Attention, meeting planners! Safe meeting venue ventilation for COVID-19 is critical. As we start thinking about returning to in-person events, it’s crucial to check that venues are upgrading their HVAC systems to handle potentially virus-infused air.
There has been little public discussion on this important topic. In this post, I’ll explain why questions about venues’ HVAC safety should be at the top of your site visit checklist.
Before we start, I need to make clear I’m not an HVAC engineer. My (perhaps) relevant background is an ancient Ph.D. in high-energy particle physics, and two years spent exploring ventilation systems—specifically air-to-air heat exchangers—when I owned a solar manufacturing company in the 1980s.
Since the pandemic began, the science on COVID-19 transmission has evolved rapidly. Because early theories turned out to be inaccurate, current preventative measures are frequently misdirected. So I’ve included a short history of theories of COVID-19 transmission that shed light on the reasons we’ve underestimated the importance of ventilation in creating safe environments for indoor events.
Next, I’ve outlined what current research indicates venues and properties should be doing.
Finally, I’ve aired my concerns about how well venues and properties are responding to the safety concerns I’ve introduced.
I’d like to be clear that I don’t hate in-person meetings, despite what some have been posting recently on a Facebook group for meeting professionals:
“Often wondered why so many on this feed hate live events.”
“It is my opinion that this group does not support any in-person meetings or gatherings of any kind…”
” I am sad to see so many industry giants verbally destroying our industry – apparently with glee.”
Let’s explore what’s causing opinions and feelings like this in the meeting industry.
The tension in the meeting industry
As I’ve said before, the pandemic’s impact on lives and businesses has been devastating, especially for the meeting industry. COVID-19 has virtually eliminated in-person meetings: our industry’s bread and butter. Many meeting professionals have lost their jobs, and are understandably desperate for our industry to recover. We are all looking for ways for in-person meetings to return.
Unfortunately, I and many others believe there is a strong case to make against currently holding in-person meetings. Ethically, despite the massive personal and financial consequences, we should not be submitting people to often-unadvertised, dangerous, and life-threatening conditions so we can go back to work.
I’ve been posting bits and pieces of the case against currently holding in-person meetings on various online platforms, and decided it was time to bring everything together in one (long for me) post. I hope many meeting industry professionals will read this and respond. As always, all points of view are welcome, especially those that can share how to mitigate any of the following concerns.
The strong case against holding in-person meetings right now
Here are four important reasons why I think we shouldn’t be holding “large” in-person meetings right now. (Obviously, “large” is a moving target. Checking Georgia Tech’s COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool as I write this, a national US event with 500 people is extremely likely (>95%) to have one or more COVID-19 positive individuals present.)
meticulously observed social distancing and masking;
could safely travel to and from events;
be housed safely; move around event venues while safely maintaining social distancing; and
eat and drink safely.
Even if one could meet these difficult conditions, I questioned the value of such in-person meetings. Why? Because meetings are fundamentally about connection around relevant content. And it’s impossible to connect well with people wearing face masks who are six or more feet apart!
In addition, there’s ample evidence that some people won’t follow declared safety protocols. Since I wrote that post, we have heard reports and seen examples of in-person meetings where attendees and staff are not reliably social distancing, and/or aren’t wearing masks properly or at all.
This is most likely to happen during socials and meals, where masks have to be temporarily removed. It’s understandably hard for attendees to resist our lifetime habit of moving close to socialize.
2) We perform hygiene theater—but please don’t ask us about our ventilation systems
Many venues trumpet their comprehensive COVID-19 cleaning protocols. Extensive cleaning was prudent during the early pandemic months, when we didn’t know much about how the virus spread. But we now know that extensive cleaning is hygiene theater (1, 2); the primary transmission vector for COVID-19 is airborne.
A recent editorial in the leading scientific journal Nature begins: “Catching the virus from surfaces is rare” and goes on to say “efforts to prevent spread should focus on improving ventilation or installing rigorously tested air purifiers”.
I haven’t heard of any venues that have publicly explained how their ventilation systems minimize or eliminate the chance of airborne COVID-19 transmission!
Why? Because it’s a complicated, and potentially incredibly expensive issue to safely mitigate. And venues are reluctant or unable to do the custom engineering and, perhaps, costly upgrades necessary to ensure that the air everyone breaths onsite is HEPA filtered fast enough to keep any COVID positive attendee shedding at a safe level.
Adequate ventilation of indoor spaces where people have removed masks for eating or drinking is barely mentioned in governmental gathering requirements (like this one, dated March 3, 2021, from the State of Nevada). These guidelines assume that whatever ventilation existed pre-COVID is adequate under the circumstances, as long as all parties are socially distanced. We know from research that there are locales — e.g. dining rooms with low ceilings or inadequate ventilation — where this is not a safe practice, since it’s possible for COVID droplets to travel far further than 6 feet.
In case you are interested, current recommendations are for MERV 13 filtering throughout the venue. Does your venue offer this?
P.S. I expect there are venues that have done this work. Do you know of venues that have done the engineering to certify a measurable level of safe air on their premises? If so, please share in the comments! We should know about these conscientious organizations.
3) Inadequate or no pre-, during-, or post- COVID testing, and contact tracing
Shockingly, many in-person meetings now taking place require no pretesting of staff or attendees. (News flash: Checking someone’s forehead temperature when they enter a venue will not detect anyone who is infectious for the two days before symptoms appear, or who is asymptomatic.)
Even if everyone in the venue is tested daily, the widely used quick tests are simply too unreliable. From Nature again:
“Deeks says that a December trial at the University of Birmingham is an example of how rapid tests can miss infections. More than 7,000 symptom-free students there took an Innova test; only 2 tested positive. But when the university researchers rechecked 10% of the negative samples using PCR, they found another 6 infected students. Scaling that up across all the samples, the test probably missed 60 infected students.” —Nature, February 9, 2021, Rapid coronavirus tests: a guide for the perplexed
Finally, I find it upsetting that venues like the OCCC keep claiming that they are #MeetingSafely when they are doing no post event follow-up! If an attendee contracts COVID-19 at the event, returns home, and infects grandma, how would the OCCC ever know?! Under the circumstances, I think it’s misleading, dangerous, and unethical for such a venue to publicly claim that they are providing an #MeetingSafely environment.
4) We’re meeting safe—but you can’t sue us if we’re not
“I voluntarily assume full responsibility for any risks of loss or personal injury, including serious illness, injury or death, that may be sustained by me or by others who come into contact with me, as a result of my presence in the Facilities, whether caused by the negligence of the AKC or OCCC or otherwise … I UNDERSTAND THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY AND AGREE THAT IT IS VALID FOREVER. It is my express intent that this Waiver binds; (i) the members of my family and spouse, if I am alive, and (ii) my heirs, assigns and personal representatives, if I am deceased.” —Extract from the Orlando, Florida, OCCC American Kennel Club National Championship Dog Show, December, 2020, Waiver
I’m not sure how you can bind people to a contract who may not even know they are a party to it. But, hey, I’m not a lawyer…
So, can we safely and ethically hold in-person meetings right now?
For the reasons shared above, I don’t believe we can safely and ethically hold in-person meetings right now. Consequently, it’s alarming that many venues, and some meeting planners, are promoting in-person meetings in the near future.
Do I hate in-person meetings?
By now it should be clear that I stand with meeting professionals like Cathi Lundgren, who posted the following in our Facebook group discussions:
“I’m not going to be silent when someone holds a meeting in a ballroom with a 100+ people and no masking or social distancing…I own a global meetings company—and we haven’t worked since March but no matter how much I want to get back at it I’m not going to condone behaviors that are not positive for the overall health of our industry.”
—Cathi Lundgren, CMP, CAE
And here’s how I replied to the first Facebook commenter quoted at the top of this post:
“For goodness sake. I LOVE in-person events. It’s been heartbreaking for me, like everyone, to have not attended one for a year now. But that doesn’t mean I am going to risk stakeholder, staff, and attendee lives by uncritically supporting in-person meetings that are, sadly, according to current science, still dangerous to attend. When in-person meetings are safe to attend once more — and that day can’t come soon enough — you bet I’ll be designing, facilitating, and attending them.”
I hope it’s clear that I, and those meeting professionals who are pointing out valid safety and ethical concerns, don’t hate in-person meetings. Realistically, the future of in-person meetings remains uncertain, even with the amazing progress in developing and administering effective vaccines. More mutant COVID-19 strains that are resistant to or evade current vaccines, transmit more effectively, or have more deadly effects are possible. Any such developments could delay or fundamentally change our current hopes that maintaining transmission prevention plus mass vaccination will bring the pandemic under control.
I’m cautiously optimistic. But, right now, there are still too many unknowns for me to recommend clients to commit resources to future large 100% in-person events. Hub-and-spoke format hybrid meetings look like a safer bet. Regardless, everyone in the meeting industry hopes that it will be safe to hold in-person meetings real soon.
In the meantime, please don’t attack those of us in the industry who point out safety and ethical issues and consequences of prematurely scheduling in-person meetings. We want them back too! We all miss them.
Because we are struggling in a covid-19 world, I’m hosting a special Feelings Edition of the Eventprofs Happy Hour this coming Friday, March 27, 12:00 – 14:00 EDT.
From 2011 – 2017 I hosted a weekly online Eventprofs Happy Hour, first on Twitter and then Google Plus. We used the #ephh hashtag, and announced meetings via the @epchat Twitter account. It was an opportunity for meeting professionals from all over the world to meet and connect. To share what was going on in their lives and the issues of the day.
Right now, you may not be feeling happy. However you’re feeling, I am offering this special online meeting as an opportunity to meet, connect, and share with other event professionals. This will be a place to talk about how you are feeling and be heard by others, to share your circumstances, to meet new people and reconnect with old friends.
Try to join at the start (Friday, noon EDT). But feel free to arrive later if that fits better for you. I will facilitate and guide what develops.
Complete instructions for joining this online Zoom meeting can be found here.
Honored to be included on MeetingsNet’s annual Changemaker list, which “recognizes 20 outstanding meetings professionals for their efforts to move their organizations and the industry forward in unique and positive ways”. Here’s the description of my “quest to topple outdated models, including the one based on the idea that ‘content is king’.”
I’ve spent 29 years working on changing outmoded mindsets about what we should be doing in meetings. Historically, topics weredetermined in advance, the meeting format was mainly lecture and did not encourage interaction, and content was king. To stay effective and relevant today, meetings must:
Respond to what participants actually want and need to learn
Adapt to the reality that we primarily learn from our peers rather than experts
Provide appropriate opportunities to connect with relevant peers in the sessions around content
And it is changing. The meetings industry is far more aware of the importance of treating and supporting attendees as active participants rather than passive consumers of education. You see this in the increasing number of industry articles about good meeting process, the rise of the term “meeting design” being applied to the group process we use in sessions as opposed to, say, F&B or production design.
I am now writing another book, Event Crowdsourcing. I’m starting to offer workshops where meeting professionals, designers, and stakeholders can learn first-hand about the power of participatory techniques. And I continue to design and facilitate meetings. That’s the most effective way to change mindsets: exposing participants to what meetings can be like when you adopt a participant-driven and participation-rich approach.
Best Business Advice
One of my mentors, Jeannie Courtney, taught me to trust my intuition. She helped me see the power and joy that is possible when I respond to opportunity rather than what I used to think of as taking a risk by trying something new—and scary. Like much of my most important learning, that change of perspective happened experientially, rather than from a piece of advice.
Got a Spare Hour?
I would do yoga and meditation if I haven’t yet fit them into my day. I like to read a wide variety of nonfiction, mysteries, and science fiction. And I am active in my local nonprofit communities. I’ve been running or on the board of multiple associations continuously for over 30 years.
I’m happy to appear on MeetingsNet’s annual Changemaker list. I love my work. Such honors are a nice acknowledgement that what I do and continue to do matters to the industry I’m proud to be part of.
I have other concerns. In the future, I think we’ll see more meetings move online. That will have an impact on the hospitality industry (no room nights, no F&B, and no travel) and, perhaps, reduce the number of event production staff.
Anyway, I hope this prediction’s right. We’ll see!
I love our community, and have greatly enjoyed the work of discovering topics, finding and encouraging interesting guests, and moderating many chats. But the work involved as the community manager of the #eventprofs Twitter chats is taking too much time from an increasingly busy professional life. With a second book on the way, and a travel schedule that is becoming more and more packed, I don’t believe I’ll be able to dedicate the amount of time needed to do a competent job in the coming months.
I want to thank the hundreds of people who have moderated, been guests, or tweeted during #eventprofs chats, which have been running continuously since May, 2009. Though much has changed since we started, and the initial excitement of using social media to meet in a new way has become almost routine, the chats still provide a valuable opportunity for event industry veterans and newcomers alike to meet and share, irrespective of their physical locations.
Whatever the future of the #eventprofs chats, I believe they can continue to serve important needs of the events community, and I’m happy to have been able to play a small part in facilitating their development and value.
Thank you everyone who participated in last week’s two #eventprofs chats about …the future of #eventprofs chats. Here are links to the survey results and the Tuesday transcript. I’ve had a chance to think about the discussion, and, as the de facto #eventprofs community manager (other drivers welcome), here’s what I plan to do in the future:
Organize one chat per week
Although we have had two weekly time slots for #eventprofs chats for some time (Tue 9-10pm and Thu 12-1pm EST), in practice we have been averaging just over one chat per week (58 in 2011). There was clear agreement that we should change how often we meet to once a week. I’m still open to anyone suggesting an additional short-notice chat on a hot topic, but I won’t be scheduling more than one chat a week.
Rotate the day and time we hold the chat
It was clear from the discussions that about half those who responded preferred daytime chats and half preferred evening chats. Rather than disenfranchise half our audience permanently, we’re going to rotate our chat times weekly between our existing Tue 9-10pm and Thu 12-1pm EST times. I’m not going to to be a robot about this; we may chat two Tuesdays or Thursdays in a row. But over the year, we’ll hold about the same number of chats on each day. Follow @epchat to be informed about upcoming chats.
We will keep using the #eventprofs hashtag for the chat. Yes, it contains a lot more, sometimes irritating, announcements (aka spam) than the good old days, but that’s the price of fame. The same would eventually happen for any new hashtag we adopted. Event professionals new to Twitter often discover our chats via the #eventprofs hashtag. Besides, do you really want to have to remember to check one more hashtag?
We have had a neat tool for suggesting and voting on #eventprofs chat topics for some time, but it has not been used much, though I publicize it regularly on Twitter. I did not receive any ideas on ways to increase suggestions for chat topics, though several new topics were suggested (thank you Michelle & Marvin!) which I’ve added to our tool. People liked the idea of having more guest speakers on the chat and I will try to solicit more of them. And I would really appreciate suggestions/introductions from the #eventprofs community (that means YOU); contact me, it only takes a moment!
OK, so how can I help?
Follow @epchat to be informed about upcoming chats.
Take just a couple of minutes to suggest and vote on #eventprofs chat topics. If there’s a topic you want to talk about, suggest it! Is there’s a guest you want? Suggest them, together with the topic! If everyone added at least one topic just once a year and did comparison voting on five pairs of suggestions, we’d have a great pool of suggestions.
I would love to move our #eventprofs site from the creaky (but free) pbworks wiki to something more streamlined (a free WordPress site would probably work). But I don’t have the time to do this myself right now. If you would be prepared to help with this project, I promise to have your likeness, links, and a generous profusion of thanks prominently displayed on the resulting gloriously updated version. Contact me!
In the end, as always, the health of the #eventprofs community is up to you. My continuing goal is to support making the #eventprofs chats maximally useful to the greatest number of event professionals, within the constraints of volunteer time and energy. Comments and helpful suggestions are, as always, welcome.
Earlier today I posted, via Twitter, a five question #eventprofs chat survey to gather opinions about the future of #eventprofs chats. Here it is:
I received 23 responses in the following 8 hours—thank you to everyone who took the time to respond! (And a big thank you to several respondents who offered to moderate a chat for the first time.)
The survey responses
Responses to Q2 (changes => more likely)
1x a week would make it easier for me. it was more about the consistency then the times. I used to have them in my schedule then took them out – inconsistent. it has been much better now.
I think it would be good to have some testimonials and do a bit of promotion around that. You know “great chat learned loads and all very useful”
I would rather see it as a once monthly event to look forward to where the whole community was online and more engaged
once a week during the day.
I would prefer a change to the hashtag so that there is less interference during the chat from other #eventprofs users. Reminders via email are helpful (thanks for today’s reminder).
timing is not as important as topic although day time chats are better for me.
Looking forward to that discussion this evening. (Sorry, still pondering.)
mid-weekly chats 8 or 9pm
I am on EST time. The chat on Tuesdays at night never works for me. I try not to work after I leave the office 🙂 I think lunch time is great on Thursdays. Two per week is a lot. I also think that having people from the community is a great way to promote the chats. Wish we could make the community a little more organized in a way. The wiki is ok but having a whole site dedicated to #eventprofs would be cool – chat schedule, topics, past topics, transcripts, list of members, list of moderators and frequency, twitter stats, maybe even syndicate the blog content or have a location that lists all resources everyone is sharing, meetups in your city, links to other sites, etc. Any way you can help the moderators and members promote themselves would get more people to engage and contribute I think. The #eventprofs hashtag is also used very widely know… maybe we should have a sepearte tag for the chats themselves. It would be cool to have an #eventprofs member badge! [Adrian: there is an eventprofs badge!]
I would like to attend on Mondays rather than Thursdays. With my kids 9PM on Tuesday is never doable and Thursday is always a busy day. It would be nice to start the week off with Eventprofs!
Would prefer chats on Friday & Monday instead of mid-week. More convenient times for Europe GMT+1 = end of the afternoon or early evening after 8 pm Less chats; one topic only. Other platform then twitter not to bother no event tweeps to much 🙂 More attendees also like to see more end-users/customers to get their insight
I believe 1 chat per week is appropriate…2 is too many. Plus there is a difference between a corporate event and a special event; a public event and a private event. Someone who plans education for associations does not have the same needs/problems/challenges as someone who plans an awards dinner. Yes, there is some overlap, but… So I believe extremely focused chats are the best solution with the specific audience listed in the promotion of the chat. IMO that is the best way to have successful, solution driven chats.
Once a week during the work day with existing format and a way to filter out sales promotions.
Evenings are tougher for me, maybe a bit earlier in the day would make it easier.
I think once a week would be sufficient. You can rotate between Thursday and Tuesday to hit people with different time zones,
It’s always hard for me, on the West Coast to attend the Thursday chats as they are during work hours. If we could have them at 5 pm Pacific or 8 pm EST, then it would be easier to attend. 6 pm is also a little tough as it is time I normally would be driving home.
I’m usually too busy during the day for the chats, and I’m usually off the computer before the evening chats. I might be able to join more with an early evening time. Timing doesn’t affect how I recommend them, though, as this is just my schedule.
Use of different technology occasionally along with twitter, (Google Hangouts, Skype, Webinar format, video, etc)
earlier times for late chat (due to time difference). format is good. maybe more chats with guests (ask a colleague), or chats about specific events and their challenges. change in hashtag for chats?
Responses to Q3 (changes => less likely)
i like when there are more questions – or more then one – also – they could be posted somewhere before the chat
I should be able to attend on a more regular basis. My problem is working out what time they are happening. A GMT note would be really useful for me
While evening chats are more convenient, I am often busy with personal plans and would rather not use that time as work
I’m on pacific time. Any chats that take place during the night aren’t good for me.
more chats, less chats
Again, topic more important but evening chats ET cut into personal time and that is tough to make each week.
Can’t think of any reason except that maybe if the chats decline in frequency so that you can’t always count on them, or if less people start showing up. I always recommend the chats to colleagues tho!!
Hosting the chat in the evening or in a different format: conference call, webcast or G+ hangout. Most of my colleagues are on Twitter and have yet to embrace G+ fully.
Content is more of a driver than the timing and format, etc.
No not at all. People are very busy having to put forth tons of time and effort for business development. Projects are being assigned with short windows for planning and execution so people have less time.
If they were always just during working hours.
Staying the same week in and week out. Let’s experiment and diversify as much as possible
pushing the time to later in the day or evening – that would make it impossible to join
Summary of survey results
[Warning! Small sample! Apply caution before drawing conclusions!]
Six people preferred reducing the frequency to one chat a week. Five people seemed to imply through their comments that the frequency be kept as is. The remainder did not mention changing the frequency, except for one person who suggested once a month.
Time of day
Five people preferred holding the chats during the day/working hours, while three preferred evenings. Not surprisingly, the three European respondents did not want 9pm EST chats.
Three people suggested having a separate hashtag for the chat.
Promotion: do more, use testimonials, help promote moderators, better website.
Platform: use other platforms besides Twitter.
Content: more guests, post questions before chat, focused topics.
Keeping the small sample size in mind, I have to conclude that there wasn’t an obvious majority in favor of any specific change. That’s not to say we should keep things the way they are. If we tried out a once per week chat, I’d be in favor of rotating the day/time so that people who can’t make a specific date/time combination wouldn’t be completely locked out. I’d also love to improve the functionality/ease of use of the website as some suggested, though I’d need some help to make this a reality (offers welcome!) Finally, I’m still really undecided about changing the hashtag for the chat. Using a new hashtag might cut down promotional tweets (though I suspect they’d invade any new hashtag eventually) but would cut off exposure to the 2+ years development of the #eventprofs brand, such as it is.
Did you miss the survey, or this evening’s chat? Feel free to add your comments below!