Outreach Conference and Event Services is reopening with new procedures for safety and enhanced communication

As the world found itself in the midst of a pandemic, Susan Rubin and Dr. Ira Rubin realized they would need to restructure their Minimedical School summer programs for high school students. Thanks to NIU Outreach Conference and Event Services, they were able to successfully and safely offer their program in June and July at NIU Naperville.

“We had doubts whether we would be able to run our program due to the COVID-19 restrictions,” the Rubins said.

When asked for feedback about their experience using the NIU Naperville Conference Center with the new protocols in place, they said, “We had to make a great deal of changes, but thanks to your wonderful facility and you and your great team, our weekend was a huge success!”

“We were incredibly impressed with how surfaces were constantly being wiped down, and the facility was continually cleaned,” they continued. “Snacks were perfect and delivered on time, and lunch from the cafe was great! The gentleman making our meals could not have been nicer or more helpful! The whole staff was terrific to work with! Our every need was attended to quickly and efficiently!”

Xavier Lewis, facility operations specialist at NIU Rockford, demonstrates new health and safety protocols.

To make this event a success, a team of event coordinators and food service providers worked together to implement the latest public health guidelines and communicate requirements clearly to the conference attendees. This is just one example of the way NIU Outreach Conference and Event Services has been working with public health officials, e-learning experts and partners across campus to safely reopen their multi-use facilities at NIU Naperville, NIU Hoffman Estates and NIU Rockford, as well as the two facilities they manage on the DeKalb campus – Altgeld Hall and the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center. These conference centers are important venues for meetings, weddings and other events, as well as NIU graduate and adult learner classes.

“Conferences and events are an important aspect of our outreach and engagement mission,” says Gina Kenyon, director of the conferencing department for Outreach Conference and Event Services. “They bring people together to do business, work on community problems and celebrate achievements.”

Kenyon notes that, like other industries, conference services has needed to change rapidly to meet current challenges. “However, as in any challenging situation, we have seen some exciting opportunities for creative and innovative thinking,” she says.

Sandra Stockwell, catering supervisor at NIU Rockford.

The most significant changes people will see in the conference centers include the number of attendees permitted in each venue, the presentation of food services, and the integration of e-learning and e-conferencing technology to connect speakers and attendees who cannot be physically present. Kenyon is excited to partner with other departments, such as NIU’s Digital Convergence Lab, to offer high quality online and blended conferences and to support academic programs.

“As we move forward with a better understanding of what the needs will be from the academic side, we are preparing to expand our partnership with graduate programs and NIU Continuing and Professional Education. Our regional IT team is also working with campus IT to enhance the e-learning experience. Our goal is to be able to provide students and faculty with a safe and productive location with the same amenities they would find on campus,” Kenyon says.

“For the foreseeable future, meetings rooms will look very spread out as we continue to maintain physical distancing,” she continues. “Our capacity charts have changed dramatically as the rooms are currently at 20% occupancy. We have implemented procedures to minimize traffic flow, we’ve adjusted all furniture placement, and we’ve created new food service options and sanitation procedures. We were able to review every single aspect of the meeting experience right down to the dry erase markers and erasers, which we are now keeping behind the front desk and sanitized.”

Kenyon adds that, now that these safety protocols have been developed, “the good news is we can implement these same changes in the future during any high-risk times.”

Perhaps the most important key to reopening safely and offering a positive experience for clients, Kenyon notes, is good communication.

“Setting expectations with attendees before they arrive is key to the success of reopening our facilities and for the overall meeting experience,” she says. “Some of the new communications include a map of the venue with the individual client’s meeting rooms labeled, as well as information on the locations of sanitizer and bathrooms closest to their event space. We also outline expectations for individuals visiting our buildings and revamped food service. Ultimately, the best practices we are implementing and sharing can be applicable for any venue or work environment that our clients have.”

Kenyon notes that there are long-term benefits to the additional client communication that she and her team are implementing.

Bradford Thacker, catering supervisor at NIU Rockford.

“The onsite contact and attendees are critical to our new procedures and creating that new line of communication will enhance attendees’ experience now and into the future,” Kenyon says. “Everyone who enters our buildings will need to know and follow our new health and safety policies and procedures.”

Kenyon says clients have had to make challenging decisions about weddings scheduled at these popular venues. “Moving a wedding date is emotionally difficult for everyone involved,” she says. “The good news is, because all wedding planners and event venues are in the same situation, we can access so many tremendous resources from meeting industry associations and wedding industry professionals. The positive aspect to the current situation is the universal empathy we have seen as we are all trying to find solutions and resources to move forward while keeping everyone healthy.”

Kenyon concludes, “This has been a truly remarkable time. I have never experienced such a life-transforming series of events, and I am extremely grateful to our team, who all jumped in to be retrained, to create and implement new safety protocols and procedures, and finally to support our clients during a very stressful time. I feel very fortunate that our team has been able to embody the concept of ‘Huskies. Never. Quit.’”

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