By Ronnie Wendt
As the state emerges from its pandemic cocoon, the State of Wisconsin encourages planners to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for in-person meetings. The CDC recommendations include keeping meetings small and always adhering to recommended social distancing practices. The CDC also advises wearing masks and discourages sharing objects.
Even with guidelines in place, it is natural to approach your first in-person event with apprehension. The safety and wellbeing of attendees rests on your plans. Just as COVID-19 concerns changed how you plan, it’s also changing how caterers, hotels and venues approach meetings and events.
According to “Considerations for Events and Gatherings,” by the CDC, there’s no evidence that COVID-19 spreads by food. However, that same CDC document finds “people sharing utensils and congregating around food service areas poses a risk.”
The CDC advises against offering self-serve food or drink options, such as buffets, salad bars or drink stations. Alma Kulata, director of sales at The Iron Horse Hotel, notes the venue handles food differently now. The Milwaukee hotel adjusted menu options and processes for meetings/events before reopening June 1.
“Our first meeting [upon reopening] originally planned a nice buffet breakfast and lunch, and we changed that pretty quickly,” Kulata says. “Buffets just are not possible right now.”
Does this mean the buffet is dead? “Not exactly,” reports Alison Hutchinson, president of MPI Wisconsin. She predicts cafeteria- style buffets where the waitstaff dishes up plates for attendees versus people serving themselves.
The Ingleside Hotel in Pewaukee now forgoes buffets and passed hors d’oeuvres. Servers instead deliver plated food to individuals. The hotel also breaks up larger buffets into multiple stations, then mans each station with a server to dish food onto individual plates. Servers call people to stations in smaller groups to maintain social distancing.
Physical guides, such as stickers on floors or signs on walls, remind attendees to stand six feet apart in line. “You can’t just have a buffet line with 20+ people standing in line, then serving themselves,” says Tiffany Woodward, director of marketing and waterpark sales at The Ingleside Hotel.
Caterers predict a reversal in sustainability practices. The CDC recommends using disposable food service items such as utensils and dishes. Caterers offer more individually packaged meals and utensils to meet the CDC standard. “The goal is to keep the amount of contacts or touches to a minimum,” Hutchinson says.
The standard has led many caterers to remove community salt and pepper shakers and condiments from the tables. “We went to individual packets,” says Woodward. “Packets aren’t the prettiest to look at, but they are necessary to keep everyone safe.”
Health protections become limited when everyone touches a carafe, pitcher or spigot. Hotels find gathering drink orders then serving attendees individually works better. This practice limits the number of people touching a carafe, spigot or pitcher. “Our servers wear gloves and masks when serving beverages,” Kulata adds.
Boxed meals and snacks boost protection too. Kulata recommends offering a variety of dietary options such as vegan, vegetarian, paleo, gluten-free, allergen-free and Keto. “Many clients feeler safer with prepackaged meals than plated and wrapped food,” says Kulata. “It’s important to ask what your clients feel most comfortable with.”
The Iron Horse Hotel also limited its menu. The move lets the hotel expand kitchen sanitation, food preparation, and serving times. “We offer some customization,” Kulata says. “But our menu is not as varied and customizable as in the past. We treated our reopening as a new hotel opening where there is much to learn.”
The CDC encourages cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces between uses or at least daily in meeting rooms. The recommendation applies to door handles, sink handles, drinking fountains, grab bars, hand railings, cash registers and more.
Destination Madison teamed with venues, convention facilities and hotels to develop sanitation cleanliness standards across the city. “We want planners to feel confident that their attendees will be protected from one venue and one hotel to the next,” says Deb Archer, president and CEO of Destination Madison.
“We put an ionizer in rooms after the event ends to clean and disinfect them before housekeepers do a deep clean.” —Alma Kulata, Director of Sales, The Iron Horse Hotel
The Ingleside Hotel responded with its “Safe Promise” protocol, which it shares with employees and guests. The document lists guidelines for social distancing and explains its cleaning practices.
With Safe Promise, hotel employees deep clean meeting rooms daily and disinfect high-touch areas on a closely monitored scheduled. Employees disinfect audio visual equipment, including microphones, podiums,
switches and controls between uses. The hotel also added hand sanitizer dispensers to all podiums and banquet and meeting rooms.
The Ingleside Hotel increased the time spent cleaning each room, whether a meeting room or a guest room. Housekeepers follow a cleaning checklist for each area, even back of the house areas like the kitchen or banquet staging areas. The company uses EPA-certified disinfectants that housekeepers apply during cleaning. “We are giving housekeepers more time to hit those high touch surfaces more frequently,” Woodward says.
The Iron Horse Hotel’s Kulata says housekeepers once cleaned public areas and meeting spaces every hour, now they do so every 20 to 30 minutes. “We are constantly sanitizing,” she says. “We put an ionizer in rooms after the event ends to clean and disinfect it before housekeepers do a deep clean. And our housekeepers wear PPE.”
The Iron Horse Hotel doesn’t schedule back-to-back meetings anymore to give housekeeping more time to do their jobs, cleaning every door handle, light fixture and even the buttons on the projector. A supervisor goes back through to make sure everything gets done and then wipes down the door handles again as he leaves.
There are also practices meeting planners can put into place on their own to keep attendees safe. It’s no longer a good idea to pack hundreds of people in a room, 10 to a table and other things that were once common practice.
Most venues assist planners in making meetings safe for all. “We are seeing venues being very responsive to the health guidelines,” says Leslie Johnson, director of sales at VISIT Milwaukee. She explains venue staff help planners space seating, provide ready access to hand sanitizer, require mask wearing and plan safe meals.
Planners should ask attendees to supply information on where they are traveling from, where they will stay and how to reach them after the event during registration. This effort ensures planners have key contact information should a health issue arise during or after the event.
The meeting industry is embracing touchless registration. Planners can supply a QR code that allows attendees to check- in and print their badge before they arrive on site. This keeps event staff and attendees healthy. Consider making temperature checks mandatory and having attendees fill in a health questionnaire before entering.
The CDC recommends events adhere to recommended social distancing guidelines. Consider the layout of the room and arrange the furniture to ensure proper spacing between people. Some hotels, like Marriott Hotels, use a space-to-customer calculator to adjust meeting room capacities for social distancing. Set the room’s capacity lower than approved occupancy numbers. Position an attendant at the door to scan attendees and manage capacity. Limit the people in restrooms to allow for social distancing and do not allow lines or crowds to form near them.
Planners should do their part to promote healthy practices by supplying complimentary masks and hand sanitizer. Incorporate signage that reminds attendees to socially distance, wash hands and use hand sanitizer. Mark floors to show proper social distancing wherever lines may form.
“While there’s an immense value in face-to-face events, meeting social distancing requirements may mean offering an in-person and a virtual option.” —Leslie Johnson, Director of Sales, VISIT Milwaukee
Consider a hybrid event to keep attendance down. “The pandemic propelled us into the future,” Woodward says. “People still want to hold in-person meetings, but we installed technology so they can livestream their event to people from all over the world. We’ve also upped our bandwidth to one gig, so we can handle pretty much anything a company throws at us.”
Johnson adds, “I think technology will play a big factor in meetings going forward. While there’s an immense value in face-to-face events, meeting social distancing requirements may mean offering an in-person and a virtual option. You might see planners offer a virtual keynote that attendees watch in their hotel rooms and then smaller breakouts that are in person. There’s a lot of room for innovation.”