How This Association Held a 300-Person Event — Safely — in June in Florida

Author: Michelle Russell       

face-to-face event

When the Georgia Motor Trucking Association met at the Ritz Carlton Amelia Island, they were able to have many of the usual meeting events, including a reception on the lawn. (Photos courtesy GMTA)

The Georgia Motor Trucking Association (GMTA) rolled into Florida and accomplished what most associations have been unable to do since the beginning of this year: It held a 300-attendee, in-person meeting. GMTA’s Annual Convention usually attracts twice that number of attendees, but Ed Crowell, the trucking association’s president and CEO, said, “we knew that going into it, and by all accounts,” the event, held June 21-23 at the Ritz Carlton on Amelia Island, “turned out to be a success.”

At a time when most associations have canceled, postponed, or moved their 2020 events online in the wake of COVID-19, Crowell went in another direction. It’s not that the association is averse to digital platforms — it has offered educational training online. But for this event, he said, “it was almost always a go/no-go decision for us — a decision of whether we could do it for ‘real’” — as in face-to-face — “as opposed to any other option… . At the end of the day, going forward with it seemed like the most practical option for us to take.”

Crowell said that was due to the fact that elements of the convention needed to be in-person “and there was strong desire among our membership to have a face-to-face event. Along with us being convinced that we could do it safely — that was always the first consideration.”

In fact, he attributed the lower attendance — confirmed by responses to pre- and post-event surveys — less to actual concerns attendees and sponsors had for their own health and safety than to their companies’ policies prohibiting corporate travel at this time. On the flip side, attendance was helped by the fact that the “vast majority” of participants drove to the event, as “most of our attendees probably were within 10 hours” of Amelia Island, Crowell said.

face-to-face event

The GMTA worked closely with the Ritz Carlton Amelia Island starting in February to ensure that all health and safety protocols would be in place before the June event.

Partnering With the Hotel

Crowell and his team worked closely with the Ritz Carlton starting in February to ensure that all health and safety protocols would be in place before the event. “We have a very good working relationship with the Ritz Carlton Amelia Island because we’ve used them for multiple years and they have a very stable group of people there,” Crowell said. “So we know them, they know us, and we were always confident that we could trust whatever they were promising to us, whatever they said they were going to do, and that they would do their part. We went through what their safety and PPE protocols were going to be and were satisfied that they were saying the right things, and also that knowing them that they would be doing the right thing.”

Beyond that, the Ritz Carlton’s flexibility made the event feasible. “They were willing early on to waive all the minimums, either attrition or F&B charges,” Crowell said, “and in a practical sense, that’s probably one of the biggest challenges to having an in-person meeting now through the end of the year, at least. We could not have done it if we thought we were facing a huge attrition penalty, not knowing how many we were going to get. Being a trade association — and I pointed this out to them very early on — we’re not a corporate environment where we can simply issue an order and say, ‘Everyone who works for us is going to be at this place at this time.’ You have to sell an association event, you have to convince people it’s worth going to. And so we had to do that, but we also had to convince people it was safe to go to.”

In an interview with trade media site FreightWaves, Crowell described other extensive measures the hotel has taken to ensure guest safety, including putting up plexiglass barriers and installing automatic doors to eliminate the need to touch handles.

face-to-face event

Each attendee sat at their own six-foot table during sessions in the ballroom.

Social Distancing and Liabilities

The business sessions of the meeting were the easiest thing to control in terms of social distancing, Crowell said. “We literally gave every individual a six-foot table to sit at in the ballroom. So that kept them apart from each other,” he said. The more social parts of the event were a “a little tougher,” he admitted. “We have receptions, we have golf tournaments — sort of a standard trade association convention. For our golf tournament, we arranged with the course to bring in extra carts. So every golfer had their own cart, but there were some folks who said they wanted to ride with each other. And in some cases, they had traveled together to the event. So that’s sort of a no-brainer. And in other cases, they mutually agreed that they felt comfortable being close. We didn’t forbid that if they made those decisions, but we made sure that people had to make conscious decisions — that they didn’t naturally just find themselves suddenly face-to-face, or side-by-side with people in any unplanned way.”

Crowell said that he didn’t ask participants to sign waivers releasing the association from responsibility should anyone get COVID-19 from attending. “We’re an 86-year-old — going on 87-year-old —organization and one of the benefits that accrues from that is we’ve had liability programs and insurance policies in place for years,” he said. “And our liability insurance actually very clearly covered anyone getting sick from attending any of our events.”

On top of that, Crowell said the association did its due diligence and homework before making the final decision to hold the face-to-face event, “including what our potential liability could be in terms of the insurance coverage we had. And we were able to communicate all that to our board of directors.”

face-to-face event

No COVID-19 cases have been reported back to the GMTA from the June event, which had 300 people in attendance.

Fresh Eyes

Crowell said one of the opportunities of designing an event during a pandemic is that it forces you “to look at everything we do at the event with sort of a blue-sky aspect … to revisit everything we do and say, ‘Is this necessary or is this the best way to do it?’ In particular, we looked at things that would normally put people in close proximity and either did away with them or changed how we did them.” In addition, holding an event within CDC guidelines prompted them to think more deeply about what they were really trying to accomplish with the meeting and what tactical changes could be made that would “still get us to that strategic goal, what we’re really after,” he said.

That included a board meeting, which is typically scheduled before the convention officially begins — and held in close quarters. For that reason, Crowell and his team decided “the best thing to do was hold it online before the meeting proper,” he said. The Zoom meeting went over very well, “and it actually gave us a chance to bring in some guest speakers,” he added, “that might not normally have traveled down to speak.”

At the registration area, stanchions were used to snake lines to keep people separated, and individual hand-sanitizer bottles were made available at the registration tables — as were “thousands of masks, which we were handing to people in handfuls,” Crowell said. “Some folks did wear them and some folks didn’t. Some of our larger events were outdoors,” he added, which lowered the risk of possible virus transmission. Although mask wearing was not made mandatory for participants, the Ritz Carlton staff wore masks and gloves at all times.

In addition, GMTA “moved almost every piece of paper to electronic only, and I think we will continue to do that going forward,” Crowell said.

While sponsorships were down “a bit,” Crowell wrote in a summary memo cited in FreightWaves, the GMTA Annual Convention does not have an exhibition hall, so there was no loss there. “All nonparticipating sponsors made verbal commitments to return in the future,” Crowell wrote.

In the end, the event did “produce a margin,” Crowell said. In addition, “we gave more value to our attendees and continued to build relationships and value for the organization and for the industry that I don’t think we ever could have gotten in a digital environment — and we heard that from our attendees as well,” he said. But the most important metric of success has come in the form of a zero: No COVID-19 cases have been reported back to the GMTA from the June event.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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