Editor’s Note: As part of Back Light, a series of articles sharing illuminating insider observations, we asked Andrew Moffett to walk us through his career transition and his vision for the future. 

To say that 2020 has been a year like no other is an understatement. So many of us meeting and event professionals have been on a multi-month emotional rollercoaster adjusting to the sudden downturn in the industry. We are still learning to cope with a new way of life, new strategies for socializing and making personal connections. We are social creatures who evolved to move, meet and collaborate. Being denied these basic needs takes an emotional toll.

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At the same time, many of us have had to accelerate a reinvention within the industry. Thousands have been forced to step away from budding careers because those careers came to a halt without any real notice, my career included. Being a glass-half-full guy, I saw an opportunity for reinvention.

I recently stepped away from a 25-year career with Marriott International as an event professional and took a calculated, strategic move to reinvent myself as a Chief Brand Officer with a company I admire, Southern Aluminum, the brand behind all those high quality and flexible linenless banquet and meeting tables that pop-up just when we need them and then magically (with the help of some industrious conference teams) show up in a different configuration in a different room at just the right time. I can say that as someone who cares deeply about our industry and the people who work within it, the move has been both refreshing and rewarding.

As we look to the future (because let’s face it we don’t want to look behind us), I remain optimistic about the path ahead. Technology is allowing us to connect with one another virtually for things like happy hour events, one-on-one catch ups and conducting critical business. We are poised as a society to come out of this pandemic with new ways of doing business that quite honestly will become the norm, and that’s okay. But because we crave those in-person meetings and collaborative moments, we will thrive as a society that desires to be together in the flesh.

I applaud organizations that are making their own bold moves to get us back to traveling and meeting again. With campaigns like “Let’s Go There” from the American Travel Industry designed to inspire travel, and great organizations like IACC who have recently announced its first conference in 2021, we will get back to meeting in person again sooner rather than later.

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That future could look a little different, however. This is what I see in my crystal ball and how we can make the most of the new reality:

Socially Distanced Meetings are Here

Because risks of meeting in person remain real in the moment, the large events we are accustomed to will not be a reality for some time. Hotels and event venues are taking the proactive steps needed to ensure planners and attendees alike are comfortable and confident that meeting in person again is safe. This is creating the reality of seeing meetings and events with fewer numbers, yet hosted in a similar size space as before. New seating plans are being developed to account for sets with the right distance apart because it’s the right thing to do.

How can planners use this to their advantage? Think about the purpose of the event and the location it can be hosted in. Hotel event teams are creative by nature. Many are driving elevated experiences outside of the ballroom and breakout space walls—areas that can naturally provide distance without feeling forced.

If possible, look to choose locations that are not the norm, without disrupting your event objectives. Attendees want to get a flavor of the location they are in so think about unique local destinations which offer this. It could be something as simple as a common tourist attraction to get them out and moving. This is a great way to explore the culture of an area and help elevate their energy for the meeting objectives at hand.

Outdoor Events are the Norm

Grand Hyatt Nashville

For the past several years, in my previous position as global discipline leader, we strategized around how hotels could up their game for hosting outdoor events. Think of spaces like pool decks, gardens, rooftops, event tents or underutilized spaces around the property of any given hotel. This comes with a unique set of challenges to plan and execute events effectively yet offers a refreshing change from the typical indoor meeting. Moving forward, hotels and other meeting venues will identify any outdoor underutilized space as a standard way to host a meeting or event. This is also a great way to organically change the experience of the attendee and provide a different environment to engage them in fun ways.

When I think about future meetings and events that Southern Aluminum will plan, host and execute, I will be looking at venues and locations that help to inspire a local feel complete with outdoor areas that can provide thoughtful distancing between attendees while still achieving business objectives. In regions where outdoor activities are limited due to inclement weather, my mind goes to securing a section of the restaurant and/or bar area, or dividing up the ballroom by partially closing airwalls to provide some separation without it being a hard separation, or look at activating an outdoor space with portable heaters and a firepit.

Sustainability has Accelerated

Sustainability has been a focus for so many of us for so long. With the disruption in business and the state of society in general, we are all looking for those “feel good” ways to contribute to the greater good. Giving back to the environment and doing the right thing for the world has become even more important to give us something to celebrate. Look for ways to promote sustainability at your next event. This can be done through your food and beverage story and sourcing local products or reducing your carbon footprint. It can be something as simple as eliminating linens from all events, both in the meeting and on the banquet side. Have a visible way for attendees to recycle during the event and consider donating left over food to an organization locally. Hotels are eager to partner with planners to put in place high impact, high value ways to protect our environment and give back. This culture will continue to accelerate and remain the important goal it should always be.

Safe and Sanitized is a New Way of Life

cleanWhether you are a transient hotel guest or attending a socially distanced meeting, your awareness of the cleanliness of the space you are in has been heightened. Guests and attendees want to know that each surface has been cleaned and sanitized and there is no risk of not knowing who touched that surface most recently.

Having that visual presence of cleaning is so important to knowing we are protected. Cleaning and sanitizing around the clock give credibility to the venue that it is safe. Think about the products that are configured in your event space and meeting room. Having linenless meeting and buffet tables present is one of the easiest products to keep clean and sanitized. It is also the most efficient and cost-effective way for hotel event teams to remain safe and sanitized. The pandemic is creating a society where we want to ensure surfaces are clean and safe, we want to have that visual presence of hotel staff cleaning around the clock, no matter what part of the hotel you are in.

This is also critical for the activation and execution of F&B within hotels and more specifically in meetings and events. Many have implemented action stations with see-through barriers while associates wear masks to still provide that simple in-person touch through providing made-to-order dishes. The handling of F&B has had to be treated with great sensitivity to ensure meeting attendees have a comfort level. What is helping greatly is the transparency event planning teams have with the meeting planner during the planning process. Collaboration between the two has become so much more critical to come up with an approach that meets the need of the planner and attendee.

As we look to the future, it is a new world for us, and we are learning to adapt to the change. We will see travel return and meetings progressively come back sooner than later. Having flexibility, and patience while we educate ourselves on these new ways of doing business will be paramount to us thriving again as a hospitality industry.

Andrew Moffett is a former global discipline leader with M+E at Marriott International and now serves as chief brand officer with Southern Aluminum in Magnolia Arkansas. Fun Fact: Andrew’s first career was as a chef, working through several kitchens in Canada and Bermuda. Today, he still carries that culinary passion with him spending hours in his kitchen and in front of the grill creating dishes inspired by the places he visits and the people he meets.