Health and safety at a Hybrid Startupfest 2020

By: Philippe Telio, Founder of Startupfest

We ran an event July 15-16, 2020!

That’s right, we ran an actual live event, with an actual stage and an actual, physical, in-person audience. And I’m proud to say we did it in a safe, healthy way, navigating dozens of unexpected challenges and managing tremendous uncertainty.

Government regulations and health guidelines limited us to 50 people on site at any given time. This is how we planned and delivered the first hybrid event in Montréal—maybe the first in the world—since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have had our fair share of challenges over the years with setting up physical infrastructure. I thought installing thousands of square feet of tents on an island and setting up a temporary dock to ferry attendees back and forth on the St.Lawrence seaway would have been our greatest challenge, but it turns out that setting up a temporary studio on the end of a pier while during a pandemic would prove to be just as big of a challenge.

This is how we did it:

  1. Naming someone senior in the organization to be responsible for all health and safety protocols.
  2. Reviewing all the best available science based health standards when it comes to keeping the environment “clean”.
  3. Writing down and sharing processes and protocols for setup, event days and take down. Everything from entering the site to leaving the site was meticulously planned and documented. 

Some of these processes included:

  • Creating a one-way flow of traffic throughout the whole site. This is more challenging than imagined, and takes up far more physical space than originally drawn up on architectural plans.
  • Distancing of seating in the audience (1.5 M between seats left and right and 4 M between seats front and back which allowed 2 M between people walking through the isles and people seated.)
  • One-way access to the stage for speakers and moderators, with strict protocols for managing microphones (microphones were sanitized after each speaker.)
  • No more than two people on our 16’ round stage at any given time, with a carpet strategically placed center stage to assure a two meter (six foot) spread between those on stage.
  • One person at a time in washrooms (even if there were 6 stalls per washroom), with cleaning crews sanitizing between each use. We were still able to offer gender-neutral washrooms and wheelchair-accessible washrooms: A pandemic is no excuse to take a step back on these things.
  • We normally avoid single-use bottles, but given our desire to ensure no commonly used interfaces, we opted for individually packaged lunches, drinks and snacks. To avoid movement amongst physical attendees, we placed water bottles at every seat.
  • Attendees were all sent a message ahead of the event explaining our protocols and reminding them to stay away if, for any reason, they felt they would be at risk or they could put others at risk.
  • Upon arrival at the site, attendees were greeted by staff, asked to wash their hands, answer a few questions (like have you been exposed to COVID or traveled abroad in the past 21 days). They were then supplied a mask and told to wear it at all times while in the covered tent and even outdoors if they weren’t able to socially distance from other attendees. This was more than what health guidelines suggested at the time, but we felt it better to err on the side of caution.
  • We purchased additional surgical masks and face shields in case any attendee felt they weren’t able to wear the (very stylish, hot pink) fabric masks we supplied, to minimize the chances someone might claim they couldn’t wear a mask. Since we’d invited each live participant individually, we didn’t anticipate this being a problem, and fortunately, it wasn’t—people were thrilled with their branded Startupfest masks!
  • We supplied blankets, since even the warmest Montreal summer can get breezy on a pier in the shade. These blankets were laundered that evening in case they were used on day two.
  • During the breaks we tasked staff with reminding people to keep their distance and wear a mask.
  • Local health guidelines limited us to 50 people on site at any given time. In order to accommodate as many people as possible over the two day event, we created 4 time slots and invited individuals to show up for 4-hour blocks. In normal times, we would assume that only 66% of people show up and we would therefore typically “over book” attendance, but given the circumstance we only confirmed the maximum number permitted at any given time to be certain we wouldn’t cross the 50-person threshold.

This was all new for our team. There were no clearly established processes for us to follow, so we used guiding principles, our experience, knowledge and common sense to fill in the gaps.

The guiding principles were:

  • Name someone responsible for health and hygiene.
  • Follow all health guidelines and err on the side of caution when in doubt.
  • Make sure that no two people cross paths or touch a given surface without it being sanitized. 

If you want a more complete recap on Startupfest 2020, our 10th anniversary, reflections on the future, and a long list of people Startupfest has to thank, check out our post Startupfest 2020 – A hybrid event a decade in the making!