Event planners never have a shortage of hats to wear: photographer, designer, therapist, family counselor, cheerleader. The list goes on, and now another hat has been added to the mix: social distancing guru. As events return, planners are being challenged to adhere to new physical distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They are rising to the challenge and getting creative.
“That’s what we’ve been relying on, it’s about thinking outside the box,” said Katie Kirby, Creative Director for Revolution Event Design & Production out of Baltimore. “People still want to enjoy, be together and do it safely, so it’s our responsibility to come up with how that can happen and how we can do that for them. We’re the people in charge of celebrating these moments.”
One of the biggest challenges that planners have faced during the pandemic is how to best socially distance guests during events. Keeping guests six feet apart, when the sole purpose of an event is to be together, has forced planners to think creatively about seating.
“You don’t want to go anyplace and be so socially distanced that you feel alone,” Kirby said.
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One option that has gained a lot of traction among event planners is the idea of “pods” or “bubbles” where those within a “COVID family” can be seated together in their own personal space, considerably distant from other groups.
“That will create a joint experience,” said Kristin Banta, Creative Director for Los Angeles-based Kristin Banta Events. “Even if we can’t interact, at least if we are going through things at the same time, that shared experience can lend itself to connectivity.”
In addition to having their designated seating area, planners have also started incorporating personalized bar carts, designated servers, and additional specialized services.
“Allowing guests to have their own space while still safely interacting is crucial to collective comfort,” said Leslie Price with New York’s In Any Event. “Giving guests their own space definitely reinforces social distancing guidelines and provides a place to retreat in comfort and safety without leaving the party altogether.”
Beyond seating pods, planners have also tapped into the idea of using specialized products to help safely seat and serve guests. For example, Revolution Event Design & Production designed “bumper tables” which are inflated tube tables that are designed with a hole in the middle, allowing guests to move themselves around using the wheels attached to the bottom of the table. And given the diameter of the tables, guests will always remain six feet apart.
“You can obviously see tables like this being fun,” Kirby said, “COVID or not.”
Another creative product that, while seen prior to the pandemic as a cute method of delivering food, has now become much more important. These are the “portal walls” where staff can stock from the back with pre-packaged food items to provide contactless delivery.
“Making a space beautiful and an experience, something that people don’t get to have all the time,” Kirby said, “that’s what works.”
Beyond seating, planners are finding creative ways to approach guest interactions, such as during cocktail hours, on the dancefloor, or even in the restrooms, where signage, decals, and other props come into play.
“It’s incorporating signage in ways that can subtly carry the message, so it’s not so much in your face,” Banta said. “The question becomes how can you make sure the messaging is there while still matching the tone of an event.”
Beyond signage that simply conveys “stay six feet apart,” floor decals for a dance floor, pillows designating that certain seats are “not available” have also been thrown into the mix. Many planners have found that guests are more likely to adhere to restrictions when they are expressed in a visually appealing way, Kirby said.
“People are honestly so desperate to have their events and have their parties, the pillows and all that is what makes it possible,” she said. “It’s what makes them feel better.”
Although not necessarily something to encourage social distancing, a visual color indicator of comfort has also risen in popularity, whether that is a mask, a colored wristband, bowtie or boutonniere.
“There’s a great disparity in collective comfort levels that needs to be addressed,” said Price, who has implemented a red, yellow, green comfort color system. “Allowing guests to choose their social distancing comfort level color as they enter an event helps set a tone of safety and thoughtfulness that instantly puts guests at ease.”
Why so serious?
Regardless of which ways you choose to enforce social distancing restrictions, there is certainly something to be said for bringing a bit of fun into the mix. For example, Revolution Event Design & Production currently has six-foot signs in the shape of dachshunds and wine bottles. And Banta has heard of DJs playing Don’t Stand So Close to Me by the Police when problems arise. And who can forget about the glow-in-the-dark facemasks for the dancefloor that have become all the rage?
“Things can be messaged with a little bit of a wink,” Banta said. “We’re still going to have to address this messaging, but why can’t we do it in a more light-hearted way?”
Kirby agrees. Events will continue to be different for a while, and safety will continue to be a top priority, but who says you can't still have fun?
“This pandemic is tragic, this is not something to be joked at, but that doesn’t mean people don’t want to celebrate their moments, even more now than ever because you’re lucky to have them,” she said. “You can make those precautions well designed, fun and creative and they’ll be a lot easier to take.”