What could in-person meetings during the time of COVID-19 — meaning there is no vaccine or effective treatment yet available — look like? Bradley Metrock has a clear picture, and it involves a list of protocols — including that all participants signing a waiver that releases the event organizer from liability should anyone get sick, an initial COVID-19 test and then daily temperature checks, the wearing of masks, enforced social distancing, and the use of an on-site medical room for any attendees who start coughing or exhibit other viral symptoms.
Those are among the requirements attendees must agree to for Metrock’s Voice of Healthcare Summit 2020, scheduled for early August in Boston.
Weeks ago, Metrock, the CEO of Nashville, Tennesse–based Score Publishing, a media company focused on voice technology and AI, presented that list of health and safety protocols to the city’s Joseph B. Martin Conference Center. However, that Harvard Medical School facility soon after announced it was closed indefinitely and would be unable to accommodate the logistics of the event, even if it re-opens by August.
The event itself, however, has not been canceled. Metrock is set to announce next week a change in venue for the event — a location “down the street” from the Martin Center, he told Convene. He’s been speaking with four potential sites about hosting the two-day event, including the Dana Farber Center, another health-care facility, a hospital, and a small meeting venue. Each of those venues, he said, has told him they are “fine” with the meeting’s stipulations.
He said he was surprised at the meeting planning industry’s initial reaction to his protocols, saying many asked about them and expressed doubt and amazement, especially in regard to requiring daily attendee testing.
Metrock says taking care of his attendees is “top of mind,” and he has a third-party company lined up to conduct these tests. They will use Abbott’s ID NOW COVID-19 rapid swab test, which has been mentioned during the White House’s daily pandemic briefings.
He said the tests will cost him approximately $40 to $45 per attendee per test, and positive results will show in five minutes and negative results will be verified in about 15 minutes.
Those who test positive, he said, will receive a refund. The tests and results are HIPAA-compliant and will be immediately deleted and not be shared with any officials. Attendees will, however, have the option to share their own tests for contact tracing purposes, Metrock said.
“We’re laser focused on hygiene right now,” Metrock said. “We’re in the process of revising our initial protocols — call it version 1.1 — but they will include the original outline of protections.”
Metrock thinks the U.S. “is going through a process of determining what changes in lifestyle are here today and what will be gone tomorrow. People have become more comfortable with the ‘current’ normal. I’m fully confident that our meeting will take place and with the safety protocols we’ve laid out.”
Metrock has hosted a series of meetings on voice activation in different industry sectors since 2016, around the time of the launch of Amazon’s “Alexa” device. He shared how The Voice of Healthcare Summit and Score’s other upcoming events will be conducted in the time of the pandemic.
According to Score Publishing, The Voice of Healthcare Summit will allow 200 attendees, half of its usual group of 400. To comply with social-distancing measures, only half of the chairs typically set up in the meeting rooms will be in place. Metrock said 100 advance registrations were sold following last year’s event, he hasn’t had any cancellations, and he’s confident this year’s Voice of Healthcare Summit will sell out.
“For March and most of April, everything has really grinded to a halt when it comes to people making plans to attend any events,” Metrock said. “Everyone’s in a wait-and-see mode. They really don’t yet know how to react to the situation, or the safety protocols, really.”
Score Publishing has reduced its maximum audience its other planned events — Digital Book World in September in Nashville; The Voice of Money in November in New York City; and Project Voice in January 2021 in Chattanooga — by about half. Project Voice is its marquee event, and it has cut its registration limit from 5,000 to 850.
Registration Rates and Deadlines
Prices for its events will not change. Score has offered discounted early-bird rates of $799 for The Voice of Healthcare (the regular registration fee is $999). He said his registration rates overall will likely “tick-up” a bit in 2021.
“Prices will have to rise to cover logistics,” Metrock said, “and they will rise. But I see no reason why these events will not sell out. Once we get to next year, the supply and demand for live events — not virtual ones — will explode. People are already getting tired of Zoom and attending virtual events,” he said. “So, what are their attitudes going to be like this summer? Fall? Next year? Yes, there will be a small portion — 10 to 15 percent — who will never want to attend another conference because of COVID or they might reduce the number that they attend. But they will miss the value that comes with live, in-person events.”
Metrock expects a large late signup spree for The Voice of Healthcare because people will want to wait as long as possible to consider changes in the coronavirus situation, which is evolving daily.
He thinks late registrations will be the norm going forward, once live events are held more regularly. “It’s a double-edged sword — events will get the numbers they want, but then it becomes that much more of a challenge for the meeting planners in terms of forecasting. All of this volatility makes it harder.”
Metrock said that none of his speakers have canceled over health concerns. In fact, he’s been adding speakers, including Avi Schiffmann, the 17-year-old who built the well-known coronavirus information dashboard ncov2019.live, for The Voice of Healthcare.
Because Score Publishing’s events are geared to audiences of 100 to 800, Metrock doesn’t contract for room blocks. He will list preferred hotels but has no financial obligations for room nights.
There are more than a dozen leading health-care companies listed as The Voice of Healthcare sponsors. He said none have backed out of this or any future scheduled Score events due to concerns over the pandemic — or the company’s protocols.
Score will continue to welcome exhibitors. For The Voice of Healthcare, sponsors are provided tables. For Digital Book World, Metrock anticipates selling 20 booths and for Project Voice, 80 to 100 booth exhibitors are expected.
Score’s events typically include attendee receptions, but Metrock said they have been scrapped for The Voice of Healthcare and he’ll take a wait-and-see approach about them for the other future events.
Metrock said that even pre-COVID-19, the idea of having events with thousands of attendees was in decline. “It’s funny when people express health concerns about attending events,” Metrock said. “Enough people will tell you that they don’t always love going to those huge events because they end up getting sick afterward, anyway, given the crush of people, compact schedule, endless networking, and travel.”
Metrock predicts that large, in-person events that typically draw thousands, if not tens of thousands of participants, will be a thing of the past and that meeting planners will find groups in the hundreds to be more attractive to conduct and more appealing to individuals.
As far as virtual events, it’s not that Metrock is opposed: A Voice of the Car Summit, scheduled in April in San Jose but canceled due to the California governor’s restrictions, was successfully moved online. The virtual event, he said, attracted double the number of expected attendees to the in-person conference.
“The meeting planning industry is all moving to virtual for the time being,” he said. “They are trying really hard at it. But really, there’s no substitute for the value you get from a live event. So that’s the direction we continue to focus on.”
Paul Bergeron is a freelance reporter who covers the meeting planning industry. He can be reached at [email protected].
PCMA has created a COVID-19 resources page to help event professionals find reliable information about the pandemic and to share events industry-related resources to ensure they are prepared now and in the future.