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Survivor Diaries: Lessons for Meeting Planners on Conquering Epic COVID Disruptions

Survivor Diaries: Lessons for Meeting Planners on Conquering Epic COVID Disruptions


The last six months have been a roller coaster for meeting professionals. In a lively webinar last week, Smart Meetings founder and CEO Marin Bright gathered four Smart Women in Meetings Award winners—Cindy Brewer, principal with LEO Events; Desi Whitney, senior vice president of sourcing operations and industry relations with HPN Global; Stefanie Maragna, vice president of corporate marketing and events with Sage Intacct; and Cheryl Rogers, corporate events manager with Solara Medical Suppliers—who have been buckled in for the ride.

Bright asked how they conquered COVID disruptions and positioned themselves to thrive in the future. Here’s a look back at how we’ve been feeling over the last 180 days.

Relive the Survivor Diaries Conversation Here On-Demand.

For Smart Meetings, the shift to working from home happened in a day. California Governor Gavin Newsom made the decision that within 24 hours everyone in the state would be required to shelter in place. The team quickly learned new processes and communication skills.

“At that point, a fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in. Some probably thought they would have time to catch up on a few books or television shows. Nope,” Marin Bright said. “Instead, we launched a series of products, including Smart U career education and The Smart Connection networking platform. Then we dove into producing virtual events right away.”

Emotional whiplash was a common symptom during those early days. “We were on track for having the best year ever, and we were loading in for a Walmart show the first of March when the cease-and-desist order came in. It was a shock,” said Cindy Brewer of her team at Leo Events.

“We quickly realized that there were many stages of grief, and that out of our 60 employees, everyone was in different stages of processing. As an employer, we had to help pull those people through while dealing with the fact that all our business had just disappeared,” she recalled.

Then the uncertainty kicked in. “We thought it would be three weeks at most,” Marin ventured. “Just a few temporary snow days. We basically left the coffee pot going for when we would get back.”

Cheryl Rogers decided this was the time to take the advice of friends and family who had long suggested she share her adventures while doing site visits and learning about destinations. That is when All About the Experiences: Living Without Limits, her podcast, was born. “It’s been a blessing to be able to spotlight and highlight positivity,” she said.

Desi Whitney defined her COVID months as a time of “scrambling.” In addition to her role with HPN, she focused on helping meeting professionals by creating a medical contingency plan she made available through her company, Emergency Concierge International. “We had such a lack of resources back in March and April, and we wanted to support planners on site and tell them exactly what to do and how to manage and be a resource,” she said. “We hope it helped save a meeting or two.”

Stefanie Maragna had just come out of a 1,000-person event for Sage Intacct when the stay-at-home order came and quickly had to make a decision about an in-person meeting happening in five days. She transformed it into a virtual event that drew 10 times more registration than projected for a physical meeting. “I think we will keep a virtual component even when we are back to meeting in person, because they enhance our programs,” she predicted.

She spent the following months refining that virtual experience, working with partners and trying to stay positive. “It has been challenging but also innovative, and we have been able to find ways to figure it out.”

Stefanie’s secret weapon? “We didn’t do this alone. It’s amazing how this community is supporting each other with tips and words of wisdom.”