How Visit Fort Worth Pulled Off a Successful Hybrid Event
As the event and tourism industry begins its slow journey toward post-pandemic normalcy, it has become clear that hybrid events – those with both socially distanced in-person and virtual components – will be a vital part of the return of live meetings and conventions. Thus, many hospitality communities across the nation are doing their part to adapt to this new reality, including CVBs.
Case in point: Fort Worth, Texas and its tourism bureau, Visit Fort Worth, which successfully hosted its 8th Annual Meeting & Breakfast in hybrid format on February 5. Held at the Omni Fort Worth Hotel, the event attracted approximately 350 in-person and 308 virtual attendees. Though participation had dropped from its typical attendance of a little more than 800 attendees, that didn’t stop the CVB’s first-ever hybrid gathering from achieving its goals.
According to Stephanie Rodriguez, Visit Fort Worth’s senior convention services manager, the annual meeting has traditionally been an opportunity for the community’s key leaders to reflect on and celebrate the past year in tourism, with an itinerary of engaging keynote speakers, thoughtful discourse and the unveiling of new CVB marketing collateral and campaigns. However, this year’s hybrid version followed a different trajectory, concentrating on post-COVID recovery while still creating an uplifting experience for participants.
“The pandemic led us to think differently this year, as the safety of guests from arrival to departure was imperative,” Rodriguez explained. “The event is meant to inspire pride in our city and though this year’s annual meeting looked a little different, we still achieved that ultimate goal.”
“Surprise and delight” lobby activations of years past, including a donut wall, caffeination and mocktail stations, an on-site tattoo parlor and photo opps, were replaced with health and safety signage reminding guests of policies such as temperature checks, face masks and spaced seating, while a DJ played upbeat music.
Also reconfigured to reflect health and safety was Omni’s ballroom, which re-imagined seating options to maintain social distancing, while the maximum room capacity was lowered to adhere to the rules and regulations implemented by the venue, city and state. Meanwhile, the event’s AV company managed the Zoom feed to make sure digital attendees didn’t miss any of the action.
During the event, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and Visit Fort Worth President and CEO Bob Jameson welcomed attendees alongside local Chef Tim Love, who whipped up a surprise cocktail for the crowd. Keynote speakers included Gloria Loree of Destination Canada, local artist Michelle Cortez Gonzales and Jess Pryles, founder of Hardcore Carnivore.
Kicking the event’s inspirational component into gear, Tokyo Cafe Chef Kevin Martinez was awarded the 2021 Beyond Award for his grassroots campaign to supply more than 48,000 free meals throughout the pandemic, and civil rights activist Opal Lee, who recently garnered 1.5 million signatures to make Juneteenth a national holiday, was honored with the much-deserved 2021 Hospitality Award.
According to Rodriguez, planning for the 2021 event began in July 2020, four months after the start of the pandemic — when much was still unknown about where the country would be by showtime. From there, the CVB’s event team met bi-monthly via Zoom and Microsoft Teams to discuss changing regulations, monitor COVID numbers, discuss floor plans, determine food distribution, chat about ticket sales and weigh the benefits of an in-person versus a hybrid meeting.
“The hybrid event was confirmed later in the planning stages as in-person ticket sales neared capacity,” Rodriguez said. “Our audiovisual partner quickly added the virtual component and we booked musical entertainment to welcome the online group — just as the DJ was welcoming guests in-person — so no matter where guests were viewing from, the experience remained the same.”
Understanding that clearly conveying the meeting’s safety protocols from the start was key, the CVB outlined rules on a dedicated webpage as well as in emails and on social media. The site also featured a floor plan to allow guests to familiarize themselves with the space ahead of time.
“We also sent multiple email communications to ticket holders in advance, noting general meeting details, social distancing efforts, masks requirements and mandatory temperature checks, which every guest immediately received upon arrival,” Rodriguez said.
On the morning of the meeting, guests were directed to the Social Tables digital check-in station, and then to a table to pick up a lapel button (red, yellow, green) stating their comfort level with in-person interaction. Red meant no contact, yellow signified elbows only and green cleared the way for high fives and handshakes.
During the meeting, ballroom doors were kept open for airflow, meals were served in packaged containers for enjoyment on-site or to-go, hand sanitizing stations were placed around the lobby and individual hand sanitizers were placed at each seat.
Event materials were digital-only, which helped lower the event’s carbon footprint, Rodriguez added.
“The Visit Fort Worth Annual Meeting team has executed this event eight years in a row [and] each individual owns responsibility for specific areas [such as] programming, logistics, creative, content and social, registration, sponsorship, etc.,” she explained. “Flexibility was key to ensure that this event ran smoothly and was a success.”
So what is Rodriguez’s advice for organizations looking to dip their toes into the hybrid events space? Don’t forget the meeting’s main focus and overall goal, and make sure the programming is well-balanced for both the virtual and in-person audience to ensure that everyone stays engaged, she stressed.
“Virtual attendees appreciated our efforts to greet them the same as those in-person,” Rodriguez said. “We had over 900 hundred comments from virtual attendees that mentioned they felt like they were right there with us.”
She added, “Ultimately, Visit Fort Worth wanted to lead the way in executing a safe meeting and provide local partners an example to follow. We think we succeeded.”