President’s Voice/July 2020

As we enter the seventh month of 2020, I was thinking the other day that we’re half-way through—phew! Relief! Sometimes, it feels as though this year could not get any worse. But a friend reminded me that if we take a broader, longer view of time, we realize that every year, every decade, has its own challenges and bright spots. I’m trying to remember that more often.

In the middle of February (can you remember that far back?), all of us involved in planning the NINC2020 Conference were very excited. We’d already had to increase our room block at the Tradewinds Resorts in St. Pete twice. Almost all of the Featured Guest Speakers we had invited had said yes. Registrations were pouring in, and we were on target for a sell-out conference. We had some fabulous new ideas.

And then came March.

I know that almost all of our NINC members have been waiting to hear the final decision on the conference this September. I’m well aware of this because so many of you are emailing or messaging me or posting about it on social media or in the NINC Loop. I understand. We all have plans to make or to adjust, and we want to have the best information before we do that. Many of us have seen other events that we were scheduled to attend shift to a virtual format.

The board promised to make our announcement on or before July 15th. We decided that this column is the best venue to let you know what’s happening, because it allows me to address some questions I am sure you will have. Please read all this entire column. If you have questions that are not answered here, please see our FAQ page.

As of this writing, the NINC2020 Conference will be held live and in-person at the Tradewinds Resort in St. Pete Beach, Florida on September 23-27.

Why did we make this decision? To understand, you might need a little background on how conference planning works. We have contracts with our hosting hotel (The Tradewinds) for several years into the future. Signing contracts for future events gives us certain benefits and advantages. In those contracts, NINC commits to two major promises: one, that we will fill a certain block of rooms, and two, that we will buy a minimum dollar amount of food and beverages. This is how the hotel makes its money.

When we sign the contracts, we agree that if we do not meet our end of the bargain, there are financial penalties. Those penalties increase the closer we get to the time of the event.

In these contracts, these is also something called a force majeure. It protects us in the event that we cannot fulfill our end of the contract because of forces of nature (hurricanes), or acts of terrorism, war or God. In order for this force majeure to go into effect, certain criteria must be met which simply are not present at this time.

Since mid-March, we’ve been in touch with the conference reps at the Tradewinds. Our contact at the hotel advised our conference liaison to wait until later in the year to discuss what will happen in September, as the future was uncertain and the hotel was not able to address concerns with any accuracy at that time.

On June 1, I met with the Director of Catering and the VP of Sales at the Tradewinds. We discussed all of our options. What it came down to was this: the government of the state of Florida is moving ahead with opening businesses and allowing businesses like hotels and restaurants to conduct business as usual. There are no mandated travel restrictions. Consequently, at this point in time, our force majeure cannot be enacted. If we canceled our conference, the financial penalties would be astronomical.

While I understand that this is not an optimal situation, and the health of our members continues to be our principal concern, it is also incumbent upon the board to be aware of the tremendous fiscal ramifications of canceling the in-person conference at this time. NINC will suffer few if any penalties for a much smaller event (the hotel is waiving most penalties related to lower numbers). We will continue to monitor what’s happening in Florida closely, and if anything should change that indicates we must cancel and allows us to do so with minimal penalties, we will.

What does this mean for you?

If you are registered to attend the conference and you still plan to attend, you don’t have to do anything. If you haven’t reserved your hotel room, please do so. Below, I will share details on the resort’s cleaning/distancing/safety protocols. If you have any questions, you can visit our FAQ page on our website.

If you are registered for the conference and you feel you should not attend, you can cancel at any time between now and August 31, 2020 and receive a full refund (minus Stripe fees of $15). To cancel, please fill out this form. We will cancel your registration, refund your fee and also cancel your room with the hotel. If you have any qualms about your safety and welfare with regards to conference attendance, please cancel your registration. NINC and the Tradewinds will do everything within our power and according to the best information we have at the time to keep people safe and healthy, but we cannot make any guarantees. As you probably know, our understanding of COVID-19 is evolving, and we are all doing the best we can.

If you have been waiting to see what we are going to do before you made a decision, you can still register for the conference up until August 31st. You can do that here.

I know there has been a lot of chatter about the possibility of a virtual conference. At this time, we have no plans to present a virtual NINC conference in 2020. If something were to change in that regard, it would require an entirely new registration process, so please do not delay in canceling your registration if you are sure you will not attend in person. To reiterate, your NINC2020 Conference registration is not transferable to a virtual conference, in the event that a virtual conference were to happen.

The Tradewinds shared with me what they are doing to help keep guests safe. I’ve listed them below, but if you have a question that is not addressed, please visit our FAQ page.

  • The shuttle that operates between the airport and the hotel goes directly to the Tradewinds with no extra stops. The driver will be wearing a mask, and the vehicles are sanitized between guests. We are asking the shuttle to enforce mask-wearing for guests, too.
  • Check-in at the hotel is limited to one person per party, with only one guest at the desk at the time. The line for check-in requires six feet social distancing.
  • Workshop rooms have been reconfigured in keeping with social distancing standards. Each row has fewer chairs, and rows are eight feet apart.
  • Each workshop room will be sanitized between sessions, using not only surface disinfectant but also a specialty atmosphere cleaning machine.
  • The water station in workshop rooms will have a hand sanitizer next to it along with gloves for your use.
  • Hand sanitizer stations will be located throughout the hotel.
  • Elevator occupancy is limited to four people.
  • Guest rooms are completely sanitized, linens (including covers) sent out for cleaning. For stays of three days or less, there will be no housekeeping (although towels and other needs will be available). For stays of longer than three days, the guest may opt to have the housekeeper come in when the guest is not in the room,
  • Tables at our meals will be spaced six feet apart. Each table will approach the buffet on its own. At the buffet, there will be masked and gloved servers at each dish who will serve, so diners will never touch the utensils.
  • We are moving as much of our event outside as possible.

As an event, we are going to eliminate the use of paper programs and will be using an app instead. We will also reduce contact during registration to a bare minimum (name tag pick-up only). We will require the wearing of masks at all times during workshops, meetings and sessions.

If you have questions that are not answered here, please see our FAQ page.

I understand that this decision is going to disappoint many people who were registered for the conference (or not) and hoped that it would be presented virtually. Please be assured that we have not made any decisions without a great deal of thought, discussion and weighing of all options.

I’m well aware that cases of coronavirus are spiking in Florida. I live in the state, so the news of what’s happening is all around me. However, the governor has not indicated that the state will close again in the near future. We have to proceed under the assumption that he will not mandate closure.

Is this year going to be the same kind of conference as we’re used to enjoying? No. We expect less than half of our normal attendance. There are some parts of the conference that we simply cannot make happen in 2020. We’ll update you on what those are as we go through the rest of the planning process.

We’ll miss the members, guests and industry friends who won’t be in St. Pete, but we plan to make the best of what we can do for everyone who is able to join us.

Thank you for your patience and understanding during these challenging times. If you have questions not answered here or on our FAQ page, please go here to contact us for further information.