As the COVID–19 outbreak shows little sign of slowing down, Pretty Green reviews the impact it's having within the global events and experiential space, leading the team to put together a guide for event planning support during this time of uncertainty. In an interview between Emily Koppit, a group account lead at Pretty Green's events and experiential team, The Producers; and event safety expert, Wesley Pierce - a managing director of Number 8 Events - all questions are answered and planning tips are shared.
Emily Koppit (EK): What is COVID-19?
Wesley Pierce (WP): Public Health England describes COVID-19 as a type of virus. Coronaviruses, as a group, are common – COVID-19 is a new strain. Current information suggests that the COVID-19 virus is more difficult to contain and therefore proving particularly difficult to manage.
We also know that the transmission of the virus is;
- possible following close or sustained contact with an infected person. Spending 15 minutes within two metres (6ft) of an infected person is judged to be a significant risk.
- possible if directly transferred into the mouth or nose, or inhaled into the lungs.
- possible as a result of touching a surface contaminated and then touching your own mouth, nose or eyes.
Because of the way COVID-19 is spread, the events industry has needed to become hyper-aware due to concentration of people in enclosed spaces.
EK: With this in mind, what can we do to minimise the risk of COVID-19 at varying scales of events, should we approach different scales of events in a different way?
WP: There are numerous factors to consider in addition to the scale or size of event – namely the density of crowds; whether the event is held indoors or outdoors; how do people move around the event - including how they interact with each other and their surroundings; where the staff and attendees are travelling from; whether there are checks on their movements or what their proximity to confirmed cases of COVID-19 has been. Individual event organisers should look to identify the key risks associated with their events and implement sensible control measures accordingly.
EK: Are there certain types of events that will be impacted more than others?
WP: Potentially, if you consider a large scale sporting event; most people will sit in a stand with good ventilation, among people they know (who hail from their social group), facing the same direction and may only touch a few surfaces at the venue. In contrast a small event could result in high crowd densities in confined spaces. It’s key to bear in mind the areas that are pinch point moments throughout the experience i.e. toilets, entrance and exit.
EK: What are your top tips for UK event planners during the containment phase of COVID-19?
WP: Depending on the size of the event, there are some fairly simple measures which could be introduced before and during.
Beforehand, event organisers could contact staff to find out if anyone had travelled from affected areas, as listed by Public Health England. These fall into two categories. Category one suggests that travellers should not attend the event and category two allows travellers to attend, unless they develop the relevant symptoms. Event organisers may interpret how they deal with category two differently depending on the circumstances affecting individual travellers. People who have been in close and sustained contact with confirmed COVID-19 cases can also be excluded from the event. In some instances, organisers may be able to carry out the same background checks for attendees (such as in conferences) or request via social media and email that people falling into the above categories do not attend.
In terms of measures to implement at the event, organisers need to keep it clean:
- Increasing awareness of good personal hygiene and effective hand-washing among staff and attendees. This could be via media messaging, signage, staff awareness and communicating this message to attendees on arrival.
- Make hand-washing more accessible. Warm running water, soap and hand dryers should be readily available. For an event that's taking place this weekend in London, we have introduced temporary hand wash stations for staff and public.
- Providing anti-bacterial gels and foams around the event spaces.
- Increasing the cleaning regime to include contact surfaces within the event spaces.
Consider using the following five-point plan:
- Nominate a key person in the team to monitor government guidance on COVID-19.
- Design event spaces and timings to reduce crowd densities – i.e. within arrival and departure areas; think about staggering arrival/departure times; how to minimise congestion; avoid peak times on public transport; and where possible, implement options for virtual (or partly virtual) participation.
- Consider how COVID-19 issues are addressed in your existing communications plan.
- Consider the financial ramifications if insurance policies taken out prior to the outbreak do not provide satisfactory cover by consulting with your insurers before the event.
- Have a clear plan on dealing with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases at the event – various ideas include creating a self isolation space; contacting the authorities; venue cleansing; disposal of waste; and protection of first responders. Make sure relevant information is included in all staff briefings.
EK: What would you say the largest impacts of COVID-19 are on the events industry?
WP: COVID-19 will have an impact on all industries; we have already seen fairly considerable financial problems manifesting with the collapse of Flybe, Lufthansa grounding dozens of aircraft, Facebook closing its Seattle office and this is just what we’re seeing in the headlines. The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development has said that the world’s economy could grow at its slowest rate since 2009.
We are fortunate in the event industry that we have some very active associations which are liaising with government advisors on potential impacts. The event and culture sector is also seen as a balance on normality, so everyone is focused on maintaining normality whereever possible - kneejerk reactions tend not to be helpful.
The current position is that categorically stopping all events is not necessary. This is clearly a fast-moving situation and the government will need to make some challenging decisions that are proportionate to the risks.
Event organisers should continue to plan for events while closely monitoring the developments and advice from the UK government, Public Health England, the NHS and the World Health Organisation.
EK: What is the general advice you are giving to event producers?
WP: We’re advising clients to plan for a range of possible scenarios, take reasonable steps to increase hygiene standards and keep up to date with the latest information. There plenty of media coverage at the moment so fact checking is important. Having a single person nominated to monitor the approach based on the latest knowledge can make communicating with the rest of the team easier and helps ensure that the response is considered and consistent.
Once you have this in place you can then consider what communications you are having with your team and your audience, pre event, during the event and post event. As with all event messaging make sure it is concise, accurate and approved by any relevant stakeholders.
Why are large amounts of events being cancelled?
WP: There is obviously widespread uncertainty across a lot of sectors, events included. The worst-case scenario is the outbreak being classified a pandemic, with the inevitable and tragic loss of human life. Practical challenges may be presented with a large number of people off work due to self-isolation and social distancing measures which will ultimately affect productivity and growth.
If you core business is not events, but for example you organise corporate events, conferences, staff parties or brand events clearly the risks presented by Coronavirus need to be weighed up against the outcomes of the event. This is understandable and clients will make decisions based on their own circumstances.
If your core business is events - for example sports, mass participation, music and festivals or social events… clearly considerable time, effort and expense will be needed to ensure these are a resounding success in spite of the current situation.
The government has announced their ‘battle plans’ for COVID-19 and the different phases of the plan, currently we are moving between contain and delay, as described by Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Whitty the focus is to blunt the curve of cases so we don’t have lots of people unwell at the same time.
Clearly if the person-to-person transmission increases, the government will need to move their advice and plans, and we could see many more events cancelled. But likewise as the experts learn more about COVID-19 the research can inform advice and decisions.
Overall the situation is continuing to develop and event planners and producers will need to monitor the developments closely to understand the ultimate impact the virus will have.
In the meantime, The Producers and Number 8 Events’ recommend the following five point plan for the events industry to follow for planning during COVID-19 uncertainty:
- Stay current – Nominate someone to understand the information, and to keep up to date with government advice.
- Design – Design event spaces to reduce crowd densities, create virtual participation opportunities.
- Communicate – Have a clear escalation plan for how to deal with COVID-19 at events
- Consider - financial ramifications if uninsured
- Plan – develop a clear action plan for dealing with suspected cases