Event Management in a Pandemic
Planning & Budgeting for Uncertain Times
By Chris Gelbach
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the cancelation of a tremendous number of events in 2020, but that doesn't mean we'll never get together for fun and recreational events again. Unfortunately, the questions of when that will be, and what those events will look like, remain largely unanswered.
"It is not an exaggeration to point out that all live events were the first ones to be closed down in the second week of March and unfortunately our industry will be the last to reopen after everybody else because it's more difficult to do social distancing at any kind of live event. It just is," said Steve Adelman, vice president of the Event Safety Alliance and the head of Adelman Law Group, PLLC.
Adelman noted that entities like park districts can hold events like concerts in the park and drive-in movies. And it's easy to do things like paint socially distanced circles into the grass and get people to stay there for most of the event.
"The problem is people are going to be moving, they're going to be circulating during the event. They're going to have to get to their circle. They're going to have to get to the restrooms. They're going to have to get to any concessions that may be allowed to reopen," Adelman said.
And when patrons aren't in their chalk-striped circle or sitting comfortably in their vehicle, the event resembles a general admission event. "And regular general admission events are very, very hard during a pandemic because you can't maintain social distancing," Adelman said. "And that's why most events haven't been allowed to reopen."
Driving In, Driving Through
New York City, which was brutally hit by the initial wave of the pandemic but now sports test positivity rates much lower than the rest of the country, has remained cautious in returning to producing and permitting events. According to Anthony Sama, director of citywide special events for NYC Parks, a cap of 50 people for outdoor events has been extended through Dec. 1.
While Sama has seen some events in the city incorporating things like the drive-in format Adelman mentioned, he noted that some of the events have adopted no-touch reservation experiences not only for concessions but also for holding a place in a restroom line without having to physically wait near others.
"Obviously, right now, the purpose that serves is to keep people in their cars at drive-ins so we don't have too many people outside their cars moving around or waiting in lines for something," Sama said. "But even under normal circumstances, I think that's a creative solution to a problem that can be leveraged."
In Louisville, the Louisville Parks Foundation's popular Jack O'Lantern Spectacular, which features more than 5,000 carved pumpkins illuminated at night as an art show, is normally a walkable event through the city's Iroquois Park. This year, it has been transformed into a drive-through event.
Brooke Pardue, president and CEO of the Louisville Parks Foundation, noted that this shift for the event's eighth year was not as daunting as it might have been, since the foundation debuted a similar holiday-themed event called Winter Woods Spectacular last year. Also in Iroquois Park, that event was created with a drive-through format due to the colder winter weather.
"The biggest concern [for the fall event] was moving from a per person price to a per car price, and we will certainly see our income drop because of the change," Pardue said. "That said, we thought it was important to do everything we could to host this fall family favorite, even during a global pandemic, if for no other reason than the mental health of our fans."
Even when it's necessary to dramatically change events for safety, and when they may not be as profitable, they can often still be structured to serve a social good. For example, while the Jack O'Lantern Spectacular will not serve food or concessions this year, it will offer a way to help the community as a drop-off location for #FeedTheWest, a local community food justice initiative.
Go Small or Stay Home
For 2020, the Big Apple has already canceled the in-person elements of things like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and New Year's Eve at Times Square, which will exist as virtual productions only.
At this time, it is allowing only approved outdoor events in its parks of less than 50 people, with the additional stipulation that all events must also sign a safety plan affirmation.
"This is a checklist of about 20 to 30 different things people can do in terms of adding hand sanitizer at their events, keeping track of event attendees [for contact tracing purposes], making sure their staff has been kept safe, and providing PPE for attendees who may not have it," Sama said.
The city has also introduced limitations to further discourage small events from growing into larger ones. According to Sama, this includes prohibiting vehicles coming into the parks to facilitate event production so that only hand-carried items are permitted.
It also includes strict limits on amplification. "We are allowing amplified sound at our events," Sama said. "We're just being much more cautious in terms of the spaces where that amplified sound is being used as to not draw a large crowd."
Sama noted that the city has begun issuing permits for things like barbecues, family gatherings, weddings and certain approved athletic activities. It has also been working with cultural institutions on smaller events like pop-up performances and spoken-word performances.
The city also hosted its first recent event by the New York Road Runners in September in Central Park, which Sama noted are known by city residents as typically being large events hosting 5,000 people or more. The initial post-pandemic event instead featured 200 runners, with four waves of 50 runners so there was never more than 50 people participating at any one time.
"We're trying to bring programming back into our parks in as safe and low-impact a way as possible while ensuring that our parks continue to serve the important role they have throughout this pandemic to provide a respite for our residents from their apartments, from their homes, to be able to get out and recreate in a safe space," Sama said.
As the city budget is assaulted by the pandemic, the inability to hold large events has allowed New York to focus its limited spending on maintaining its parks for this core purpose. It also keeps residents more comfortable with using the parks as an outdoor escape. "There's a very large cross-section of people who are still not comfortable being around large groups or even seeing a large group of people congregating for any reason," Sama said.
In this environment, Sama is seeing some cultural groups use park spaces for more intimate entertainment options such as the New York Philharmonic's Bandwagon pop-up concerts featuring masked performers and a pickup truck. Another group of musicians has even started a program that allows an individual or small group to meet a violinist, cellist or other musician for a short one-on-one performance.
This kind of opportunity not only allows musicians to engage with their most dedicated patrons, but also gives nearby park patrons an opportunity to enjoy some music without attracting a large crowd.
Virtual and Hybrid Models
Sama has also seen increases in requests for small concerts and other performances in parks that have an audience of less than 50 people, but that are also filmed for online simulcast or later distribution. "A lot of that is happening and I think we will see it continue to happen as the pandemic progresses," Sama said.
At Texas A&M University, Dr. Donna Lee Sullins, instructional assistant professor of event management for the Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences Department, is likewise seeing a shift to hybrid and virtual formats. With her students, she focuses on the planning and execution of events across genres that include parks, recreation, tourism, youth services and others. This semester alone, her students are planning 24 events at the university and in the surrounding communities.
Due to the pandemic and corresponding state guidelines, many of these events have been forced to go virtual or to a hybrid format. When making that transition, Sullins recommends keeping as much of the spirit of the original event as possible.
In the spring, for instance, Texas A&M went virtual for a banquet that is normally catered by a high-end restaurant in town. "The students who are receiving awards at this banquet are usually pretty excited about that," Sullins said. "So we provided digital gift certificates to everyone so that they could go pick up curbside if they wanted."
The virtual portion of the banquet also included day-to-day postings on a website that gave people a way to interact with the website to win prizes, encouraging people to read about what the award recipients had done. It included a mocktail day featuring an online recipe because there's typically a mocktail hour as part of the event. There was also a live performance of a song posted from the musician who had been slated to provide live music for the event.
"They tried to incorporate as many elements as they could to make people feel connected to the event," Sullins said of her students. "Especially when it's one like that that repeats year after year."
Sullins anticipates that we may go through a transition period before people are comfortable doing in-person events. "I think having at least a hybrid element is really important," Sullins said. "The idea is that while you might have some people joining in person, some people are going to be joining virtually."
Doing everything you can to make the experience special for both parties is important. Sullins noted the example of another event her students were planning that will feature little charcuterie boxes and bottles of wine for the in-person event, with the same boxes also being delivered to virtual participants.
Sullins also stressed the need to keep virtual events shorter, because people are unwilling to sit at home for three hours the way they would for an in-person event. "They need to take less time. You don't need to expect people to engage as much," Sullins said. "One thing I have talked to my students about with virtual events is that people can leave them a lot easier than an in-person event."
It's also important to get the technological aspects right. Sullins noted that while people think they don't need volunteers for virtual events, volunteers can actually come in handy in helping communicate details about the event, answering questions about the event, and serving as a test audience prior to the event. They can allow you to hone your presentation, give you immediate feedback and help ensure that your virtual event is more efficient and professional.
This is critical to make sure your virtual event is engaging and glitch-free from the get-go. "People need to feel impressed by what you're doing and the professionalism of it. Make sure that it's not just a meeting that they would attend at work, but it feels like an event. You've got a background going. You've got music playing. You have people who are confident in guiding what's supposed to be happening. Because retaining people there in the moment of your event can be a lot more challenging in a virtual world," Sullins said.
Sullins also recommends focusing more on virtual events that connect people or groups who already know each other. Connecting new people successfully in a virtual event is harder and often requires smaller groups, more volunteers and trained facilitators. "I'm not going to say don't try, but it just seems really, really challenging in a virtual environment to bring new people together without having a lot of investment," Sullins said.
Can the Economics Work?
In considering smaller or virtual versions of events that have traditionally been profit-focused, it's unquestionably difficult to find a model that works financially.
"There's no reason to sugar-coat the economics of this," Adelman said. "They're awful. The math doesn't work in the respect that most of the fixed costs of putting on any kind of live event are fixed. And so whether you have 20% of your usual capacity crowd or 100% of your usual capacity crowd, the operational costs are roughly the same. Because they're not especially scalable. Whereas the income most unfortunately will be most definitely scaled."
According to Steve Schmader, president and CEO of the International Festivals & Events Association (IFEA), another problem is that efforts to replace live events with virtual ones can often be less than satisfying.
"You imagine a live event and the spontaneity and the energy, and it's really just out people watching," Schmader said. "And having a good time and being with your friends and deciding on the spur of a moment whether you want a hot dog or a hamburger."
While it's hard to recapture the magic of a live event online, it may be even harder to capture the interest of sponsors. "Because a lot of events live or die by sponsors who are used to benefit packages that bring them together with attendees in person, can you now replace those obligations or those offerings in a way to bring the same dollars?" Schmader said. "There are sponsors now that are saying, 'If we're just going to be online, we can create our own online programming. We don't need the local event to do that. We'll just put our own thing up.' "
He also noted that while virtual events can be effective in generating goodwill and keeping your brand out there, they often struggle to generate revenues, particularly in an environment that boasted virtually limitless online content even before the pandemic.
The Legal Ramifications of Going In-Person
Beyond the safety considerations of going back to in-person events, many event producers also worry about the threat of COVID-related lawsuits. But as a lawyer, Adelman noted that the real risks of events relate to health and safety, not to any serious risk of personal injury lawsuits relating to an outbreak linked to an event. This is because a personal injury claim is a tort, requiring four elements: duty, breach, causation and harm, and proximate cause.
"COVID-19 victims will never be able to prove proximate cause," Adelman said. "Even the knuckleheads who went to Sturgis, South Dakota, and cavorted like wild animals for a week and subsequently rode back to their home state and reported they were sick from COVID-19. They will not be able to prove by preponderance of evidence that the place where they got sick was Sturgis. Because they surely went other places as well during the 14-day incubation period for COVID-19."
Nevertheless, the health and safety risks of large events remain very real, and predicting shifts in local reopening guidelines is near impossible. So as recreation managers look forward to 2021, it's hard to plan for future large-scale events. "My advice to people is always to be conservative in their commitment until there are assurances or some kind of confidence that the events will be permitted to move forward," Sama said.
This uncertainty is an incredible challenge for organizations currently living off reserves, but there are no ready answers. "For people to budget and plan and look forward is very difficult," Schmader said. "And you've got a lot of people that are obviously chewing their arms off because they don't control the situation."
At this point, knowing when an effective vaccine will be available and distributed widely enough to provide some semblance of herd immunity is impossible. But parks and recreation managers are uniquely positioned to be at the vanguard of these efforts—if only because they have ample outdoor space and the ability to space people out.
As Sullins noted, park districts also have the chance to use this moment to let people know about their lesser-known parks and other outdoor amenities. Her students are working with two local park districts on programs that highlight how people can access the more than 100 parks available locally in a more self-directed way.
"We have over 100 parks locally, and a lot of people just keep going to the same parks over and over again because it's what's nearby, it's what's comfortable," Sullins said. "So we're trying to get people to recognize that there's a lot more available to them and many more places where they might enjoy themselves."
And when more traditional events do return, they're likely to look a lot different—even if we don't have a clear picture of what exactly that look will be.
"It doesn't matter how long you've been running or how old your events are, the next event that you produce will be a first-time event," Schmader said. "Because there's going to be a lot of new regulations and stipulations and things that you have to consider."
In addition to providing a wealth of coronavirus-related resources on its website providing guidance from industry experts, health officials and other industries, the IFEA has also formed several committees dealing with coronavirus-related issues. Initial guidance from these committees are slated to be shared in October with related webinars and other programming to follow. The Event Safety Alliance likewise released its Event Safety Alliance Reopening Guide in May.
But all the guidance in the world doesn't eliminate the uncertainty of the current situation or provide a crystal ball to what lies ahead. And while the event industry is a highly creative and innovative one that will find a way forward, Schmader likens the future to the changes the industry faced after 9/11, when the security landscape for events changed dramatically.
"I think there will be new norms and expectations that we will all have to get used to," Schmader said. "We're learning as we go, as are a lot of the healthcare experts, politicians and everyone else. Everybody is trying to call their best shots in a world that we don't understand and where we don't get to call the shots on our own. It's like we're all in a master's degree that we didn't sign up for." RM
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