The COVID pandemic is shifting attendees’ perspective on the very definition of wellness and how it plays out in meetings and incentives.
The Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) recently released a study, sponsored by Prevue, that takes a deeper dive into how health and safety, attendee mental and physical health, food and beverage, and sustainability impact the overall attendee wellness experience and level of comfort.
The report is based on findings gleaned during the fifth annual Meet Well Summit held Sept. 8–9, when more than 50 meeting and incentives planners and suppliers from across the country gathered at the Wigwam in Lichfield Park, Ariz. During a roundtable discussion led by IRF President Stephanie Harris, participants explored how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused some seismic shifts in attendee comfort and confidence, and how meeting and incentives planners are moving beyond the traditional wellness incentive aspects, such as yoga, healthy food and spa treatments, to putting COVID-related self-care and safety first.
“IRF was proud to partner with Prevue on the Meet Well Summit,” said Harris. “We explored the shifting definition of wellness as it pertains to events, with mental health and balance, along with safety during travel and at meetings, rising to the forefront.”
Among the key insights included in the resulting report, The IRF 2021 Wellness in Meetings and Incentive Travel Study, are:
Wellness now begins with ensuring physical safety
Among the foundational health and safety considerations that now come before spa treatments and sunrise yoga sessions are hotel and venue cleaning standards; figuring out how to implement and enforce health and safety protocols on masks, vaccines, contact tracing, daily health questionnaires and pre-entry temperature taking; sourcing sufficient space for safe distancing; and managing vaccine hesitancy in an era of rising vaccine mandates for attendance. One caution the planners noted: Beware of the “furniture movers” who push those carefully distanced tables together.
As one planner who took part in the roundtable said, “It’s important to take a Swiss cheese approach to COVID. Layer the protocols in such a way that ultimately all the holes are covered. There’s no one approach that will cover it all.” And remember that even the attendee perception of the staple spa experience may have changed over the course of the pandemic. While some may feel pampered and safe, others may be uncomfortable now with the closeness and touching.
Mental health and wellness taking center stage
With so many incentive and meeting participants sidelined at home due to the pandemic, ongoing concerns about the still-ravaging delta variant, and companies that still are banning travel for some or all employees, there is a lot more anxiety about traveling, being in an environment beyond their control, and both known and unknown threats, the report found. This has brought mental wellness to the forefront — including a need for more emotional health check-ins, transparency, vulnerability and compassion. While many attendees are welcoming a return to in-person events as “coming back into the sunshine,” as one planner said, many are still anxious about being back in a group setting and may need more down time than pre-pandemic.
Clear, consistent and complete communications about health and safety protocols, rules and restrictions help to manage expectations and empower attendees to make decisions for themselves, planners said. And do let them know that you are more flexible than in the past about providing breaks and spacing. Some planners report that it also helps to provide education specific to mental health, such as how to stay sane while working from home, along with tried-and-true activities such as built-in spa and other rest and recreation time. These communications should extend post-program to update attendees on any reported COVID cases at the meeting, planners said.
Go small and select
COVID has spurred a trend toward smaller meetings at local, boutique hotels, preferably with a buyout, takeover or just having an exclusive space set aside just for the meeting’s attendees.
Build in more space and breaks
In addition to providing more space and breaks, sessions outside also help attendees keep their emotional and physical equilibrium. However, outdoor sessions may incur extra costs for things like space heaters and awnings, and even indoor private space may come at a premium, so be sure to build those extra costs into the budget — and alert the client or leadership.
F&B wellness is still key
Healthy food options, more personalized choices and careful attention to accommodating dietary restrictions are very much on today’s menus, the report found. Also trending is a reduced emphasis on alcohol-centered activities and an increase in interest in non-alcohol beverage options such as specialty mocktails. Plated meals are still popular, though buffets served by masked and gloved staff also are happening successfully. And locally sourced food and beverage, already a trend pre-COVID, is even more popular now, the report found. As is the case with space, healthy food and beverage options also are more costly now due to supply-side issues and need to be accounted for in the budgeting process.
To download the full study, visit The IRF 2021 Wellness in Meetings and Incentive Travel Study webpage.
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Highlights from the 5th Annual Meet Well Summit