Connect 2020 at Orlando World Center Marriott

BizBash in partnership with Connect Meetings, has created Connect 2020, an all-new in-person experience in Orlando. Connect is built around providing event professionals with innovative ideas, tools, and resources on event safetyevent technology, and other COVID-era experiential partners. The two day event is full of education sessions, socially-distanced activations, one-on-one curated conversations, and networking opportunities; providing you with a new foundation as we plan in the wake of COVID-19.

I was invited to speak at Connect 2020 and wanted to use this opportunity to document my journey. Since March 2020, this has been my first trip out of DC. I have to admit that this wasn’t as easy of a decision to make. The event was first scheduled to occur in Las Vegas and due to restrictions, took place in Orlando, Florida. When making this decision, I looked at how Florida was handling, COVID-19 restrictions. Many of us are aware of the issues Florida has had with allowing citizens to visit beaches. We are also aware of the news surrounding another Florida COVID-19 surge.

Even with such news, I was hopeful that BizBash, a leader in the event industry, would set the example. An example that showed the event world that it was possible to hold safe hybrid events during COVID-19.

Here’s my Journey To Connect 2020

How I prepared for Connect 2020

I had to be aware of the safety precautions for every touch point. It was great to see that BizBash and Connect assured all attendees would be safe. They identified that by:

  • Asking all attendees to assess themselves and ensure they were healthy to attend
  • Asked all attendees to sign a waiver
  • Informed us of the COVID-19 restrictions and ways to protect ourselves
  • Listed rules to follow during the 2-day event
  • Mandated a COVID-19 screening each day and conducted a temperature check. If needed, a rapid results COVID-19 test was available.

In addition, I looked to see what Orland World Center Marriott was doing to protect each of the guests. Hotels are a tricky thing to navigate through because there are so many people and I don’t believe anyone can catch everyone.

Marriott sent me several emails that outlined Marriott International’s COVID-19 policy. In addition, they outlined specific rules for the property I was going to stay at. Florida still isn’t like other states requiring people to wear mask while in public spaces. Thankfully, Marriott, “requires all guests and associates to wear face masks in all indoor public spaces in its hotels, regardless of jurisdiction.”

A few other things I liked that Marriott did:

  • Hand sanitizing stations were everywhere with 6ft distance signs. Connect also provided touchless scented sanitation from Sani Signs.
  • They removed all house cleaning services while guests stayed in rooms. This decreased the interaction between employees and guests.
  • All restaurant menus were via QR Code
  • Room Service was limited and everything was pre-packaged in containers.

Day 1 at Connect 2020

The most nerve wrecking thing for me was going to the airport. The trip via Uber started off right with the driver having a placard outlining safety precautions. As I approached TSA screening, there were signs on the floor for 6ft distance. Sadly, many people don’t pay attention as people were ignoring them and no one present to enforce distancing. While Global entry was next to TSA-Pre, no one thought to ensure 6ft of distance separated the two lines. Sort of an oxymoron to ask people to stand 6ft apart, but place two lines next to each other and not ensure the same.

Once I got through TSA-Pre that was all I saw for the 6ft rule at Ronald Regan Airport. As I approached American Airlines, I was in shock by how many people were closely standing next to each other as they waited to board the airplanes. Not a single announcement went out asking flyers to maintain distance. Two gates were allowed to board at the same time which further increased the amount of people standing close to each other. My anxiety kicked into high gear seeing this.

I opted to fly first class. My main reason was hearing that many airlines did not block the middle seat. I rather sit next to one person verses 2 in the same row and tons in front or behind me. They gave a disclaimer and left it up to you to take the risk. I also opted not to check a bag to further prevent myself from standing around crowds of people.

I arrived at Marriott and as promised, safety was the primary focus with plexiglass separating employees checking guests in and hand sanitizer. The entire interaction was easy and I never had to give my representative anything.

The only event on the schedule was the opening reception. I was told that we had roughly 750 people attending the event. It ended up being closer to 1000. This was far less than the amount scheduled to attend in Las Vegas. This told me, the event industry wanted to get back to events and learn how to do it safely. I admit, during the reception, I ended up leaving after 20 minutes. I simply didn’t feel comfortable in the environment. It was great seeing people mix and mingle with their masks and seeing entertainment. However, due to rain, the reception was moved from the pool area to indoors and it wasn’t enough space for the amount of people.

Day 2 & Day 3 at Connect 2020

My first speaking session started at 10am. Orlando World Center Marriott is huge. I believe its 3 largest rooms are at least a football field each. I headed towards the event spaces to get settled and ready to present my topic of Diversity in the Event Industry thanks to the National Events Council.

As I walked towards the showroom floor, I passed two of the large event spaces where appointments were being held. I thought this was a really awesome idea. Event Planners, Suppliers, and other members of the event industry were allowed to meet face to face or virtually with as many people as they wanted. It was a 6 minute session (GENIUS) that allowed you to get right to the point and not waste time. Event Organizers did an incredible job with spacing and making sure people were comfortable.

Connect 2020 at Orlando World Center Marriott

I arrived to the showroom floor and loved to see how the speaker session were taking place. We had 4 theaters all in an open room and in the midst of companies showcasing their products or services. One would imagine there would be tons of noise with all of this happening in one event space. Thankfully, all of the attendees listening to the speakers were wearing headphones. This forced them to focus on what was being said by the speaker.

The Drawbacks

The only drawback to the appointments was the lack of bandwidth the hotel was providing. For the meetings that you scheduled virtually, many people were not able to connect. With 750+ people attending and all of us using WiFi on our personal devices, the hotel certainly needed better internet access.

While speaking, engagement was different, but expected. We scheduled a 30 minute Q&A session to ensure we answered questions live and even during the presentation. In order for them to ask questions they needed a microphone, which is normal. A Runner brought each person the microphone which prevented 6ft of distance. I believe it would have been best to have a microphone on a stand and allow attendees to walk up and ask questions. After each person leaves, sanitize the microphone as we answer the question. We also can’t see reactions like people laughing or smiling to comments we said. We simply had to hope they were. I’ll take that considering everything.

The Expo and Lunch

The showroom gave us a chance to walk around and see all of the cool stations and ideas that were being created during the event. The idea to place lunch inside the showroom was genius as it forces attendees to come inside and see what was going on. This occurred on both days. There were tons to look at and swag to take home. I personally love my Straight out of Quarantine t-shirt from Brand Activation Services.

Concluding all sessions on Day 3, everyone gathered in the showroom for a closing cocktail reception. This was a much better option than the initial location the first night. Tons of space and no one ever felt cramped. Like any event, we had cocktails, food, music and live demonstrations to end on a high note.

In Conclusion – Overall Point of View

I commend BizBash and Connect Meetings for making this happen. Even with my conversation with attendees, many have stated how they have used Connect conferences to help them figure out how to hold event and with whom. The fact that this event can successfully bridge the gap of suppliers and pros is amazing. They attend such an event because it allows them to meet everyone all at ones. Budget saver for sure.

One thing that still remains an issue is that regardless of the industry, there are some who are still extremely too comfortable during COVID-19. Several times, event sponsor 42Chat, sent out text messages reminding guests to wear a mask and wear it properly. One would think with all of the safety precautions I listed above, we would want to ensure safety. I commend the organizers for enforcing this and making sure we remain safe. The next few days we will see if contract tracing occurs. If not, it’s a good indicator that having safe events isn’t a thing of the past.