In all my years covering conventions, this is one I truly looked forward to, as the Together Again Expo commenced July 24 in the West Concourse of the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando.

Hosted in collaboration with Alliance Nationwide Exposition, it was the first convention held at the center since the outbreak of COVID-19.

The hybrid tradeshow and convention connected 1,400 industry professionals live and another 8,225 virtually.

In a nutshell, the expo was described as “an industry event that will deliver safety, hope and a positive path forward for live events.”

And it delivered.

Social distancing was the name of the game at the Together Again Expo in Orlando
Photo: Social distancing was the name of the game at the Together Again Expo in Orlando; Credit: Robert Wood

The “safety first” experience began when show staff took my temperature at registration and stuck an “I’m cool” sticker on my lapel, and then handed me my very own logoed mask. I felt completely safe—Purell hand sanitizer stations seemed to be at every turn.

Attendees of Orlando’s Together Again Expo were presented with the rules of engagement Once in the West Concourse, arrows down the aisles of the tradeshow pointed in a specific direction so that maximum social distancing was achieved.

(Photo: Attendees of Orlando’s Together Again Expo were presented with the rules of engagement; Credit: Jennifer Juergens)

Guided by its Recovery and Resiliency Plan, the OCCC implemented a series of precautionary measures for the expo: 

  • Controlling the check-in process to direct attendee flow.

  • Monitoring temperatures prior to entry.

  • Rearranging floor plans to respect physical distancing.

  • Implementing limited capacity on the exhibit floor.

  • Providing complimentary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits to all attendees and exhibitors.

  • As a Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) STAR accredited venue, strict sanitation measures were also taken throughout the duration of the event, including the move-in and move-out process. 

Jerry Demings, mayor of Orange County, welcomed attendees at the opening and cited the success of the recent AAU Volleyball Nationals held at the convention center July 14-22, with more than 12,000 players, coaches and chaperones.

“We maintained a 50 percent capacity, we did temperature checks on everyone and no one tested positive at the event,” he told the audience. “It really is showing the convention industry we’ve reopened for business. We can safely come together again.”

Orange County Convention Center Executive Director Mark Tester also welcomed the group with an exuberant greeting.

“I haven’t been this excited to see a group of people in a building in my long career,” he enthused. “It’s just going to be a great day to show the industry we’re ready to have great and safe shows.”

The opening general session, “Re-Open For Business,” featured industry vets such as Tester; Mike Waterman, chief sales officer of Visit Orlando; Tim McGuinness, a director on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE); Patty Olinger, executive director of Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC); and Tom Draper, senior director of operations for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, among others.

The panel discussed such topics as the OCCC’s new Recovery and Resiliency Guidelines and GBAC STAR accreditation, which provides third-party validation to ensure the implementation of rigorous protocols in response to biorisk situations.

Tester also talked about the new medical concierge for OCCC clients through Orlando Health, offering guidance and onsite support in the form of temperature checks, screenings and telemedicine visits.

Safety protocols at the airport were also discussed, including the introduction of Clean & Safe Travels machines located near airline ticket counters offering face masks, hand sanitizer and other PPE.

On the tradeshow floor, a live cooking demonstration during lunch showcased Centerplate’s entertaining Chef K and his staff demonstrating the new way of serving groups. The gourmet chicken and vegetables were all individually served in to-go dishes that one attendee said “was a long way from your typical convention food.”

Centerplate plated up a convention food service presentation at Together Again Expo in Orlando
Photo: Centerplate plated up a convention food service presentation at Together Again Expo in Orlando; Credit: Katarina Dos Santos

Other educational seminars included “Designing for Safe Environments in Our Brave New World,” “It’s Your Choice: Leading with Empathy Through Uncertainty” and “Global Outlook for Going Live Safely,” led by David DuBois, president and CEO of the IAEE.

The tradeshow, featuring more than 250 exhibitors, included Rosen Hotels & Resorts; Ole Red, Blake Shelton’s new restaurant on Orlando’s International Drive; and many suppliers of cleaning solutions such as J.A.R. Bio, which offers an FDA-approved sanitation and sterilization system for hotel and meeting rooms.

Orlando’s Together Again Expo featured plenty of sanitation protocols and procedures.
Photo: Orlando’s Together Again Expo featured plenty of sanitation protocols and procedures. Credit: Robert Wood

“Our product was mainly used in hospital operating rooms, but we saw the need for this product in the meetings and events industry, so we decided to branch out into this market,” said Juan Calderon, director of sales and marketing for J.A.R. Bio.

Dan Donati, president of Nook Event Pods, was thrilled to be back at a live event, and was showcasing his latest product that helps ensure social distancing at events.

“I have to say I felt like a giggly child coming back to school after summer break,” he said. “It’s the excitement of being here and being involved in a live event….just the smell of new carpet in the convention center.”  

Industry vet Terry Matthers-Lombardo, a meeting planner since 1987, was not only an attendee, but also volunteered to work the show and was happy to do it.

“Face-to-face meetings are terribly missed and still quite relevant,” she offered. “It is up to those of us professionals in this industry to make sure we move this agenda forward to get those meetings going again, and I personally think that was the main message of this expo. Individuals will pick a time and place of their choosing and comfort level to get out and travel, but the re-education process has got to start now.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Read next: Here’s What Hotels and Resorts Are Doing to Enhance Health and Sanitation Standards