As in-person meetings make a comeback, local event planners share insight and advice

After over a year of primarily virtual business meetings, in-person gatherings have returned and are proving to be more popular than ever before. The ability to communicate face-to-face fosters a palpably collaborative atmosphere that virtual meetings cannot quite conjure. That being said, our time behind the screen has also had its benefits: we have learned and strengthened skills (patience chief among them), become more versatile communicators, and developed a deeper appreciation for authentic connection.

Local event-hosting organizations The Virginian Hotel and Liberty Mountain Conference Center are on hand to aid in the transition from virtual to in-person meetings; read on for their answers to five major questions you may have as your business brings employees together again.

What stipulations or rules must attendees abide by in your meeting space(s)?

Before you plan your in-person business meeting, it is imperative to understand the host organization’s current policies and procedures.

“During the state mandates, we were still able to hold group meetings, but with very limited guest attendance numbers as well as specific rules,” says Katrina Chase, Associate Director of Events at Liberty University. “Right now, we do not have any COVID requirements for our guests.”

“We currently do not have restrictions in place regarding the use of masks and social distancing,” says Shelley Waldeck, Director of Sales & Marketing at the Virginian Hotel. “Instead, we allow our event clients to let us know what protocols they wish to enforce while their attendees are on-site and we customize our protocols based upon our client’s comfort level.”

In your opinion, what are some of the challenges of returning to in-person meetings after a year or so of predominantly virtual meetings? How can meeting presenters mitigate these challenges, and how can your organization help?

The rewards of returning to in-person meetings will of course be accompanied by challenges, but preparing for and allowing your host organization to assist in addressing these challenges will help you mitigate them. Waldeck notes that last-minute cancellations, due to possible COVID exposure, are still very common.

“We recognize that this is hard for our planners to foresee, and therefore we try to provide as much flexibility as possible,” Waldeck explains. “A lot of my meeting planners send out a survey to their attendees prior to the event to get a better understanding of the overall comfort level of the group. Communicating the expectation to attendees prior to the conference is key!”

“A major challenge has been businesses being sensitive to their employees’ health concerns and requiring larger spaces so that there is room to spread out, addressing catering requirements, etc., but these new challenges have helped us all grow, be flexible, and think of new solutions,” says Chase. “We are open to meeting every need of our customers, and we have varying size rooms at the LMCC that can suit almost any meeting size.”

Do you believe that the goals of business meetings have changed due to the pandemic, or have they mostly stayed the same?

Although the overarching goals of communication and collaboration will always be at the forefront of any type of business meeting, keep in mind that some secondary objectives and the manner in which they are approached may change.

“I think that the goals have changed slightly,” Chase notes. “We have all seen the memes of ‘this meeting could have been an email,’ so I believe businesses have taken a closer look at their weekly meetings and, before sending out an invite, asked themselves if this truly needs to be in-person. I think this gives more weight to in-person events and meetings, which is always a great thing.”

What activities do you recommend to help people reconnect at in-person meetings? What do you recommend not doing?

Maximizing opportunities for informal connection and movement is likely to become more and more important as meetings transition back to in-person gatherings, whereas activities like family-style eating that encourage physical contact should still be avoided.

“I find that switching to a new environment to include light and open space helps my mind to revitalize!” Waldeck exclaims. “Speed networking is also a fun way to engage, meet everyone in the room, and make worthwhile connections. On the other hand, I do believe the majority of people are still wary of sharing food from the same platter. Providing menus that have individually packaged items is a good way to limit the amount of touch points.”

Do you think there is still a market for virtual meetings now that they aren’t necessarily mandatory?

As time passes and virtual burnout subsides, virtual meetings will likely function more as supplements to, rather than replacements of, in-person meetings.

“Many of the virtual meeting platforms allow you to record and document the discussion, which you can then share for later use,” notes Waldeck.

“I think the market for virtual meetings will remain now that some companies have moved to ‘work from home’ models for their employees, and due to the convenience and cost-efficiency of virtual meetings,” says Chase. “I do still believe that the most important meetings will happen in person. It just isn’t the same in team meetings or when you need to brainstorm when you are doing so over a screen.”