In September 2020, Continuing Education Company (CEC) held their 2nd Annual Women’s Health Conference in Asheville, North Carolina at the Biltmore Estate. Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau sat down with CEC President, Walter Ejnes, and Director of Program Management, Su Barnwell, to discuss their experience and insight holding an in-person meeting in Asheville.
Su Barnwell: It was definitely a challenge for us this year because of the pandemic, but we didn’t want to cancel the conference in-person if we didn’t have to. We had done some conferences in June and July successfully in-person, so we felt like we had the experience working with venues to make sure things were safe. Asheville was definitely one of the locations that was of interest to our attendees. We felt like the outdoor setting, the nature, and being in the mountains kind of gave them a little bit more security to be able to explore Asheville, instead of our city conferences where there’s a lot more foot traffic. That was the key reason why we wanted to continue with it.
Walter Ejnes: When we were done with those four conferences, which were held during a second surge in the pandemic, we were like, “You know what, we’ve got this down pat.” You’re kind of afraid to do the first one, not knowing what to expect, what the attendees are going to say, how they’re going to handle things, but everybody was so respectful of the rules and they were like the safest meetings we’ve ever attended.
And, as Su said, Asheville was the perfect location. People have been cooped up for weeks or months, and they want to be outside. We were able to provide that, so we said, “Let’s go for it.”
Another reason for wanting to hold it rather than postponing it was the communication. We felt like we had a team on-site, whether it was at Biltmore or whether it was at the CVB, that were able to help us make these decisions. That made us really comfortable with holding it.
WE: Communication is key. Right after we saw in the spring that COVID was going to be an issue, we implemented a new policy – we called it the Continuing Medical Education (CME) Conference Reassurance Policy. We waived our typical cancellation policy, which was thirty days out with a cancellation fee, and gave them a 100% refund up to 48 hours in advance. You figure, in 48 hours, they’ll know whether they’re coming or not. But it’s amazing, we’ve learned a lot of people don’t know until about two or three days before.
We gave them the ability to register and pay later. That was key, as well, because we were telling people, “If you think you want to come, but you aren’t sure, register. You don’t have to pay. That way, you’ll get our communications, and we can keep you updated on exactly what the status of the meeting is.”
We promised people on the Conference Reassurance Policy the ability to watch from anywhere.
SB: Right. So, they could come to the conference, and if they didn’t feel comfortable sitting in the meeting space, they had the option of watching it remotely so they could still connect with us every day at the conference.
WE: We were completely transparent on everything. It was amazing how many people came to the meeting and thanked us, saying, “Thank you for keeping us informed. That gave us the confidence to come.”
WE: Everything – every table, every chair – was six feet apart. At every place setting, we had a printed placemat with what the rules were and what the venue was doing to keep that area safe. We sanitized our audience response clickers every day and put them on their own little placeholders that said, “This has been sanitized.” Every day, we had staff change the tablecloths and put new ones down. And once they were done, we inspected and made sure everything was clean and then, with gloves, we placed those placeholders and placemats. We also had contactless check-in: attendees came in with a QR tag, scanned it, their badge would print, and they’d bring it to a table where they picked up a bag that had all their materials in it.
People who were not comfortable being in the meeting area, weren’t feeling well, or were traveling with someone who didn’t feel well, we told them to view the conference remotely. We gave them QR tags in their materials and all they had to do was take their phone or their computer, zap it, and they would be brought to a virtual conference page so they could watch it remotely.
We then worked with Biltmore to set up a Wi-Fi network throughout the property that was specific for our attendees – that way, when one of our attendees logs in, they’re not having any bandwidth issues. Then, we looked at designated spots throughout the property where there is Wi-Fi access. We encouraged people in the pre-conference communication that, if you’re not comfortable being in the meeting room, but you don’t want to be cooped up in your room, here’s a great spot where you can sit outside, look at the mountains, relax, and watch the conference.
Those are some of the things that we did. There’s a way to hold a meeting with all of these precautions and safety protocols in place without taking away from the quality and the experience that people expect when they come to a meeting. And that’s been our goal.
SB: We also had an additional room upstairs that had some extra tables and chairs. Between the meeting space downstairs, the upstairs space, and the virtual option, I think that kind of gave attendees the security and the comfort to be able to watch it from anywhere.
WE: We gave them choices. There were some people who were there every day and others who logged in from their rooms and came a little bit later. Others came to watch a session in-person and then they would leave and watch the rest remotely. I think people really appreciated the choices we gave them.
SB: We also wanted to limit any kind of group gathering as much as possible, so we did not have any kind of social events or exhibitors come to our conferences this year.
WE: Yeah, absolutely. I think it was one of our more successful meetings since we’ve gone back to in-person meetings. We were just amazed at how many people came. We were thinking, what would have happened if there wasn’t any COVID? We probably wouldn’t have been able to accommodate everybody! It would have been bigger than what we expected. I think just knowing where Asheville is, the surroundings of the property we were at, the surroundings of Asheville, it being a place where people want to go to, being in the outdoors, it’s just a perfect location for the COVID era. It definitely helped make the conference successful. Wouldn’t you agree, Su?
SB: I do. We got lots of feedback from our attendees that they really enjoyed having the ability to be outdoors and walk around and be with nature. I think that was a big factor in their comfortability with coming to the conference.
SB: Absolutely. Connie [Holliday] was a big help in making sure anytime that we had questions, or if we needed assistance with anything, that she was always there for us. Because it was a time of uncertainty – we had no idea. Connie was there for us to communicate with and pick her brain whenever it came to things we weren’t sure how to proceed with or to gather more information.
SB: We’re going to have our in-person meetings. Our goal is to continue on with those in-person conferences, but, like I said, we do have a virtual component for those people who don’t feel comfortable. It’s a case-by-case scenario for every single one of our conferences, but we’re positive and hoping that we’ll be able to continue on like we have been.
WE: Our business has been built around live, face-to-face meetings, and we refuse to change that. The quality of the education we provide and the destinations that we select are the key factors that keep people coming to our meetings. We plan meetings as if they’re going to happen live, and we don’t make that decision to go virtual until the last minute.
SB: And it’s a very challenging decision for us to make it go all virtual. To have it virtually – it’s just not the same. We definitely don’t want to move anything virtually if we don’t have to.
WE: We learned a lot. For example, we had a served buffet, and we really expected there to be lines waiting for food… But that wasn’t the case. We rarely had more than three or four people waiting in line for anything. So that was an expectation that really didn’t come to fruition. There were certain things that we were able to do that we would like to continue doing going forward, that we’re never going to change. The food and beverage being handled as a served buffet seems to go faster and there’s less food waste that way, and we’re going to continue to do that. The safety protocols in the conference rooms themselves, such as having the placemats, we’re going to continue to do that going forward. We learned a lot, and then we realized, why haven’t we done this before?
SB: Communication. Make sure that you are very upfront with your venues. Be proactive about it – don’t have them come to you, because they’re probably struggling just as much as we are to figure out the best scenario for each one of their meetings they’re having. Open that door to make sure you guys are working as a team because we’re in it together. And keep that flow of communication with your attendees, as well.
WE: The one piece of advice I could give is that you’ve got to have confidence in your partners working together, and it’ll all come together. We were on pins and needles that first meeting [we held in-person]. If your communication is there with your attendees, with your venue partners, it all will come together at the end and you’ll see once you’re there, it’s a great feeling.
SB: It’s a relief. We were some of the first conferences to happen in-person after the whole pandemic hit, where venues were implementing their new changes and protocols and so were we. It was just a relief and a great experience at the end, like “Oh, we got one done. Now we know what to do for the next one.”
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