A few weeks before ALG Vacations' first big in-person meeting, I got an email asking me what color lanyard I'd like.
Green meant good with hugs and pre-Covid practices. Yellow meant OK with talking but not touching. And red meant totally keep your distance, or to put it more bluntly: back off.
At the World Travel & Tourism Council's (WTTC) Global Summit, a larger, mostly indoor event held just a few days ahead of ALG's meeting, much more formal protocols were in place, including mandatory rapid testing on arrival, regular temperature checks and a daily health questionnaire.
But in what is perhaps a testament to the eagerness for and growing confidence about returning to whatever kind of normal the future of travel holds, the industry's first two big in-person meetings also felt surprisingly normal.
Maybe it's because, a year-and-a-half into the health crisis, masks, social distancing and hand sanitizer have become staples of our daily lives. And the fact that many of us in attendance were fortunate enough to be vaccinated no doubt brought down stress levels related to returning to group settings.
Travel advisors gathered for ALG Vacations' 500 Club Silver dinner at the Secrets and Dreams Royal Beach resorts in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
It also helped that both events were held at beach resorts, meaning cocktail parties and dinners could be held outside, reducing the risk of virus spread and allowing attendees to comfortably shed their masks while dining and socializing.
The biggest change to the indoor sessions, besides the temperature checks and mask requirements, was the seating. While larger venues are obviously needed for smaller groups when social distancing is a must, as an attendee, I loved the new focus on personal space.
There were also few lines for bathroom breaks, coffee, snacks and lunches, making for a more relaxed event, one where it was much easier to find and talk with colleagues I had missed seeing during the long travel lockdown.
The final takeaway from both organizers and attendees: both events were a huge and welcome success.
"We've been getting incredible feedback," said Virginia Messina, senior vice president of advocacy for the WTTC. "People were really excited about finally being able to have that interaction, to see other people, to finally be able to not be in front of a screen. Also, I think the other big thing is that we were also able to prove that a screen will never replace that human connection and the business that happens through that."
And failure wasn't really an option.
"We needed to lead by example," she said, to prove "that travel could restart and could be done safely if the right measures were in place."
It was no small undertaking. The WTTC hired the risk management firm Global Rescue to conduct conference site assessments in advance, develop emergency plans in case of illness or injury, establish groupwide risk management protocols and train personnel.
"Luckily, there were no surprises," Messina said.
Just three of the more than 600 people from more than 40 countries who attended the WTTC event April 25 to 27 at Cancun's Moon Palace resort and conference center tested positive, and all were locals who were able to be escorted home or to a hotel room for quarantine, she said.
The foam was flowing at the travel agent pool party at the Secrets and Dreams Royal Beach resorts. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
ALG Vacations reported similar enthusiasm after its first big reward trip for advisors at the Secrets and Dreams Royal Beach resorts in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, April 28 to May 1.
While the lanyards -- the majority of which were green, and only 4% of which were red -- were a reminder of the pandemic, the rest of the event felt like any other ALG reward trip. There was live entertainment and dancing on the beach, an afternoon pool party and just a few hours of indoor, socially distanced and masked meetings.
ALG Vacations executive vice president Jacqueline Marks said she had no doubt they could pull off a safe meeting post-pandemic. It was just a question of getting the timing right.
"We knew the hotel was ready. But we didn't know if agents were ready to be around that many people," she said. "So we did a survey of all of the agents. And it was overwhelmingly yes, have the event. And we said, you know, it's going to be this big. We'll work on social distancing. There'll be some mask requirements. But it was the agents who wanted it. They told us loud and clear they wanted to get back together again, they needed to be back together again. So that's what gave us the confidence to move forward."
In a sign of the comfort level on site, ALG said a handful of attendees even switched their lanyards from yellow to green during the event.