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If you are going to host an in-person event—whether fundraising or to celebrate an organizational landmark—it’s important to get it right. Today, that means taking COVID precautions into account, as well.

The Steamboat Institute successfully hosted its in-person 12th Annual Freedom Conference in August. “Come hell or high water, we were going to have this conference,” said Jennifer Schubert-Akin, Chairman and CEO of The Steamboat Institute, referring to the nightmare of organizing a conference in the COVID-19 era.

Most nonprofits are feeling the aftermath of lost revenue from cancelled events as development personnel make plans for aggressive end-of-year asks. If you are planning a small- or large-scale event for your organization to make up for events cancelled earlier this year, consider learning from the successes of the Steamboat Institute.

  1. The event registration period is important. It sets the stage for attendees and staff at the venue to feel comfortable with the precautions taken. The Steamboat team divided participants into three categories and sent each to one of three registration rooms in different parts of the venue for a temperature check and a COVID release form. In line with the theme of the conference, Steamboat color-coded and named the three groups red, white, and blue – justice, liberty, and freedom. Colored name badges made it easy to socially distance people, as the floors of the event venue were donned with colored arrows to direct attendees to their group’s conference room.
  2. Reimagine how to replicate the energy from the originally-planned event size. Steamboat, for example, separated the conference attendees into three ballroom-sized rooms and equipped each room with a stage and large screens. The organizers smartly staggered the live and video sessions between rooms to ensure all guests felt like they were able to experience the live speakers and panel discussions.
  3. Take COVID precautions, but add some flair. The Steamboat team distributed hand sanitizer bottles and masks with their logo. Instead of passing around mics for Q&A sessions, the Steamboat team placed QR codes at each table, with which attendees could digitally send in questions. This attention to detail not only impressed conference attendees, but items such as the reusable, logoed cloth mask became free advertising for the Steamboat Institute.
  4. Remember to over-communicate your precautions and expectations with your attendees before the event. Steamboat sent out a “Know Before You Go – Event Details” email, providing the guidelines from the county and the venue.


Though we do not know the behind-the-scenes hurdles the Steamboat Institute likely had to overcome, this conference was important to pull off both with regard to the mission of the organization and to establish themselves as a thought leader in “the new normal.” “Your team overcame all COVID-related organizing challenges to present a flawlessly run conference,” said Freedom Conference keynote speaker Heather MacDonald. The Steamboat Institute reimagined a successful in-person conference in the era of COVID-19—and you can too.

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