COVID-era events: ‘Eat, get content and go home’

Welcome to a COVID-era business meeting: Associates in masks and gloves usher attendees directly to long farm-style tables where they can be seated six feet apart. Box lunches with disposable utensils are distributed while presentations are delivered and streamed.

As hotels around the world begin to open up, event planners and catering directors are mapping out what events will look like through the rest of the year and beyond. Hotel brands have teamed with public health specialists to develop protocols for the use of masks and gloves for staff, temperature scans, cleaning standards and other practices. Planners at U.S. hotels say they’ve learned from colleagues in Asian and European cities, where the virus has peaked (for now). Those hotels have begun to book, or even hold, modest events.

Managers at Four Seasons hotels in Asia and Europe have been sharing ideas for streamlining service, says Jamie Breslin, director of catering at Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago. Some practices include Plexiglas shields for coffee break stations, protective vessels for passed food items and paperless registration using QR codes.

Until vaccine or virus therapies are in place, hotels will have to conduct meetings that keep the risk of contagion top of mind, planners and executives say. “We’re going to eat, get content and go home,” says Chicago event planner Jodi Wolf. “It’s unfortunate. But that’s where we are.”

A hand-washing station in the casino area of the Bellagio in Las Vegas
A hand-washing station in the casino area of the Bellagio in Las Vegas

Small-scale to start

Intimate events such as internal meetings and seminars are the first to make a comeback, says Markus Engel, CEO of Shanghai-based Urban Resort Concepts – small-scale meetings drawing participants from nearby communities. The hotel group already has hosted meetings for finance and luxury companies in Shanghai, which was early to recover. Inquiries more recently have been directed to the group’s Beijing property.

“As prolonged contact is thought to be a risk factor, events will also likely be shorter,” he says. “Functions taking place in outdoor spaces will be more welcomed as the open-air environment provides a lower risk for transmission.”

In the U.S., managers anticipate a number of downsized events for the fourth quarter, with more in early 2021. Rather than cancel meetings outright, many have simply been moved to the fourth quarter and beyond, says Jeff Doane, senior vice president, sales and marketing, at Accor North and Central America.

Almost all business meetings will be considered hybrids, streamed or recorded to reach people unable or unwilling to travel. “This is uncharted territory,” Breslin says. “You’re staging the event locally and then bringing in people virtually.” To add another layer of complexity, some events require an interactive component that enables participants to ask questions or answer spot surveys.

Whether a business or social event, the logistics will look quite different. Attendees will likely be seated right away, forgoing the free-form milling of a cocktail hour. Because of social distancing, room capacities are greatly reduced. “Where a room could host 200 people before, now it’s 60 or 75,” says Raymond Vermolen, general manager of Intercontinental San Francisco. The hotel will use software to configure tables, which can be long farm tables, rounds or hightops.

The Intercontinental will assign a concierge to cover each meeting to make sure guests mind the safety rules. They’ll make sure that bathrooms and stairways don’t get too crowded, Vermolen says. “We’ll have markers on the floor, but we’re only as strong as the weakest link,” he says.

Guests can be served drinks at the table and hors d’oeuvres could be delivered in small containers with lids, like Chinese-food style takeout boxes. They would remain in their seat for the duration — whether it’s a wedding ceremony or a corporate planning session.

Buffets and food stations will be retired for the time being in favor of plated entrees or box lunches. But the service still can be elegant, planners say. With French service a member of the wait staff offers the main courses and side dishes tableside. Alternatively, plates can be delivered to guests covered by a clear glass cloche for dramatic effect, Breslin says. At a wedding, individual cakes can be substituted for the dramatic tiered confection.

Glasses will be covered with plastic and guests will be able to pour their own beverages from individual bottles of water, juice, wine or Champagne, she says.

Setback for sustainability

Unfortunately, an increase in the use of single-use plastics for sanitary purposes is likely to set back sustainability initiatives. Accor Americas had planned by phase out single-use plastics by the end of this year but extended the deadline to June 2021, Doane says, noting that some responses to the pandemic have been positive for the environment, such as suspending buffets, which generate a large amount of food waste, and taking single-use toiletries out of the rooms, although those are available on request.

The pandemic will force hotels to forego some of their usual polish and glitz. “In the past, we’ve hidden anything that was not perfect.” Vermolen says. “Now we are proud to wear a mask. Our amenity gift isn’t a fruit basket – it’s wipes and sanitizer.”