Safety in Events: Where do we go from here?

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Drawing on examples from across the industry, HeadBox COO, Charlie Marr discusses current literature across the industry and attempts to debunk the complexities surrounding COVID-safety in meetings and events. 

There is an ever-increasing body of content being published around safety in events. Corporates are creating “Hygiene and Safety” policies for their staff, venues are hurriedly implementing “COVID-secure” processes, meanwhile, third party suppliers and industry bodies are contributing with thought-leadership and best practice. Amongst this vast array of content, it can be difficult for event organisers and venues to know exactly what is going on when it comes to safety.

The Current Situation: 

To provide some context on the current situation, as a result of widespread lockdown implemented on 23rd March the majority (if not all) venues in the UK are closed and the majority of corporates have banned travel, meetings and events. This has led to a complete standstill in the UK meetings & events industry.

A survey conducted by the Meetings Industry Association (MIA) sheds light on the difficulties that venues are currently facing. The survey, which includes 186 venues or venue groups and represents upwards of 17,275 employees in the meetings & events industry, the MIA paints a picture of what venues across the UK are experiencing as a result of Covid-19.

The survey is focussed on three key areas: ‘financial’, ‘practical’ and ‘people’. Financially, the respondents have experienced a difficult time with zero income across their product portfolio which is not limited to selling space but also includes catering, car park leasing and gym memberships. In regard to ‘people’ it is clear that the Furlough Scheme has been a lifeline to this industry (shout out to Rishi!) and that all respondents have taken advantage of the scheme. Despite this, there is ongoing concern about the longevity of government support with venues hoping for “a phased reduction and extension of the government’s furlough scheme. Without it, 38% of our venues reported that more than half of their workforce will be made redundant if the scheme is not extended beyond 30 June 2020.”  It is worth noting that the scheme has been extended to October.

Practically, there is positive news with 82% of venues confirming that they can operate with social distancing measures in place. This would, however, lead to up to 50% reduction in capacity for 46% of the respondents meaning that only 41% of venues would be able to break even.

With this in mind, and with socially distant events seeming to be the most tangible way out of the current predicament that this industry (corporates, agencies and venues alike) find ourselves in, let’s look at how we can move forward.

The Way Forward

Venues, associations, agencies and the government are coming together to define a new way forward out of these challenging times.

UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, have published the “Global framework for reopening exhibitions and B2B trade events post the emergence from COVID-19” (admittedly not the most catchy title). In this document, after summarising the importance of reopening the $167 billion global exhibition industry and tightly defining an “exhibition” as “an event in which products, services, or information are displayed and disseminated” (not to be confused with a conference or seminar which are “organised formal meetings”), goes on to highlight how exhibition venues can deliver safe events.

Supporting this line, Hire Space has released a white paper, “Safer Events – A Framework for Action” dialling into the thoughts of 203 respondents to create a framework for safety.

On the venue side of things, Global Hotel chains such as Hilton and Leonardo have also released their recommendations to customers highlighting how they will ensure “COVID-secure” events. The Goldsmiths’ Centre has developed a “Guide to a Safe Venue” detailing their plans for running COVID-secure events and, finally, Etc.Venues are taking a leading role in this space with their “18 Point Plan to Book with Confidence” which is a thoroughly detailed look at how they will run events when the Government allows it. I’ve included all these resources below.

Drawing on these sources, the common themes of discussion can be summarised as follows:

  1. Testing
  2. Training
  3. Social Distancing
  4. Personal Protective Equipment
  5. Cleaning 

So let’s take a closer look: 

1. Testing

The Prime Minister has achieved the target of 200,000 tests per day in May and the Government has announced the availability of antibody testing kits nationwide for £50 per person. However, the question remains ever-present in the national press, how will widespread testing be achieved. It seems testing is the way to secure the Nation’s, and in our case event attendees’, confidence to get back to normal. This is a common theme in the literature.

The UFI encourages exhibition venues to “work with guidelines dealing with/denying entry to stakeholders who fail health screening tests” and Hire Space detail “contactless thermometers” as a requirement for their “Safe Event Accreditation”. The venues, meanwhile, have not suggested any commitments around staff testing, we need only look to sport and football, in particular, to see the vast costs which are associated with this – the Premier League are spending £4m per month on testing. This is a cost which corporates and venues will be unlikely and more importantly unable to stomach. 

Recommendations and guidance have been made but it seems we are still a way off finding a solution to this key area of event safety. 

2. Training

Everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to training – it is an absolute necessity for event staff and should be encouraged for event attendees. The UFI encourages venues to “Manage training on epidemic prevention for staff”. Hire Space dedicated a large section of their accreditation to “Staff Training and Policy” detailing how all staff must, “complete core coronavirus training”.

Meanwhile, Hilton is consulting with the Mayo Clinic to deliver “Team Member Training”. The Goldsmiths’ Centre is demonstrating real thought leadership in this area by appointing an Covid-19 Response coordinator whose primary is to train the team and implement health and safety in the building and amongst their team in accordance to public health guidelines. This will, no doubt, help to increase attendee confidence. Most extensive on staff safety is Etc.Venues who detail the 6 stages of their “Team Welfare and Training” document which outlines training with Flow Hospitality a dedicated hospitality training company. 

Despite the consistent dialogue on staff training, one area where questions remain is on the specific details of these training programmes. Venues and agencies seem to be in the process of developing these programmes rather than having them ready to roll out. Perhaps one place we can look as an industry is to the NHS who offer training on the “control of infectious diseases” according to the HM Government document, “Our Plan to Rebuild: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy”. 

3. Social Distancing

Another hot and often contradictory topic of national debate is the guidelines on social distancing, something well documented in articles across the press, including the likes of the BBC: Could Social Distancing of Less Than 2m work?. The theory behind 2m social distancing is based on research conducted by William F. Wells in the 1930s on the spread of Tuberculosis which found that a distance of 2m was enough to reduce the transmission of droplet nuclei or aerosols (containing the virus) between people. It’s certainly not the worst ideology to come out of the 1930s, but it does raise the question of whether 90-year-old research should be defining behaviours in 2020.

Recent research by the World Health Organisation and Ong  SWX, Tan  YK, Chia  PY,  et al. suggests that “turbulent gas clouds” containing the virus can spread as far as 27 feet leading to some Governments, as Emmanuel Macron in France has, to make face masks mandatory in public and professional spaces. This is not, however, the advice from Public Health England which “recommends trying to keep 2m away from people as a precaution”. What is striking, however, is that “2m” is mentioned only twice in a 56-page document detailing the UK Government COVID security strategy. 

Confidence

Confidence around social distancing is all-important for attendees – The Goldsmiths’ Centre use a great tone in their safety policy, with this section titled “Great to see you – but from a distance!” which goes some way to humanising the threat. They go into further detail on staggered arrival and departure times to avoid congestion as well as allowing 5 minutes per guest to ensure a socially distant check-in. Etc.Venues share a detailed brochure of signage options which can be used from the lobby to reception rooms, coffee stations and in meeting rooms.his level of detail creates a real sense of credibility and validity in the reader. Hilton has introduced contactless check in to their hotels and Leonardo Hotels state their staff will “keep their distance” and “wear masks in public areas”. Hire Space suggests “no fixed seats within 2m of another fixed seat” and a maximum capacity which facilitates four square metres per person, including event staff. Meanwhile, the UFI encourages venues to “allow spacious distance between booths and aisles for circulation”. 

Etc.Venues have said they will offer 25% extra space free of charge with every booking while the larger events will be given exclusive access to a floor which leads to a key question that comes from this area of safety: the commercial viability of social distancing. Michael O’Leary, the CEO of RyanAir, has been outspoken in his declaration that airlines cannot operate below 90% occupancy. Will Beckett, co-founder of Hawksmoor, was quoted in Big Hospitality UK questioning the viability of reopening under social distancing, suggesting it will have long term negative implications for the hospitality industry as, “restaurants will not be seen as safe places to be.” The MIA adds further weight to this debate saying that 58% of venues would not break even operating at reduced capacities.

4. Personal Protective Equipment

Any mention of PPE conjures an image of an empty RAF plane sat on the Turkish runway waiting for supplies to take back to the desperately under-resourced UK hospitals. That shortage has abated and the NHS is now well provisioned, but question marks remain about widespread availability for the public. Hire Space, UFI, Hilton and Leonardo are all unified in their recommendations that staff, where possible, wear face masks in order to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. The Goldsmith’s Centre will be making PPE available to guests and staff “from arrival… to delivering you a lovely cuppa.” Most interesting here is the detail that Etc.Venues share on their staff will be wearing “disposable P2/N95 face mask and gloves”. Again, Etc.Venues demonstrate that more detailed information on each point of safety certainly inspires confidence. 

The government stops short of providing any recommendations but does advise that “homemade cloth face-coverings can help reduce the risk of transmission in some circumstances” but that this “is not the same as a facemask such as the surgical masks or respirators used as part of personal protective equipment by healthcare and other workers.” So the question remains, do face masks make a difference and, if so, how can we get our hands on the required numbers?

5. Cleaning

Throughout their recovery strategy the government details “hand washing” and “personal hygiene” as a means of preventing the spread of the virus. Hilton will be focussing on regular cleaning of “high-touch” areas across their properties and all common areas in Leonardo Hotels will be “cleaned and disinfected” on a regular basis and between events. Hire Space recommends one contactless sanitiser station per 30 attendees, tables and chairs sterilised twice daily and one “deep clean” every 28 days. The UFI recommends that each exhibitor has “enhanced cleaning and disinfection regimes for booths, exhibits and promotional materials”. Goldsmiths’ provide further detail, stating that all sanitisation stations will be accompanied with “clear signage… to remind guests of the 20-second rule” (and there I was thinking you were supposed to be singing Happy Birthday…).

There is also discussion around the type of cleaning products – bleach must be at least 70% alcohol to be effective; and new technologies – electrostatic sprayers combined with ultraviolet light will help event organisers to effectively clean before, during, and after events. Etc.Venues are collaborating with the cleaning partners, Cleanology, to ensure they achieve a Navitas – COVID-19 Control Certification Scheme. We may start to see industry-standard cleaning certifications emerging across venues in the UK.

Conclusion

There is an ever-increasing body of literature on “safety” in events however there does not seem to be any clear and decisive policy from corporates, venues or agencies at this stage. The bulk of content available and certainly those policies reviewed above provide “guidance”. This should, perhaps, be no surprise to us at the moment given we are still in stage 1 of the easing of lockdown and there are many unknowns: will the R rate stay below 1? How important is the K number to controlling localised outbreaks? These are just a few of the known unknowns. What I will say is that this is a great start and I take my hat off to the Goldsmiths’ Centre, the UFI, Hire Space, Hilton, Leonardo Hotels, Etc.Venues and the MIA for working hard to push this agenda and take us forward in the fight to get back to normal.

In order to safely navigate our way out of the woods venues, agencies, and corporate customers will need to come together to find a solution which is hygienic, encourages attendee confidence, and delivers commercial worth for the venues whilst at the same time generating value and ROI for the corporates.

Resources:

Our Plan to Rebuild: The UK Government’s COVID-19 Recovery Strategy

Hilton Defining New Standard of Cleanliness

Leonardo Hotels COVID Statement

Big Hospitality UK – Reopening Restaurants

Hire Space – Safer Events – A Framework for Action

MIA – Social Distancing Survey

UFI – Global framework for reopening exhibitions and B2B trade events post the emergence from COVID-19 

Turbulent Gas Clouds and Respiratory Pathogen Emissions – Potential Implications for Reducing Transmission of COVID-19

BBC: Could Social Distancing of Less Than 2m work?.

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