With more than three decades of event production experience between them, Andrea and Hillary formed The Event Ally to bring health and safety considerations center stage and serve as an expert resource for brands, agencies and suppliers in the experiential industry.
Brad: Andrea and Hillary, thank you for being a part of the BCA Experiential Experts series! Would you please give our audience a little background on yourselves and how you got involved in experiential marketing?
Andrea: My start came from a summer job I had at a local concert venue. Eventually I was offered an internship at the home offices learning the inner workings of concert promotion. It was an unpaid internship, so I also worked several part time jobs that summer in order to continue making tuition money. After my internship, I never let them show me the door. I went off to grad school but continued working with them part time during breaks. After graduation, I was offered a Production Coordinator position on a large live event they were hosting locally. They noted that I had an ability to “thrive in chaos” and thought I should consider event marketing. I had no idea what that was, but I was introduced to some people, who introduced me to more people, and I ended up on a mobile tour. It took off from there!
Hillary: My family would argue that my start in the events world came when I was around 8 years old. I would take over our home and turn it into a “Haunted House” and charge my family and neighbors to walk through while my brother and I scared them. But my more professional start was in college on the Student Programming Board where I organized all kinds of events on campus from major concerts and hypnotists to scavenger hunts and game shows. From there I became a talent agent for artists in the college market and spent a good amount of time on the road with artists attending conferences throughout the US. During this time I ended up moving from Boston to St. Louis and decided to find a job in events where I was able to meet new people. I stumbled across an experiential agency, applied online, and they hired me! I had no idea what I was getting into at the time, but it was the best decision I ever made.
Brad: I first learned about The Event Ally by attending your outstanding “Creating Safe and Hygienic Events” workshop at this year’s Experiential Marketing Summit. Tell us about the firm. How did you two come to form it? What challenges are you solving in the experiential ecosystem?
Andrea: We were so glad you were able to attend! We have worked together as producers on multiple live events over the years, so we had a great deal of respect for one another baked into our relationship. We’d both also noticed that often on a project, we were the only two that had Health and Safety top of mind. Once COVID-19 began to shut everything down, we realized that we could dovetail our production expertise with our love of a robust Health and Safety plan. The basic premise is that we take our deep knowledge of experiential marketing and back that up with experts from the Medical, Health, Safety, Security & Sustainability fields. Together, we are able to deliver plans and training that keep staff and guests safe while still maintaining the business directive of the event activations.
Brad: I think this is a gamechanging model where you have combined your deep experiential production expertise and in-the-trenches health & safety experience with this collective of other subject matter experts. Why do you feel it is important for brands and agencies to lean into this combination of expertise?
Hillary: So much of what you do as a producer is to translate a creative vision into reality. We are now doing the same thing with a focus on ensuring that creative vision shines through while doing so safely. Obviously in this time and space, most folks are concerned about COVID-19 and compliance, prevention, etc. And we definitely have an expertise there. But we also want to ensure we don’t lose sight of the other threats that exist out there for an event, and that our clients take a wholistic approach to keeping their staff and guests safe
Brad: Obviously in the COVID era, health and safety is top of mind for brands, agencies and suppliers. In your experience, what are some keys to producing safe events?
Andrea: First and foremost, we believe a dedication to providing safe events should come from the overarching desire to keep staff and guests safe. We’ve declined to work with some people as it became clear that true safety wasn’t their end goal, but that they simply wanted us to tick some boxes for the benefit of a local health department or for their insurance policy. But it’s definitely possible to stay safe at events while producing innovative and exciting creative events. If the client doesn’t believe that, you’re dead in the water.
Second, it’s imperative that agencies and brands really understand their brand personality. So much of the safety measures we recommend are business decisions rather than hard and fast requirements. For example, you may be activating in a city/county that requires face masks and it’s incumbent upon you as the event organizer to enforce the face mask mandate. Those are the rules given to you. But within that, there are a lot of business decisions. For example, how many warnings will you give people to put on their mask or wear it the right way? Will you eject or fire people for non-compliance? How are you communicating this decision to your guests and staff? Are you providing refunds?
There’s a lot of leeway in how to respond to rules, all based on brand personality. Marketers can turn the dial up or down on how cautious they’d like to be. As long as they are able to communicate their level of caution, that will dictate how strict their safety measures will eventually be in practice.
Brad: That is a really interesting point about brand personality influencing these critical decisions and I think it highlights the value of using a team that understands both the marketing and healthy and safety components of the event.
I want to turn our attention to a practical and logistical challenge. Most events – even smaller-scale events – have a number of parties involved in planning and execution. It is obviously critical for everyone involved in an event to be accountable for health and safety issues that they influence, but pulling all of the pieces of the health and safety puzzle together can be really challenging. In your experience, what strategies or approaches should brands and agencies take to make sure all of those pieces fit together?
Hillary: We can’t stress enough the importance of buy-in from the most senior levels of leadership. They should adhere to the standards personally, celebrate the practices, and when possible, get involved in the creation. Senior level buy-in can be key to adoption. There should be no “do as I say, not as I do” in these instances. This should always include clients. We tend to give them a pass if they don’t adhere to our rules onsite. This cannot be allowed to happen; everyone needs to work as one.
Also, staff should always remember that they function as examples to their co-workers and their guests. Guests will ALWAYS model what the staff is doing, and if the staff isn’t following the rules, then neither is the guest.
Lastly, we find training and ongoing communication to be the secret sauce. If you consistently and openly communicate the policies and the reason for them, we find them easier to enforce. Additionally, if you remain open to feedback and you hear something instituted just doesn’t work in real world practice, listen to that feedback, adjust, be clear with folks about the change and what you’ve done to recover.
Brad: What risks exists for brands, agencies and suppliers that don’t appropriately address health and safety issues?
Andrea: The primary risk is that someone gets hurt doing something that was foreseeable, and you simply didn’t plan well enough to keep them safe. That risk is well beyond business, that’s a risk to your humanity. How could you live with yourself if someone was hurt because you simply didn’t plan your event well?
There’s always the monetary risk, but also consider the loss of reputation risk for poorly planned events. Customer trust is not easily recoverable.
Additionally, there are smaller-scale risks to poorly implemented safety plans. These days, everyone has a camera on their person. If your staff isn’t adhering to even the most basic of rules, it will be caught on film and broadcast. Who knows what will catch the attention of the public and turn into the next viral sensation? At minimum it can make your brand look foolish, and at its worst, it could make your brand look like they don’t value safety. Or it can make your brand look like there are rules that apply to some people, but not others. Any rules or protocols should be carefully enforced uniformly and without bias.
Brad: The pandemic has sadly upended careers for too many of our talented colleagues in experiential. Do you see opportunities in health and safety for those that are looking?
Hillary: Absolutely. While we had hoped it would be safe to bring large scale events back earlier than this, there will eventually be huge gaps in the sector of people who are trained. Any training that professionals can invest in now would be huge toward ensuring they get a seat at that table.
Brad: For professionals looking to develop expertise in event health and safety, what actions do you recommend they take to facilitate that journey?
Andrea: The best way to get started would be to start in general safety before branching out into event specific safety areas. OSHA10 and OSHA30 are excellent and accessible classes to get you into the mindset of the safety generalist.
As you get more specialized in your education, seek out the excellent trainings from FEMA, Fire Marshalls, The Red Cross, etc. Many trainings have a cost to them, though many are free and on-demand to suit your schedule.
Brad: Put yourself in the position of a brand that is looking to evaluate expertise in event health and safety. What should they be looking for? What questions should they be asking? What mistakes should they avoid?
Hillary: As with most jobs, folks that have experience in their field are the easiest ones to employ. If their references said they’ve done a good job, then you should be good. These days, though, the most top-of-mind threat to live events is COVID-19. And virtually no one has any experience with implementing COVID protocols at large-scale live events. That’s OK too. We’d suggest the following:
- Ensure they have a passion for health and safety research. A big part of what they will do for you is research & interpret local guidelines, staying on top of the ever-changing rules.
- Verify they hold certifications across multiple safety categories from reputable sources. Think OSHA10 or OSHA30, Crowd Management, COVID-19 Compliance Officer, Contact Tracing, etc.
- Make sure they have a personality that is not afraid to politely but firmly enforce rules and can explain in detail why that rule is essential. This will allow them to advocate for health and safety through every stage of your process.
- Keep an eye out for a consultant that asks you as many questions as you ask them. When evaluating a safety professional, they will always have to understand your goals and brand personality when crafting recommendations. If they don’t ask you any clarifying questions, either you’re the world’s best communicator, or they aren’t considering all of the possible ways to respond to your unique issues.
- If at all possible, it’s a benefit to have a safety pro that is local to the area where you will be activating. This allows them to be the most informed about the local rules, customs or laws.
- Find an experienced live event professional. They already speak the language and can translate what you need quickly, while filtering it through the safety lens.
- Ensure they have a diverse staff that can speak to your target audience demographics in age, race and ability.
- Don’t forget to consider the language needs of your staff and audience and ensure your health and safety staff accounts for those languages.
Andrea: Yes, and beyond qualifications, ask them questions such as:
- What health and safety goals would you set for our event?
- How do you activate a temperature check / health questionnaire entry screening? Have them walk you through how they work and the various roles within activating one. They should be able to recite the CDC guidance easily.
- Articulate the specific onsite duties of a COVID-19 Compliance Officer or Health Safety Manager.
- Avoid asking very specific questions about very specific municipalities. Unless you prepared them to research a specific geography before you spoke, it’s more of a “gotcha” question. Rules across geographies can be wildly varied and change often, so don’t expect them to know everything about everywhere. But it’s absolutely fair to ask them to do some research prior to meeting with you. And they should be able to articulate general best practices across all municipalities.
Brad: This has been incredibly insightful, Andrea and Hillary. Thank you again for participating in the Experts series. Where can people find you and put your expertise to work?
Hillary: Please visit us at TheEventAlly.com! We love to talk health and safety and all things events.