6 Ways Florida Meeting Planners Modified In-Person Programs During the Pandemic

PCMA Convening Leaders event in Palm Beach, Florida

Surf Expo is typically held twice a year in January and September at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) in Orlando. In September 2020, the in-person component was cancelled due to COVID-19 and show producer Emerald Expositions switched it to an all-virtual event.

The products featured at the show are surf boards—of course—and everything else you can think of related to the great outdoors. The show connects thousands of buyers and sellers from the U.S. and Caribbean as well as Central and South America. Because of the demand for outdoor equipment during the pandemic, Emerald decided to move forward with the event in January 2021.

Temperature screening at Surf Expo at Orlando County Convention Center
Temperature screening at Surf Expo at Orlando County Convention Center.

“We knew the exhibitors wanted a marketplace to show their product, and we knew the buyers wanted to come and see it physically. We had the opportunity and demand so here we are,” said Jody Mosely, operations director, Surf Expo. 

“For many, our show is a critical marketplace for their survival,” added Brian Field, COO of Emerald. “It’s our responsibility to provide our customers with that opportunity, even though everyone understands that the show experience will be different.” 

Surf Expo worked with the OCCC to put safety measures in place, including a no-contact policy, pre-scheduled vendor visits and transparent barriers at all registration sites. Exhibitor Logan LaMance, founder of Kanga Coolers, said he was excited to get back to shows this year and have the opportunity to sign new business.

“The show did a good job with safety measures like the wristband for temperature checks. Someone always stopped me at the door to check it.” 

Surf Expo brochure
Surf Expo show guide.

Even with the decreased number of exhibitors and attendees, Emerald gained practical experience, producing its second live event in the last 11 months. (By comparison, the show company produced more than 140 events in 2019.) 

“We’ve pushed 30 events into the back half of the year,” said Emerald CFO David Doft, noting that as vaccination distribution continues and testing improves, Emerald is ramping up for a full calendar of shows in the second half of 2021.

The Surf Expo is just one example of many, illustrating the resiliency and problem-solving skills of Florida planners during the pandemic. Following are five more.

Hybrid and Virtual Learnings for Florida Chiropractic Society 

Aracelly Martinez
Aracelly Martinez

Executive Director of the Florida Chiropractic Society, Aracelly Martinez, is used to a hectic schedule of conferences. Catering to some 5,000 chiropractors in Florida (and more out of state coming to Florida for meetings), Martinez plans eight conferences per year statewide for chiropractors to attend and earn continuing education credits that the state requires to renew their licenses. 

In the past, each conference had about 200 to 400 in attendance. Ironically, the state of Florida only allowed a maximum of 10 hours of online learning in the past; the rest of the credits had to be earned in person. 

“Obviously, when COVID hit, we had to give people options,” Martinez said. “For the doctors, it’s harder to learn new techniques through video rather than live demonstrations, and for us there are so many more details that I had to be aware of to attend to during the conference. I love it and hate it.” 

In November, the Florida Chiropractic Society held one of their conferences at the Clearwater Beach Marriott Suites on Sand Key. The Society usually travels with their own AV company because every seminar is recorded for future online learning, so virtual is not usually an issue. 

“I can’t imagine going from one hotel to another and having to explain the set up each time,” Martinez said. 

At this conference, however, there was an emergency with the AV company, so the hotel stepped in, free of charge, to provide a big screen for the seminars. 

And while meeting professionals worry about monetizing virtual conferences, it’s not a burden for the Florida Chiropractic Society. 

"Our registration fees are higher for virtual than in-person, but our doctors are willing to pay it because at the end of the day, they see it as a savings not having to travel, pay for hotel rooms and dining out. They can attend the conference in the comfort of their own homes,” Martinez said. 

What has been difficult for Martinez is contracts between hotels and the association are signed two years out with attendance estimates that have decreased due to the pandemic. The association generally spent up to $15,000 on food and beverage, as well.  

“Thankfully, hotels have been very lenient and accommodating with room rates and food and beverage guarantees,” Martinez noted. 

“The Clearwater Beach Marriott was extremely flexible. We didn’t have a lunch sponsor, so the hotel switched from a sit-down lunch to a cocktail party for 75 in a private room away from other guests so it was safe for everyone,” Martinez explained.

“I’ve had to speak to other Florida properties about rates for our conferences because we want to incentivize chiropractors to come back. We don’t want to shortchange hotels, but even if we had the numbers we’ve had in the past, hotels are telling us that because of social distancing, a room that once accommodated 250, today can only have 125.”

Another challenge in the current climate is making sure chiropractors are attending seminars virtually. 

“In person, we can scan people with a bar code on their badge or on their phones, but now we have to have staff monitoring attendees online to make sure they stay online. They break when we break and have lunch when we take lunch. The Florida Board of Chiropractic Medicine requires they be on camera all other times.”

The uncertainty of attendee numbers in a virtual world is compounded because chiropractors who lived in Orlando, for example, would go to the Orlando conference. Today, with virtual conferences, that same Orlando chiropractor can virtually attend the conference anywhere.

Martinez said she’s hoping that after the summer things will start getting back to normal. 

“Our attendees want to get back to in-person learning and networking with those in their own profession.”

[Related: Resources for Hybrid Meetings on The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel]

Omnichannel Solution at PCMA Convening Leaders

PCMA Convening Leaders 2021 in January was slated for Houston with 4,000 attendees, but when the pandemic persisted, conference planners did a massive pivot. The main conference—for about 300 attendees—was switched to a state-of-the-art broadcast studio in Singapore, with ancillary meetings around the world, two of which were in Florida (Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach). 

Each venue had consistent Convening Leaders branding, and all attendees had logoed badges to give the conference a cohesive feel, no matter how far away attendees were from each other. 

Tonya Almond
Tonya Almond

“We realized we needed to flip the script a little bit and create a model that offers flexibility, keeping in mind attendees’ travel and budget restrictions. We’ve done hybrid meetings for 10 years at PCMA, but this year we basically created TV events for all different sizes, building event experiences. We call it edutainment,” said Tonya Almond, vice president, knowledge and experience design for PCMA. 

Topics for in-person seminars that were also streamed to virtual attendants for the two-and-a-half-day event included a talks by political commentator and author Thomas Friedman on trends shaping the world, COVID-19 developments, plus the future of meetings and events. 

As an Official Network Partner of PCMA, Discover The Palm Beaches demonstrated its flexible meeting solutions for Convening Leaders by hosting an in-person event for 50 attendees that highlighted new safety and wellness measures and featured cultural experiences in the city and opportunities to give back to the community. 

“We brought together meeting professionals who wanted to see how venues were presenting and packaging food and beverage and how groups move through a building with new health and safety protocols, which is becoming the norm,” said Kelly Cavers, senior vice president of group sales for Discover The Palm Beaches. “We presented our GBAC STAR Facility Accreditation (the cleaning industry’s only outbreak prevention, response and recovery accreditation for facilities) at hotels, venues and attractions, as well as at the Palm Beach County Convention Center and Palm Beach International Airport. 

“Working with PCMA on co-creating the content made it feel like we were an important part of the event. It was more an opportunity for us to showcase the high standard of safety measures that are ingrained in all meetings here in The Palm Beaches,” Cavers said. 

Going Hybrid at Financial Conferences

Michelle Purdy, owner of Purdy Financial Group in Ponte Vedra, Florida, is a hybrid newbie. Purdy’s conferences often bring in 300 to 350 insurance agents, but due to COVID uncertainty, the meeting was switched from July to September then switched again to January. 

Michelle Purdy
Michelle Purdy

“We were a bit nervous about it, but the Caribe Royale said they had done some prior events and felt comfortable it would work fine. This is a conference where each attendee pays $129, so we decided to keep the same price for the virtual attendees. We have never had a virtual option, but we decided to go for it,” Purdy said. 

Having a full-time, in-house AV technician on the payroll at her company helped, she added. 

“Although it was the first time he’d done anything like this, we hired an assistant for him and while he had a lot to do with setting up the main stage in one room where we streamed to all the virtual attendees and 20 breakout sessions, it went off with very few glitches.” 

The Caribe Royale Orlando worked well for the group because of the space in its convention center. 

“We set up the room to meet not only the fire marshal’s requirements, but for the new social distancing guidelines, as well. We could really spread out,” Purdy said.

She also noted that her team was pleasantly surprised when they sold more than 200 tickets for the virtual event (on top of the 202 for those who attended in person). 

“We don’t do this conference as a profit generator; we sell insurance for that, but we did have added expenses of our Zoom set up and paying extra for enhanced Wi-Fi, so the added registration was a plus,” she added.

The hotel was flexible with meals, and one group even had a side event where they used the banquet facility and the hotel put that toward their minimum. It was the same with the room block, Purdy explained, adding that several attendees booked their rooms outside the block with a Cyber Monday hotel sale and The Caribe Royale also counted that toward the minimum.

Purdy Financial also hosted a VIP event for 60 at Top Golf in Orlando and received feedback that people felt comfortable being at an outside venue. She learned later that one of the agency owners also ran a virtual happy hour from her house for 40 people simultaneously with their event. 

“The feedback we got from attendees both virtual and in person was amazing. And we did have some great comments about ‘never wanting to miss our conference again,’ but our next conference will probably be at the end of the year, and I can’t see why we wouldn’t do a hybrid event again, although, in our industry, people still want to meet people in person.”

All-Virtual Swivel for NASRO

Mo Canady, executive director of the Alabama-based National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO, which supports law enforcement officers in schools), replaced the annual in-person conference with a virtual-only meeting in August. It drew close to 900 members. 

“We learned that the virtual component does have a place in the future of in-person meetings. It allows those that don’t have a budget or might have a date conflict the opportunity to be part of our event,” Canady said. 

Mo Canady
Mo Canady

While he doesn’t feel the virtual component will ever permanently displace the standard in-person conference, Canady thinks it will add to the overall attendance. “Virtual will be a component, however, it still won’t be like being at the conference. No socialization, networking or breakouts,” he added.  

In its 30 years, the conference has always been well attended, and Canady expects 2021—its 31st year—to be no different.  

For this year’s conference at Orlando’s Rosen Shingle Creek, Canady has confidence in attendance numbers. 

“Because attendees are mainly law enforcement officers, most of them will likely be vaccinated by the time of the conference in July, and we are planning accordingly. There is a reunion aspect to this conference, and we know our members can’t wait to get back together in person. The mental health aspect of us not being able to be in community with each other should be considered. I have no doubt this has impacted our membership. So, I look at this as a little release for them, of course, as safely as ever,” Canady said.

“We also know that Rosen Shingle Creek is a place that has a lot more space available to us than most other convention centers,” he added. “The staff are also incredibly flexible to work with. As the date draws near, we know that if we need to do more social distancing, we can easily do that. 

“We have great faith in Rosen Shingle Creek’s security and wellness measures, as well as knowing that by abiding by the rules of the hotel, we are abiding by those of the state of Florida.  We all must be incredibly flexible right now and with Shingle Creek, we can breathe easy.”

Shifting Meeting Dates, Plus Industry Lessons

Cathy Jones, president and CEO of Shamrock Innovations, based in Windermere, Florida, had to move many of her 2020 meetings several times, but is proud of the fact her first hybrid meeting was in June. 

Cathy Jones
Cathy Jones

“It was awesome. We navigated the uncharted territory together with our hotel partner. Now we are experts at live/hybrid events,” she said.

The one thing Jones wasn’t used to is groups cancelling at the last minute and hotels trying to play hardball with cancellation fees. 

“I didn’t want my clients to get hurt and I didn’t want the hotels to have to pay so we had to make it a win-win. We don’t know how many attendees we’re going to get so everyone has to work together and we did.

“I do see fourth quarter of 2021 getting better, but I also see having a virtual component for years to come.

The meetings will be smaller, and we may see standard waivers that say ‘travel at your own risk’ just to protect everyone involved,” she said.

All in all, Jones said there has been an upside to COVID-19. 

“I think we are a better industry because we’re leaner, meaner and cleaner. Chefs have been forced to be more creative, and overall having to work together to bring meetings back has made us a better industry.”  

Read this next: Miami and Fort Lauderdale Industries Plan for Brighter Days

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Jennifer Juergens | Contributing Content Developer, Florida and Caribbean