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Outside Business Journal

Hugs? Fist Bumps? How to Improve Trade-Show Socializing During a Pandemic.

As the world reconverges, one trade show producer has fine-tuned a simple tool for navigating—and respecting—personal comfort

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Along with much of the world, I made some exciting return-to-normal plans this past summer. I penciled in the Big Gear Show, Outdoor Retailer, and a dear friend’s wedding in August. As an event producer coming off of a pandemic-induced hiatus, I was stoked to see my colleagues and friends after 18 months of hibernation. Plus, I was gearing up to put on the Grassroots Connect show in November, and I was eager to talk booth layouts and logistics. I’d even filled my downtime with courses and certifications in areas like event hazard and risk management, and I’d been developing contingency plans, safety protocols, and organizational strategies to ensure a safe environment for the fall show.

None of that prepared me to be an attendee at any of these gatherings. I drove four and a half hours up to Salt Lake City. And then, Saturday morning, I just couldn’t do it. I canceled everything.

What would have made a difference? Nothing. It was a personal state of mind. Even with precautions, the benefit of going to these gatherings—for me—did not outweigh the risk, perceived or real, of becoming a Covid-19 statistic. My nerves were not indicative of everyone’s mental state, but they did illustrate a larger issue: As we re-emerge into large-format gatherings in public places, acknowledging— and respecting—people’s personal space is integral to pulling off events that hinge on positive, in-person interactions. Given what we know now about the intractable staying power of the virus (even mitigated by vaccines), we can assume this isn’t a temporary issue. Plus, there’s that “intimacy creep” to which every outdoor trade show attendee can attest: when someone you’ve emailed with countless times but never met pulls you in for a big, uninvited bear hug. We are, after all, an industry that thrives on camaraderie.

That’s why, for Connect, we fine-tuned a solution that had launched at the Big Gear Show: the colored lanyard system. At registration, each participant was required to select a lanyard, courtesy of Chums eyewear retainers, in one of three universally familiar colors, each representing personal comfort levels: green (I’m OK with contact); yellow (please keep your distance); and red (caution, I’m sensitive to contact and appreciate distancing). We also aligned the colors with relevant songs on the event playlist and posted them on reminder signage throughout the convention center (think: Christina Aguilera’s “Come On Over” and Stevie Nicks’s “Stand Back”) to keep things fun. And voilà: Attendees had visual indicators to convey how they preferred to interact, sans judgment or awkward conversations (“Are you hugging? Should we hug?”).

“We’re all happy to be back at shows, but I totally understand if someone doesn’t want a hug on day one,” says Heath Christensen, Cotopaxi’s director of wholesale. “[The system] was a great way to respect people’s comfort levels as we all get used to in-person events again.”

One key with a system like this is softening the surrounding language to ask for participation rather than framing it as a policy demanding compliance. This should help planning teams—whether a pandemic rages or not—make the path to attendance reassuring and seamless, not challenging and aggressive. And while no doubt some find it overkill, the lanyard is a tangible step forward in forging that path through the oxymoron that is social distancing. It’s a way to give people a voice in a conversation that’s not always easy to have. “What was most surprising was how much we underestimated how important it was for people to express how they felt about managing risk around the pandemic,” says Kenji Haroutunian, trade show director of the Big Gear Show. “Attendees truly appreciated this simple visual communication tool.”

While Outdoor Retailer at one point considered a similar color-coded button system, directors are instead just requiring masks at all times and social distancing measures at Snow Show 2022. Regardless, it’s clear that stringent precautions help in this new normal where gathering safely and respecting boundaries are as important as the business at hand. When I asked an attendee to describe, in one word, how he felt about being at Connect, he replied, “Comfortable.” Success.

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