Tech companies aim to bring back live gatherings—with rules

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No licking hands, no spitting, no showers. Those are just some of the new health and safety protocols in Major League Baseball’s 100-page “Operations Manual,” obtained by USA Today.

MLB is not the only organization with plans to resume live events—with some new, um, restrictions in place. Even as many states are seeing record numbers of COVID-19 cases, many tech companies that enable in-person gatherings are moving forward with reopening plans. But they are proceeding with caution, putting together protocols that aim to reduce the chance of virus transmission (and another shutdown). Whether they will be able to enforce their new guidelines—especially at scale—remains to be seen, though.

Online ticketing service Eventbrite, which was hit hard by the pandemic, recently published a “COVID-19 Safety Playbook for Events,” aimed at helping event organizers “safely navigate” the return to live gatherings. The playbook includes a risk assessment checklist and suggestions for lowering chances of transmission by doing things like placing tape on floors in queuing areas to make sure event-goers don’t get too close to each other.

Eventbrite cofounder and CEO Julia Hartz says that pent-up demand for in-person events is growing again. That not only led the company to put together its safety playbook, but also to new innovative types of events popping up on the site, or a resurgence in some very old types of gatherings that have fallen out of style in recent decades.

“We’ve already seen more than 1,000 drive-in events on Eventbrite this year, which is over nine times more drive-in events on our platform than in the last two years,” says Hartz. “The type of drive-in events is vast, too—there are drive-in church services, drive-in comedy shows, and even drive-in fitness classes.”

Hartz says that her company has helped event organizers innovate over the Internet too, providing them with easy-to-use, branded tools for streaming (via partnerships with streaming partners like Zoom). But ultimately, finding safer ways to gather in person is a necessary step—not just for event organizers but for Hartz’s company, which relies on a cut of tickets sold. “We believe live events will prevail because humans share a fundamental need to connect with each other,” says Hartz.

Airbnb, which shifted its “experiences” offerings to online-only in the wake of the pandemic, is also easing back into enabling in-person gatherings. But the tech company is making sure to do so only in regions that have gotten a handle on COVID-19 cases. “We worked closely with health experts and local government regulations, and looked at the sentiment of our hosts and guests [to assess reopening],” says Catherine Powell, head of Airbnb Experiences.

The company is also making sure to provide plenty of new guidelines for hosts who plan to reopen and engage with customers in person, publishing a new set of safety and cleaning initiatives just last week. Some of the new requirements include mandating that hosts and guests wear face coverings and limiting group sizes to allow for social distancing. There’s also an “Enhanced Cleaning Protocol” for all hosts who are hosting in a private space.  

Like Eventbrite, Airbnb’s experiences business also went fully virtual when the pandemic hit. Powell, who started in her role in January, right before the shutdown, had to make a quick pivot. “Barely a month later, I had to suspend my business,” says the former Disney exec. According to Powell, Airbnb’s online experiences business was launched in just 14 days, with 65 host partners (think sangria making with Portuguese drag queens, still one of the most popular online experiences on Airbnb).

“It [online experiences] is the fastest-growing product that Airbnb has ever launched,” says Powell.

As confident as she is in the initial success of online experiences, Powell is also optimistic that in-person gatherings and travel will pick up again, and that when it does, Airbnb will be able to connect its online and offline offerings. “When you ultimately travel again, you can come back and connect with that [online] host,” says Powell.

To be sure, tech companies like Airbnb and Eventbrite don’t ultimately control everything that happens between hosts and their customers, despite their published guidelines and requirements. That’s because they are not the providers of the ultimate experiences, but merely the platforms and marketplaces that enable these experiences. And, as always, that means they have their work cut out for them when it comes to quality control, especially in this new era.

In other words: MLB may have an easier time enforcing its “no spitting” rules.

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