The Strauss Blog

Hosting Association Events Amidst a Global Pandemic: Adapting to New Health and Safety Standards

Since social distancing protocols were set in place, 2020 has seen association events cancelled left, right, and centre. As social gatherings are now restricted to small groups, we have seen hotels, convention centres and other venues prepare and publish new health and safety guidelines with the pandemic in mind.

In August, I hosted an online brainstorming session with several event and industry leaders of Manitoba. This brainstorming session welcomed guest panellists from Marriott International, Laura Pallotta, Regional Vice President, Sales and Distribution, Canada and Susan Saganski, Account Executive, Global Sales Organization, to speak on their company’s handling of event planning amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Marriott has been recognized as a hospitality leader in their industry for 93 years, and are known for their commitment to quality, their exacting standards, and their rigorous training procedures. Even so, they have faced great challenges throughout the pandemic—as have we all. Laura Pallotta says that the many changes they have had to implement throughout their hotels and venues across the globe have been to ensure a comfortable and clean stay for their customers.

“The whole point of this is creating the confidence that people can travel again and have productive meetings again,” Laura said. “We are certainly cognizant of sentiment and where we are at in this crisis. We have all seen numbers and case counts change. With all of that said, we do know that people want to travel and so we need to make sure that our hotels are ready, and we are.”

Laura reported that Marriott has also partnered with Ecolab to update their health standards and cleanliness protocols. “We’ve had a relationship with Ecolab for 40 years, and we wanted to make sure that we partnered with the very best and understood the customers in our industry,” she said. Some of these updates include moving to hospital grade disinfectants for use on all surfaces, masks worn by all Marriott associates in both front and back of house, creating an environment that encourages social distancing, and making use of various digital solutions.

“With regards to meeting setup and how we are handling the registration process, we are bringing together all of our digital capabilities—like our meeting services app, QR codes, digital menus, and trying to be as contactless as possible,” Laura explained.

Susan Saganski shared details about Marriott’s “Connect with Confidence” initiative, which outlines the meeting and event protocols for their hotels around the world based on five key pillars:

  1. Commitment to Clean: enhancing cleaning protocols throughout hotels, public areas, guest rooms, and meeting spaces.
  2. Contact Light Experience: leveraging technology to give attendees the choice on how to interact with hotel associates.
  3. Hybrid Meetings: providing options as far as technology and AV with partners to enable meeting planners to create custom solutions and designs to best suit their needs.
  4. Physical Distancing: reimagining spaces to enable more distance in accordance with best practices and the local guidelines of the cities.
  5. Redesigning Food and Beverage: Offering a wide selection of Food and Beverage options which include prepackaged, grab-and-go, and plated service.

Susan informed meeting attendees that almost all of Marriott’s protocols are being redesigned and reimagined to fit in with the current state of the world. “We can’t go back to the way it was,” she said. “We’re moving into a place where both partners have to work together to come up with something where everyone is confident in hosting these meetings. There is a lot of work being done on our end to make sure that people feel comfortable coming back to meetings. We realize that with local regulations we will need to get creative in how we service those meetings and how we will work with our customers to make sure that it’s a success on both sides.”

Regarding food and beverage, Laura added that Marriott is working to redesign the entire experience in the age of COVID-19 to be in line with service and food safety standards, while offering choices that are palatable to everyone. “We are adjusting all of our catering menus now so that we have a wide range of selections available,” she said. Laura explained that in addition to offering pre-packaged meals, Marriott is also taking note of the way the restaurant industry is handling plate service and following suit.

In terms of contracts, Susan shared that Marriott’s customers are requesting more conditional clauses to account for the uncertainties of next year. Marriott is working with their legal team to achieve these flexibilities and ensure that both parties of the contract are satisfied.

“The basic theme is that we need to share the risk and work together,” Susan said. “It’s important that in the short term the many conversations we are having with our hotels result in finding ways that we can work together and make sure that everyone walks away with a plan and a successful outcome.”

Marriott’s work amidst the COVID-19 pandemic shows that they are still an industry leader that will continue to set a positive example for hotels and event venues around the world.

“Being a global company, we have had the opportunity to look at other parts of the world that are in different stages in this health crisis, and we are taking key learnings from all those other parties,” Laura explained. “Cleanliness and service have always been our hallmarks at Marriott. We want to provide the very best service, accommodations, and meeting experiences. We need to be cognizant of the unique safety concerns and have solutions for you to continue to instill that confidence.”

Although our world is rapidly changing and there is no easy solution, we must continue to forge forward and work together to overcome the challenges set before us. Global leaders such as Marriott will make it possible for associations to once again host in-person meetings and events.