As more and more Americans get vaccinated from COVID-19 and states are relaxing their pandemic related restrictions, many attorneys are wondering if it’s time to resume in-person operations, including live in-person seminars in their communities.
You’ve planned successful in-person events in the past and have brought people together. It may now be time to dust off that knowledge, roll up your sleeves and tailor it to our post-COVID-19 world.
In this blog, we’ll discuss some of the best practices and recommendations for returning to in-person seminars, in particular public seminars.
First of all, vaccine distribution does not mean the pandemic is over. Keep in mind, mutations may change the effectiveness of the current vaccines. While unlikely, we must be prepared emotionally for the rollercoaster of the pandemic to potentially continue and put a damper on our plans.
Therefore, you want to assess your risk level and whether you want to be an early experimenter or wait for others to do so.
START WITH YOUR STATE GUIDELINES
As has been the case since the start of the pandemic, each state is operating under its own set of rules and restrictions for gatherings. Before you make any decision on resuming in-person seminars, be sure to check your state (and even county’s) rules regarding size of gatherings. There have been reports lately of the potential for a 4th surge of COVID cases due to the more contagious virus mutations, with some states already seeing proof of this.
If you plan to test in-person seminars, you must continue to be prepared for a change in your state’s COVID guidelines and restrictions for gatherings, should you experience a surge of cases in your area. Therefore, weigh the costs of this marketing effort and the risk level of being unable to hold your seminars in person after your marketing has been initiated.
Direct mail public seminars are expensive! Typically, Members spend anywhere from $7,500-$15,000 for their public seminar sweeps, depending on the size of their mailing. For many, the investment in this type of marketing was worthwhile given their ROI or return on investment. However, during COVID, most Members have been promoting webinars using social media ads and email marketing, and the cost per client has been relatively inexpensive compared to the cost of doing direct mail public seminars.
As you test the waters for marketing in a post-vaccine world, you must remember that there is no guarantee you’ll experience the same results from Direct Mail for in-person seminars, as you had pre-COVID. Before making a decision, consider your local vaccination rates for people in your target demographic and the impact a potential fourth wave of COVID would have on your response rate as well as your ability to hold these seminars.
You may want to consider doing a small mailing as a test for response rate, such as a 5,000 piece mailing for public seminars. Another great option is to start with an in-person client seminar for a fraction of the cost. You’ll get a higher response rate so you won’t need to send as many invitations, and it will be a great opportunity to reconnect with clients in-person after so long.
Your marketing pieces and invitations should address your COVID safety protocols so anyone concerned about attending due to safety can determine their risk and comfort level.
You may also want to consider a phased approach with your marketing. You don’t want to have more registrations than you have seats available. Your invitations should land first. If you’re low on registrations from the mailing, then supplement with email marketing to your prospect database and run Facebook ads.
WORK WITH THE VENUE
After deciding to proceed with in-person seminars, start your search for venues. The first priority is to determine their COVID safety policies to ensure they meet your expectations and you and your team are comfortable. Ask about:
- Safety protocols
- How they can accommodate your needs
- COVID screening, testing and quarantining of their staff
- Cleaning protocols, including meeting space and public-use areas, such as lobbies and restrooms
- Social distancing signage and markers
- Cancellation/postponement policies in the event you cannot gather safely due to change in outbreak or local regulations.
- Speaker – Start with the location of the speaker during the presentation and how much space they need “on stage.” Also, ask yourself whether the speaker will be wearing a mask to present. Many people would prefer not to wear a mask while presenting for 1.5hrs. It’s also more difficult to build rapport with an audience. However, safety must be #1. If you would prefer to go maskless, what accommodations can the hotel or restaurant make? For example, can they install plexiglass barriers between the speaker and the audience? Or is the room large enough for the speaker to be 12 feet away with a face shield on and no mask? Keep in mind that what you decide here can have an impact on room capacity limits.
- Guest Seating & Capacity Limits – Due to social distancing, capacity limits are lower in most places. The goal is to have each household 6 feet apart, in front, behind and to the sides. Therefore, you may need to offer more seminars than you have in the past, if you can only fit a fraction of the people you’re used to. However, if you opt for a smaller mailing, you’ll have fewer people attending, so you may be able to offer your usual options. While not guaranteed, plan for a 1% response rate to your mailing when you’re deciding size of seminar rooms and quantity of seminars needed.
- Controlling Crowd Flow – Talk to the venue about the space you’re renting and how you can use the hallways to ensure safety and social distancing. As we know, attendees tend to arrive around the same time, potentially causing a large crowd of people waiting to check in. Similarly, when you offer complimentary personal consultations, people tend to go crowd the appointment desk. For both these scenarios, have a plan to keep people moving and prevent them from stopping and hanging out waiting. You may want to consider asking people to arrive 20 min early to check in and make sure they are situated, have 6 ft markers to show people where to stand in line. Consider automating as much as possible, for example, offering online calendaring options even for in-person seminar attendees (a link can be texted to all attendees during the close of the seminar).
Food & Refreshments
Are you comfortable offering food? If so, avoid offering any self-serve food or drinks, such as buffets and shared drink stations. Using disposable utensils, dishes and pre-packaged single-serve items is likely the safest option. Keep in mind that attendees will need to remove their masks to eat, which if done indoors will contribute to the spread of potentially contagious aerosols.
With that said, some people are comfortable eating at restaurants, and we have heard of some success with this offering during the pandemic. One option is to offer seminars in your sweep with both food and no food to give attendees a preference based on their safety concerns. Or limit food items to small snacks which can be eaten relatively quickly, therefore limiting the amount of time attendees are maskless.
Rather than providing supplies when attendees check in, consider placing a seminar packet with your handout, evaluation form and clean pen at each chair. This will speed up the check in process and lead to a more sanitized experience for everyone.
You can’t prevent infected attendees from coming into your seminar, vaccinated or not. Therefore, the goal is to ensure strong policies to suppress any spread as much as humanly possible.
As mentioned earlier, be clear and upfront with your COVID safety protocols and guest policies. This will ensure your guests feel comfortable attending and also help prevent any problems from occurring the day of due to any misunderstandings.
- Masks: As we’ve all come to understand and expect, face coverings are pretty much required at most indoor establishments and places of business. Ensure your guests know exactly what your requirements are and when it’s allowable for masks to be removed and not removed, such as for food/drinks, etc.
- Screening: Will you be taking anyone’s temperature or undertaking other screening methods?
- Vaccination Requirements: Should you require proof of vaccination from attendees? It appears that as a private business, you may be able to require vaccination regardless of your state’s position, as their rules only apply to state-run business and operations. However, vaccine passports have been all over the news and have become a controversial issue. You’ll want to consider any backlash and reduced attendance should you mandate vaccines from attendees.
TEAM SAFETY AND GUIDELINES
First, it is important to consider the safety and risk level for your onsite team at seminars. The seminar site is technically a workplace, and you must consider spread of COVID by and to your staff as well as attendee spread.
If your event team is not vaccinated:
- Protecting Attendees: Will you ask your team to limit contact outside their household for the 11-14 days prior? Will you ask your team to get tested after the seminars? It’s important that this be communicated, and your team is onboard.
- Protecting Your Team: What does your team need to feel comfortable and safe? Ensure your team has the PPE they need to feel safe so they can focus on the job they have and building rapport with attendees vs. the majority of their attention focused on preventing themselves from catching COVID. Walk through the scenarios that come up at the registration and appointment desks and ask them what they foresee could occur and how they would handle these.
- If your team is working remote or they’re practicing social distancing in the office, don’t plan to have them travel together or be in close contact with each other at the seminar either. Your practices should be consistent offsite with what is acceptable at your office.
Lastly, ensure your team is prepared and understands safety precautions:
- Troubleshoot any issues BEFORE they become issues.
- Discuss how to adapt in real time to any issues that come up and lessen the impact of any potential exposures.
- Empower them to enforce rules and safety with guests and feel comfortable asking attendees to leave if they are not following your rules.
We’re all grateful that we’re about to start a new chapter in our lives, post-COVID, where we get to see people again. This will be an exciting new time full of learning opportunities and discoveries on best practices for every area of the firm as we integrate the old and the new.
As you start to explore this new world and test your in-person seminars, be sure to share your own lessons and successes!
Here at the Academy, we’re also looking forward to seeing our Members in person sometime this year.
Practice Building Coach
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
9444 Balboa Avenue, Suite 300
San Diego, California 92123
Phone: (858) 453-2128
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