Just how real are the Delta variant risks to in-person events? And what role do perceptions play when it comes to meeting in person?
There are plenty of reasons for increasing concerns over the viability of upcoming events, especially in the short term. While average daily new cases still are down from the January 2021 peak, they have risen markedly since May, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now finds that even vaccinated people can carry high enough viral loads to infect others, even if that vaccinated person is asymptomatic. That’s why CDC recently reversed its guidance to now recommending that all people, whether vaccinated or not, wear masks while indoors in high-transmission areas.
With just about half of the U.S. population fully vaccinated and new vaccination rates still lagging in many areas, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky recently predicted that, unless vaccination rates improve, the U.S. could soon be facing a surge similar to that the country went through during the January peak of several hundred thousand new cases per day.
It’s new stories like this, said one respondent to a recent Prevue survey on the impact of the Delta variant, that are causing the perception that the risks are greater than they actually are. “The news media is causing the uptick in concern,” they said. “They are the reason why clients are getting nervous.”
Delta Variant Risks: Reality Versus Perception
Just how dangerous are Delta variant risks for in-person meetings? Roger Dow, President and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association pointed out in response to the CDC’s reversing its guidance to recommend that both unvaccinated and fully vaccinated people again wear face coverings indoors when in areas of high transmission rates, that professional meetings and events should be considered separately from other types of large group gatherings such as concerts and large-scale social events.
He cited a white paper by healthcare scientists at The Ohio State University that found that the safety measures professional meetings and events organizers have put in place — among them physical distancing, proper ventilation and airflow, disinfecting surfaces and adhering to safe food and beverage procedures — “ensure a safe return to large-scale, in-person PMEs… they offer a stronger mitigation capability through layers of trusted safety measures, including vaccination and wearing masks, in a controlled environment.”
Most meeting and event organizers have taken these steps, and then some. As one respondent to the Prevue survey noted, protocols that already have been implemented over the course of the pandemic to date are already being yet-again updated, saying the rise in the Delta variant is once again “making us modify our duty of care.”
But not everyone thinks Dow’s argument that it’s still safe for PMEs to go on as the pandemic begins to wax again after a respite earlier this summer is sufficient to ensure their events can go on as planned. Between individual apprehension and companies now rethinking their plans to again allow employees to travel in the near term, planners worry that even the most carefully planned event may see precipitous drop-off in attendees and exhibitors.
As one survey respondent said, “Even though we are planning a much smaller event, with social distancing in place, we believe that the Delta variant has caused some apprehension and has affected registration for both attendees and exhibitors.”
Stewart Mann, Founder and CEO of teambuilding company Red Rooster Events, said that, while he remains confident that his clients, venues and attendees more than likely have already taken the necessary precautions to ensure a safe event, “unfortunately we already had quite a few cancellations due to the new COVID Delta variant, which is heartbreaking for a number of reasons. It took a lot of creativity, resilience and a major virtual pivot to keep us afloat throughout this pandemic. I’m not sure we’d survive another shutdown.”
Preparing for Whatever Comes Next
In response to a question about how likely masking, social distancing and other COVID-related health and safety protocols will be for their upcoming meetings, one Prevue survey respondent said, “It’s not just ‘very likely,’ it’s mandatory.” That person added that this isn’t surprising because, as a planner for a healthcare organization, staff are already required to be vaccinated. Another said their organization was requiring all staff who travel to trade shows or events be fully vaccinated.
Another respondent said, “We will definitely be taking steps to minimize the chances of transmission — using a daily health survey app (CLEAR), setting rooms socially distanced, making changes to how F&B will be served, and requiring universal mask wearing (regardless of vaccine status, which we are not checking).”
Some said they were combatting the Delta variant risks by implementing measures such as social distancing now, and waiting to see where the local jurisdictions are with things like masking mandates or guidances once they get closer in to their event dates.
“All I can say is our industry cannot afford another shutdown,” said Red Rooster’s Mann. “Vaccinated or unvaccinated, I just wish people could see the big picture, think about others before themselves, and be responsible so that we can curb the spread and get back to living life without the fear of COVID.”
Who’s Going Hybrid Now?
Geoff Wellen, Chief Customer Officer at virtual meeting and event company 6Connex said that in the past few weeks he’s seen a big uptick in smaller and medium-sized businesses looking to take their in-person meetings digital or hybrid — but not larger corporations. That’s because the larger corporations in his client base, especially big pharmaceutical and financial companies, have seen that they could really broaden their tent with digital events — and they’ve already sold year-long digital event sponsorship packages — and so are mostly looking to stay digital for the remainder of 2021.
“It’s those smaller and medium-sized businesses who are starting to hedge their bets,” Wellen said. “While they still want to go with in-person, they’re starting to plan a quick shift to virtual.” He is also seeing more requests coming from areas of the world that are now being hardest hit by the Delta variant, including Australia, Europe and the U.S.
As COVID-19 cases continue to grow in popular U.S. meeting and event destinations such as Orlando and New Orleans, the survey results indicate that planners who thought they were heading toward normalcy with in-person meetings now are once again preparing for whatever the near-term future may bring.
As one person said, “It feels like that movie “Groundhog Day” — while we may be done with the pandemic, it obviously is not yet done with us.”