Meeting Mentor Magazine

November 2020

APM Opens CAESARS FORUM with a (Safely Distanced) Bang

While other recent meeting industry in-person conferences have gotten some flack over letting COVID-related safety protocols lapse, that was decidedly and deliberately not the case for ConferenceDirect’s Annual Partners Meeting (APM), held October 26–29 at the new CAESARS FORUM venue in Las Vegas. Approximately 70 of the company’s supplier partners connected in person with about 120 qualified ConferenceDirect associates at general sessions, a reverse trade show, and several breakout sessions, as well as during social events — all held with the strictest of social distancing, mask-wearing, and other hygiene protocols designed to make in-person meetings possible in the COVID-19 era. For the 250 or so who were not able to make the face-to-face event, the company provided a hybrid option.

“Everyone has their own comfort level, and we wanted to be able to include everyone with the virtual option,” said ConferenceDirect Senior Vice President, Marketing Programs and Business Development J.J. Wills

Darren Green, Vice President, Sales, Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board, said, “I personally felt safe with the protocol they had in place. I appreciated greatly that everybody was wearing a mask while they were meeting with their industry partners. It showed that that our industry is committed to meeting safely and responsibly in today’s environment.”

”It has to come from the top down,” said ConferenceDirect COO Jerry Horan. “If leadership practices the rules, others will follow. And they did.”

“APM showed how an event could be professionally and safely done,” said Kevin O’Reggio, CHSE, Director, Global Sales — Corporate, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts. “For your customers to see that CD could pull off an internal event like this should make them feel good about doing their meetings with ConferenceDirect.”

The Waiting Was the Hardest Part
While it was disappointing not to be able to hold APM at its original date in May, or even its initial postponed date in August — and the fact that it had to be scaled down from its usual 900 attendees — the general feeling was that it was satisfying to have it happen before the end of 2020, and to be able to make it happen in a way that accommodated the needs of all attendees, both those who were willing to come in person and those who preferred to keep their distance while still connecting with their partners and peers.

Both the venue and ConferenceDirect organizers were on pins and needles waiting to see if the governor would open up the state to events of that size, so when the word came down about a month prior that they could host up to 200 participants rather than the 50-per-room limit that had been in place, “It felt great to finally open CAESARS FORUM,” said Don Ross, Vice President, Meeting Operations, with CAESARS FORUM.

“It was even more exciting for our first guest to be ConferenceDirect,” he added. “We couldn’t have planned anything better.”

Safety First
“While our purpose didn’t change — it has always been education and relationship building for our associates and partners, and award recognition for the previous year’s successes, we added a fourth purpose, which was to demonstrate how we could hold a safe meeting moving forward,” said Wills.

Added Mike Ditter, Senior Vice President and Team Director with ConferenceDirect, “Being that I had not traveled since March 7, I was excited to get out and see what a current meeting experience would look and feel like. I was very impressed with how we created a safe and secure meeting environment.”

The 550,000-square-foot venue, which features two of the world’s largest ballrooms — 110,000 square feet each, pillarless and configurable about 40 different ways, plus two 40,000-square-foot junior ballrooms, also highly configurable — gave ConferenceDirect participants plenty of space to socially distance at the general sessions and reverse trade show. “CAESARS FORUM has a lot of space so they can accommodate the amount of square footage we need now,” said Green. Added O’Reggio, “I appreciate the thought that went into the appointments set up for the trade show. I saw everyone I needed to see. All in all, it was a home run.”

Luncheons and the awards dinners were served in the ballroom by masked and gloved attendees to attendees who each had their own 30-inch cocktail round, set at least six feet apart. For sessions, attendees each were assigned seats — marked by their name badges, so there was no need for in-person name badge pickup. “That was really well thought out,” said Green. “You weren’t tempted to try to sit closer — you didn’t have the opportunity to.” CAESARS FORUM also has gone linen-less for its session rooms, more for sustainability reasons than for COVID, though it came in handy for that as well. “It’s a great look, and it’s also in keeping with our company culture of sustainability,” said Ross.

While the social distancing seating may have made things a bit more subdued than the usual conference meal-time hubbub, “I think we were able to create an experience that felt both elegant and safe,” said Ross.

Ross emphasized that all staff are COVID-tested before they come to work and are temperature-checked each morning before they come into the building after responding to a series of COVID-related questions. The property is peppered with signs reminding guests about social distancing and hand washing, and there are hand sanitizer stations throughout the property, including at the doorway to each meeting space that’s in use. Entrances and exits are controlled with ropes and stanchions, again to control the flow into and out of the spaces to avoid lines and crowding.

Green added that not offering seating in the foyer or other nooks and crannies where people usually gather in small groups was a smart move, as was having set entrances and exits.

“From the temperature checks when I checked into the hotel to all the safety precautions at the event to the visible cleaning I saw happening — all the things they did made people feel safe and comfortable,” said O’Reggio.

Guests also were asked to complete a COVID checklist administered by Health Shield and 42Chat on their conference app before entering the venue, and had their temperature checked.

“Being screened each day made me feel safe,” said Ditter. “Taking an online mobile health questionnaire, then having that checked by a staff person and then the next step was having your temperature taken to ensure you didn’t have a fever were appropriate measures to ensure our meeting environment was safe. We also were given a different color-coded wrist band each day to show we had been properly screened for health. We had to do this each day before entering the conference meeting space. I think this gave everyone peace of mind that they didn’t have to worry that someone may infect them with COVID.”

 Masks were provided for anyone who needed one. Also, instead of having the registration desk open all day, as it usually would be, the hours were limited, again to control the flow of people and avoid lines. ConferenceDirect also used its chatbot, Brianna, to answer via text message the questions that otherwise would have been fielded by registration staffers. “I was a little nervous about not having a human help desk available, but we didn’t have any issues,” said Wills. “We were able to lean on technology to help minimize the interaction.”

 “Communication was key,” said Ross. “J.J. and her team did an amazing job of communicating to the attendees, so everyone knew ahead of time what the protocols were, which made it easier for everyone.” Wills added that her team also held pre-conference webinars, as well as sending instructions in writing about what to expect. “I think that helped everyone have a good comfort level going in,” she said.

“Wearing a mask at all times unless you were eating or drinking. Proper social distancing with the meeting room sets. We also sanitized the table after each appointment with our partners. No hugging or handshakes… this was the hardest of all to comply with,” said Ditter. “While it was an inconvenience at times, it was well worth it to see folks mask to mask.” 

Food and Beverage in the COVID Era
Because it’s impossible to eat and drink while wearing a mask, meal service can be a bit fraught in the COVID era. However, said Ross, food safety has always been a priority for all Caesars properties and they didn’t have to make too many changes to adjust to meet COVID protocols. One they did make was to eliminate buffets — everything was either plated or pre-packaged and individually wrapped. Also, instead of the server putting the plate on the table uncovered, they kept the cover on until the guest said they were OK with them lifting the cover off.

“It was a bit old school, like when you go to a gourmet restaurant and they lift the domes with a “Voila!” said Ross. “Food sanitation is second nature to us, so it was more about how we presented dishes to the customers.” Guests also had to ask for condiments, rather than having them pre-set on the tables; wait staff then would take the condiments back to sanitize them before offering to the next guest who asked for them.

Snacks on the show floor also took an interesting twist — and one that the property may keep once COVID is just an unpleasant memory, Ross added. They took a dim sum type of approach, with individual carts loaded with a selection of pre-packaged goodies in Bento-style boxes. “This idea could easily scale up for a larger event, and even be a sponsorship opportunity,” said Bill Dosch, Executive Director Catering/Convention Services, CAESARS FORUM. Beverages were served by roving wait staff, and also available at touchless beverage stations.

Another innovation that may be here to stay is the farmer’s market amenities kiosk they made available on the bridge that connects the FORUM to hotels. “With COVID, we’re not allowed to deliver amenities to guest rooms,” said Dosch. “It was well received; and guests liked having options they could choose, rather than having a bottle of wine and chocolates delivered to their room whether that’s what they would want or not.”

For the final evening reception, attendees were able to walk out of the meeting space and seamlessly enter the FORUM’s 100,000-square-foot plaza. with plated meals and wait service bringing food and beverages to tables that seated up to four at appropriate social distances. The venue wanted to showcase different hot and cold selections — including octopus and shrimp, cold canapes, lamb and chicken entrees and a dessert plate — but did it as a four-course plated meal. Once people were done eating, they could don their masks again, mingle, and enjoy the photo booth and entertainment.

Green said, “I really liked that the only way to get food and beverage was when you were seated, and any time you got up from your table, you had to have your mask on. Not allowing people to congregate around a bar or food station really helped make it feel safe.”

Changing Formats for Changed Times
Wills and her team did make some changes to the traditional format, including making the event one day shorter than it has been in the past. Also, instead of the usual free-flowing trade show, they instituted an appointment format to be able to control the flow of people in the room, as well as include the remote attendees.

They also eliminated the breakouts in lieu of holding all of the content in the general sessions this year. The purpose was two-fold, said Wills. “We wanted to minimize the movement in the room by keeping people at the same tables throughout. And we wanted to be able to livestream the content for virtual attendees. It wouldn’t have been realistic to livestream from six breakout rooms, so doing it all in the general sessions made sense.”

“My main takeaway was the logistics,” said O’Reggio. He particularly liked that the agenda wasn’t so jam-packed that he couldn’t take time to insert the pauses needed to go back to the room and regroup.

There also were some new protocols to work through, such as making sure the mics and clickers were sanitized in between speakers at the general sessions, said Wills. “We also had a great partner in Encore Productions, which was live-streaming our sessions out to attendees as well as in-streaming speakers who were remote,” she added. “Encore had 12 people on site to run all the different components, but it was seamless.”

“We’ve gone from proactive selling to more just checking in with ConferenceDirect associates and their clients to see how they’re doing,” said Green. “It was a good opportunity to reset how we want to engage.” And to show solidarity and support for valued partners, added O’Reggio, “Business had become more transactional coming out of the recession. These past few months have taught us how important that relationship piece is. Coming out of this, I think we’re going to be even more in tune with our relationship side.”

And to get some ideas on how meetings can be done in the midst of a pandemic. “We’re showing our community how it can be done, how it can look and feel and still keep people safe. It’s about making a commitment to doing what it takes to get through this and to the other side. It takes commitment and a partnership between the organization and the host to make it work. ConferenceDirect and CAESARS showed just that, which says a lot about ConferenceDirect, CAESARS, and Las Vegas,” said Green.

“The collaboration and communication between our team and ConferenceDirect’s made it all work,” said Ross. “There were no ‘code reds’ on the radio. We were all a step ahead of everything.”

While the meeting was for just a few hundred, not the tens of thousands the venue was built for, “We feel we can scale this up and provide a safe environment, especially for professionals who will be mindful of complying with the protocols,” said Ross. That’s something they look forward to making happen when larger scale events become possible in 2021. “The third quarter is looking excellent,” said Ross.  — Sue Pelletier

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About ConferenceDirect
ConferenceDirect is a global meetings solutions company offering site selection/contract negotiation, conference management, housing & registration services, mobile app technology and strategic meetings management solutions. It provides expertise to 4,400+ associations, corporations, and sporting authorities through our 400+ global associates. www.conferencedirect.com

About MeetingMentor
MeetingMentor, is a business journal for senior meeting planners that is distributed in print and digital editions to the clients, prospects, and associates of ConferenceDirect, which handles over 13,000 worldwide meetings, conventions, and incentives annually. www.meetingmentormag.com

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