could have ever imagined - perhaps they were excited to have guests, or perhaps they were forced to be overly friendly to overcome the physical barriers between us (fist bumps instead of hugging, face masks and no cordial cheek kissing). Either way, the experience was fulfilling, joyful, refreshing, and I'm so glad I did it. I can't WAIT to get on a plane again and see more people in 3D... where the only barrier between me and the world is a face mask!
Liz Lathan, CMP is co-founder and CEO 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. Subscribe to our Journal of Human-Centric Marketing to get weekly content.
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 email@example.com