In December 2020, the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE)’s southeast chapter held their SITE Southeast Educational Summit in Asheville, North Carolina at The Foundry Hotel Asheville, Curio Collection by Hilton. Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau sat down with the summit’s meeting planner and owner/CEO of Shamrock Innovations Cathy Jones to discuss her experience and insight holding an in-person meeting in Asheville.
*[Editor’s Note: anything included in brackets was added by the editor to provide clarity and not directly spoken by Cathy Jones.]
Cathy Jones: I am an independent meeting planner and I own my company Shamrock Innovations. And I believe that we can host meetings safely, following all the rules. Safe, educational, and fun is my theory. All year we’ve had to keep postponing every single event we’ve had. I said, “We will not postpone December. This is a family reunion, our chapter is going to get back together, and no matter the odds, we’re just going to keep going.” We are actually the only SITE chapter in the world that had a multiple-day in-person event last year [in 2020].
CJ: We probably had about 75 to 80 in-person, and we had about 20-30 attend virtually. At the end as a surprise we made it into a hybrid event so that some of our members who couldn’t make it were able to attend.
CJ: We just stayed abreast of all the COVID rules. Connie [Holliday] with your CVB, Deandra [Bodenhorst with The Venue, an event facility in downtown Asheville], and Nikki [Phillips Stewart with The Foundry Hotel] were awesome with keeping us updated on what your governor said. So, we just pressed on and when we had to change things – like changing venues right before the meeting started – we just kept relaying that to our attendees.
CJ: This was our educational summit, so we were in motivational/educational seminars during the day [educational events and major social functions were hosted at The Venue]. We also went to other hotels and did site inspections, which we’d incorporate into a meal at the property [site inspections were conducted at the AC Hotel Asheville Downtown, Grand Bohemian Hotel Asheville, and DoubleTree by Hilton Asheville – Biltmore]. So, we got to see all the hotels, whether it was for a breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Attendees also had some free time.
CJ: On the last day, attendees had the option to go to the Asheville Art Museum after lunch where they could explore the exhibits on their own.
CJ: No, not at all. That’s what I’m so proud of. I’d probably say the only thing that was different was how we did our give-back to the community. We always do a give-back – one year, we built playhouses for children, so we were outside in teams building playhouses. But this year, we couldn’t do that. So, we tried to keep it in the [hospitality and tourism] family and had the general manager of The Foundry select one of his employees to be the give-back. And what we did is, he had just had twins, so we donated diapers and other supplies. We also put together little sleepy blanket packages on-site for an orphanage. Normally we’d go off-site and do that. But I would say that we didn’t really change anything.
CJ: CDC had their guidelines in place for meetings, so we just followed the rules. We implemented all the protocols that we’ve learned all through the year, as far as social distancing and COVID. We had comfort seating, so we had couches and chairs, and they were all distanced. We kept our masks on. We had a medical nurse on property taking our temperatures. [The group also incorporated use of colored wristbands to communicate each attendee’s comfort level pertaining to COVID and social distancing.] It was a team effort between the people in Asheville and the people that were on my board putting this event together to keep attendees safe.
Asheville is phenomenal with following COVID guidelines. For example, when you were sitting in a bar, they made sure that we were putting our masks back on when we were supposed to. When the board went out to breakfast, they made sure the table was set up the way it was supposed to be.
After the event, we sent out an email asking attendees to let us know if anyone had COVID. I am proud to say, because we followed the protocols, we were COVID-free.
CJ: Absolutely. As an event planner myself, I always pick people that are like me so that they get me, and Asheville got me. They thought outside the box. Everyone said to me, “How did you find such awesome partners?” And I said, “That’s the key to a successful event.” They just understood thinking outside the box, like when I said to Deandra [at The Venue], “Put X’s on the floor, make them six feet apart, they can still dance!” They just got it. It was incredible. I already have a meeting coming back and I can’t wait to use y’all.
CJ: My first piece of advice is you have to find partners that understand what you’re trying to do. You can book a meeting anywhere, but if you don’t have great partners, you’re not going to pull off that meeting. And truly, we could have never pulled this off if it wasn’t for the team that’s on the ground there in Asheville.
The other takeaway is it is my belief that we can still meet, safely, educationally, and have fun. Everyone [at SITE SE] had a blast. We had education, we had fun, we had memories, we had tears. It was so humbling to have people say, “SITE means so much to me. I didn’t realize what I’ve been missing.” Others saying, “My hope in the industry is renewed.” I believe that we’re a family. It’s sad what’s happened to our industry, it breaks my heart, and we will be back, but we have to stay together as a family.
I just hope that other people push forward with their meetings. I have a client that is doing an event and she’s kind of worried. And I’m like, “Look, I can help you. We’re doing this! Let me show you how to do it.” Please bring it back. Don’t be afraid. We can do this, we’ve proven it. I’m still booking meetings, like I said I’ll be there in May. Get with your partners, be creative, be safe, but bring the meetings back. Don’t stay home.
Again, you can do this! You’ve just got to be more creative. In my opinion, COVID has made everyone be more creative, more sustainable, more outside the box, and I hope we continue that throughout forever. It’s better than ever – just get out there and be safe.
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