Hotels, resorts, and event venues around the South prepare for the ‘new normal’

In mid-May, TempleLive, an event venue in Fort Smith, Ark., garnered national attention with its plans to host a live music event three days before a state-issued restriction against larger gatherings was to be lifted.

According to an article in Billboard magazine, the concert was the first large-scale live performance anywhere since the pandemic shutdowns began. The solo performance by Travis McCready, front man of the country/rock band Bishop Gunn, would be an indicator of group events to come with its restrictions on capacity, mask requirements, one-way walkways, and other measures.

Instead of its normal capacity of 1,100, attendance at Temple Live was limited to just 229 people and Ticketmaster created ‘fan pods’ of no more than six people, spaced six feet apart.

A few days before the scheduled concert, the state shut it down by threatening to remove the venue’s liquor license, and the concert was rescheduled to four days later, at which point the state allowed larger gatherings.

After the event, a follow-up article in The New York Times noted how those in attendance lined up wearing masks to have their temperature taken before they could enter the venue. The article deemed the event a success, and said it, “Offered a preview of what music fans may expect from an industry struggling to find a path forward in the age of social distancing.”

Throughout the South, hotels, resorts, convention centers, event venues, and CVBs are struggling to find similar answers when it comes to event business. Depending on state requirements, some hotels closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, while others stayed open, taking in guests who were essential workers but still dealing with record-low occupancy rates.

In March, when the shutdowns began, many convention centers, including Nashville’s Music City Center, Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach, the Ernest Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, and the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta were called into service as virus testing locations, distribution centers, or even temporary hospitals.

By mid-May, they were winding down emergency operations preparing to return to more normal business, while also working to establish new health and safety guidelines.

In Atlanta, the Georgia World Congress Center, which had just unveiled a major 100,000-square-foot-expansion in January, announced a plan addressing “everything from enhanced cleaning, personal safety, social distancing to entrance controls, on-site services, and food and beverage guidelines,” according to Holly Richmond, director of communications.

“Our number one priority is the safety and wellbeing of our customers and team members, and we are assured the measures we will take will give our guests confidence that our campus is safe and ready for business,” she adds.

Austin Convention Center (ACC) department deputy director/COO Paul Barnes notes plans need to keep both event attendees and on-site staff safe.

“In preparation for hosting larger events, we want our staff and attendees to be as safe and considerate as possible while keeping social distancing practices in the forefront of their event,” he said. “We have several task forces focusing on safety and researching best practices along with the usage of advanced technologies.”

Announced in mid-May, the ACC’s plan included reduced and modified entry procedures for employees, contractors, clients, and guests with staggered entry times, wellness checks at entry points, facial covering requirements, and wristbands to assist with quick identification of those who have been successfully cleared for entry. The venue also planned rearrangements in seating areas in the lobby and pre-function spaces, and to increase signage to help remind visitors to engage in safe social distancing.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, free face masks are distributed to visitors of the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach, Fla.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, free face masks are distributed to visitors of the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach, Fla.

In Daytona Beach, Tim Buckley, CEM, director of sales and marketing for the Ocean Center Convention Center, said “highly visible” sanitation crews would be part of the process.

“We used to want these people ‘unseen,’ but now there is an emphasis on making sanitation very apparent to all,” he explained.

According to Buckley, other measures likely to be implemented include screening attendees at the door with touchless thermometers, and using equipment for large scale sanitation of upholstery seating in the arena, large meeting rooms, and ballrooms.

In early May, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) announced Stay Safe, an industry-wide standard of health and safety protocols to help protect guests and employees. Developed under the guidance of an advisory council made up of industry leaders, Stay Safe will be revised as necessary based on recommendations of public health authorities and federal, state, and local laws.

In a statement, AHLA president and CEO Chip Rogers said, “While hotels have always employed demanding cleaning standards, [Safe Stay] will ensure greater transparency and confidence throughout the entire hotel experience. The industry’s enhanced hotel cleaning practices, social interactions, and workplace protocols will continue to evolve to meet the new health and safety challenges and expectations presented by COVID-19.”

Individual hotel brands made similar announcements in April and early May, with Hilton, Hyatt, MGM Resorts, and Marriott issuing guidelines for general safety and sanitation procedures for their properties, covering guestrooms and public areas.

Hilton’s program, called Hilton CleanStay, was developed in conjunction with the maker of Lysol as well as consultants from the Mayo Clinic.

“Personal safety is extremely critical as we reopen business and recreational activities around the globe,” said Stacey Rizza, M.D., a Mayo Clinic infectious disease specialist. “Mayo is looking forward to working with Hilton staff and advising them on the program protocol and training.” Along with deep cleaning, especially of high-touch areas, contactless check-in, and other measures, Hilton will add CleanStay room seals to guestroom doors indicating it has not been accessed since being thoroughly cleaned.

As of mid-May, Marriott noted they were still finalizing details in regard to meetings.

Brooke Hoffman, public relations, Marriott Americas, said the company would have enhanced cleaning protocols for meeting spaces and would always follow local guidelines.

In addition, she wrote, “We are leveraging digital guest service platforms, such as mobile check-in, mobile chat, and Marriott Meetings Services apps. We are exploring new meetings technology such as virtual registration and virtual meetings, and are also developing additional operational resources like new room set-up charts to support social distancing.”

IACC, the International Association of Conference Centers, also has compiled guidelines for the reopening of conference and convention centers. One concept the organization is encouraging among its members is the increased use of segregated meeting spaces, separated from other areas to offer more privacy from other groups and reduce the amount of people during events.

“It is hoped in the future that venues designed for these smaller events will be best placed to manage the hosting of meetings,” said Mark Cooper, CEO of IACC. “A group of 15 people might be guided by regulations closer to opening an office building as opposed to those enforced for a large event.”

OCCC aerial view of North-South Building.

The OCCC notes a number of procedures and protocols for events, including the recommendation of handshake-free meetings and events for the ‘foreseeable future.’ In addition, the OCCC says they are following a three-pronged approach to doing business and welcoming back clients, guests, and attendees.

Part of the approach is participation in the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) STAR accreditation program. According to a statement from George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando and co-chair of the Orange County Economic Recovery Task Force, the OCCC is set to be one of the country’s largest venues looking for accreditation.

OCCC’s website also features Recovery and Resiliency Guidelines which include a phased approach, continuing to monitor available data, reduced occupancy, physical distancing measures, and following recommendations under the current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), county, state, and federal guidelines.

Following guidelines, when they can vary from state to state or even community to community, can be an issue. But making both leisure guests and business travelers feel safe is most important, said Kevin Hellmich, general manager of The Grand Hotel Golf Resort & Spa in Point Clear, Ala. “Our team has done a great job working with Marriott, vendors, and planners to create a detailed internal plan for each department concerning general safety and cleaning protocols,” he said. “Additional training with our team and constant communication with our associates, meetings planners, and attendees is critical. Our guests will realize the Grand has done a great job with additional measures with our pre-arrival communication and see a difference once they arrive at the resort.”

Holding an event that respects physical distancing is key, Hellmich said, noting he has been working with food, beverage, and event management at the resort to create different diagrams in the meeting space to allow for productive meetings and social distancing.

“These diagrams considered many suggestions from our meeting planners and resort team that resulted in a reduced capacity in our conference center,” he said. “The Grand is fortunate to sit on 600 acres of outdoor space, with a variety of outdoor venues.”

Alabama luxury hotels and resorts belonging to Point Clear Holdings (PCH Hotels & Resorts), including The Grand, Renaissance Riverview Plaza, Battle House Renaissance, Renaissance Montgomery, Marriott Prattville Hotel and Conference Center, Auburn/Opelika Marriott Resort & Spa, Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa, and Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa were preparing new protocols.

“Our hospitality experts at PCH Hotels & Resorts have thoroughly planned how to safely welcome guests back,” said CEO Tony Davis. “Our procedures have been updated and associates have been retrained. We are ready to safely offer guests legendary southern hospitality.”

Signage at Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa in Hoover, Ala.
Signage at Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa in Hoover, Ala.

In popular tourist areas, letting people know the destination is working to ensure a safe reopening for all visitors is vital to bringing back meetings and other events.

On the Alabama Gulf Coast, where many of the events planned for this summer have been postponed for later in the year or rescheduled for 2020, Beth Gendler, CMP, CDME, vice president of sales for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, says safety is the concern of the officials, venues, and event organizers.

“Venues in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have their own sanitation and social distancing policies, which closely follow the CDC’s and Alabama Department of Public Health’s guidelines and recommendations to keep the health and wellness of each visitor at the forefront,” Gendler said. “And organizations meeting here have specific guidelines they are implementing to protect their attendees.”

Aguel said Visit Orlando and the city are working to build trust and ease concerns.

“How quickly people resume travel will depend in large part on communicating new policies that establish a sense of confidence to travel once more,” he said. “Messaging regarding business and destination readiness, and affordability will be the key.”

Gendler agreed that destinations need to get their message out.

“Now more than ever, communication is vital for building relationships with the planners and providing solid resources for future planning,” she said.

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