SHRM’s Largest State Conference Goes Live Amid the Pandemic

After months of planning and precautions, attendees gather in person

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie August 31, 2020
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SHRM’s Largest State Conference Goes Live Amid the Pandemic

​A keynote speaker backed out 11 days before the conference. Another decided at the last minute to speak virtually. The number of people attending in person was about one-sixth of what is typically expected. And the costs to prepare for COVID-19 safety measures amounted to at least $72,000.

Those are among the many challenges tackled by Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) volunteers and staff organizing this week's HR Florida Conference & Expo in Kissimmee.

Many eyes are on this week's conference—one of the very few SHRM state conferences being held in person during the coronavirus pandemic.

For people like Heather "HD" Deyrieux, SHRM-SCP, director of SHRM affiliate HR Florida State Council, the words "pivot" and "agility" have taken on new meaning. Deciding to hold the conference in person, she said, may have been risky, but it was a response to her members' needs.

"We had an overwhelming response from our members saying, 'We want this event, we need this event. We understand safety is the top priority, but we're sick of webinars. We need to get out. We want the HR Florida experience,' " said Deyrieux, who is a workforce planning manager for Sarasota County government.  

And so that experience, which in previous years has attracted around 2,600 in-person attendees, became an event of about 450 in-person attendees and roughly 700 online attendees.

Costly Precautions

Typically, from midsummer to November, SHRM's state affiliates host some 80 in-person conferences. Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, only about 10 are being conducted in person during the same months this year, said Gloria Sinclair Miller, SHRM-SCP, a SHRM field services director.

Florida's is the largest. It is taking place from Aug. 30 through Sept. 2 at the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center.

When organizers decided to hold it in person, they settled on the slogan "It's on"—meaning onsite and online.

Some of the precautions that conference organizers took were what one might expect: SHRM has provided masks and required attendees to wear them in common spaces; seats at sessions are spaced at least 6 feet apart; furniture was rearranged for distancing in common areas; hand sanitizers have been stationed around the hotel; meals have been either boxed to go or served by hotel staff from behind dividers; and all hotel staff and conference staffers and speakers are required to have their temperature checked before entering the conference rooms. Temperature checks are optional for attendees.

"The concern is we have to make sure people remember that when you're having these events, you're going to be close together," said Sinclair Miller. "Obviously people will take their masks off to eat and drink, but when people aren't eating or drinking, we have to make sure everyone continues to follow the guidelines for everyone's safety." 

Other precautions required more creativity. For instance, participants in the conference's traditional 5K run/walk, which kicked off events on Sunday, were required to walk or run at least 6 feet apart, but they didn't have to wear masks. Organizers posted a 24-page document on the state council website addressing COVID-19 precautions, and they created a mobile check-in app so attendees could avoid the hotel's front desk. Hotel staff used state-of-the-art tools, such as electrostatic sprayers and ultraviolet light, to enhance standard cleaning practices.


Handling the Unexpected

Eleven days before the conference opened, keynote speaker B.J. Novak, a producer of and actor in the television show "The Office," decided not to appear in person and instead delivered his speech virtually Monday morning. It was broadcast on a large screen at the front of a hotel ballroom.

Keynoter Tyler Shultz, who famously blew the whistle on Theranos, the now-defunct health technology corporation that was based in Palo Alto, Calif., also decided against appearing in person. He will be replaced by Disney's former head of innovation and creativity, Duncan Wardle, for Tuesday's keynote address.

Several speakers at the smaller breakout sessions also canceled plans to attend in person, Deyrieux said.

Speakers who appeared in person agreed to also record their remarks so those attending virtually could follow along. Live-streaming each session, Deyrieux said, wasn't practical because of the expense and unreliability of Internet connections.

While the state council saved money on food and drinks because of the relatively low number of attendees, the COVID-19 precautions pushed the council's expenses 12 percent higher than what was spent in 2019.

"Between the virtual platform, masks and sanitizer for onsite attendees, and an additional keynote speaker, we have currently spent an additional $72,000," Deyrieux said. "I'm sure there will be more added to that total before the conference is over."

Seeing conferencegoers in person was a treat for Mary Cheddie, SHRM-SCP, SHRM's eastern divisional director.

"People are being respectful and safe," she said. "But it's so joyous to see so many people."

And there was another upside to hosting the conference in person, she said: Because it's the first conference of this size that the Gaylord has hosted since COVID-19 hit the nation in March, "many of the hotel staff were brought back from furlough for this conference, so they're super appreciative of HR Florida being here, because they get to work."

Jon Petz, the conference's master of ceremonies, pronounced the event "absolutely spectacular so far."

"We know we have to manage expectations, but people are doing so with grace, kindness and patience," said Petz, who appeared at Monday morning's general session in a huge bubble—partly for comic relief—and walked through the audience high-fiving attendees. 

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