As one occasion after another was canceled early in the coronavirus pandemic, Janelle Flay knew her days as a hotel event planner were numbered.
When she was laid off, she pivoted to property management. As vaccinations ramped up and more people began to hold weddings, rehearsal dinners and other parties, Flay returned this fall to events work at Gatherings at Station 10 in St. Paul.
"The fact that I can go back to doing something I love in a space that I think is amazing, it feels like a gift," said Flay, of the event center in an old Randolph Avenue firehouse.
At a moment when holiday parties are usually in full swing, Minnesotans are celebrating again. But as with the broader recovery of business and the economy, parties and events are just part of the way back.
Large corporate events are still off. But small- to mid-sized gatherings are happening, often with hybrid options.
Many people feel comfortable with home parties this holiday season. Becky Scheig of St. Louis Park is resuming her annual holiday party this month after a break last year and she expects 20 friends.
"I think the home cocktail party where you can limit the number of people and know their vaccination status is a safe bet," said Scheig. "I think people are like, 'Yeah let's do it!'"
The American Swedish Institute is advising potential event hosts that the venue is only booking to 75% capacity to maintain social distancing and that there's a mask mandate.
"We're not getting a lot of pushback because everyone's taking this seriously, especially with our recent bump here in Minnesota," said Ingrid Nyholm-Lange, the institute's director of experience.
At Gatherings at Station 10, Flay recalled a host requiring on-site COVID-19 testing before entry to an autumn rehearsal dinner. "Another event coming up is asking for mandatory vaccination," she said.
On a larger scale, Meet Minneapolis, which runs the Minneapolis Convention Center, anticipates an above average number of events in 2022 as some conferences that were postponed in the pandemic return.
Typically, Minneapolis sees an average of 33 large events a year. A large event is defined as surpassing 751 peak room nights, the hospitality industry's measure of hotel rooms booked for a specific event.
In 2020, the city had just five such large events, according to Meet Minneapolis, and 2021 will finish with seven. For 2022, 30 large events are booked with an additional six tentative events yet to be finalized.
"The unknowns are things like the delta variant," said Brent Foerster, Meet Minneapolis senior vice president of destination sales.
Ann Dunne, assistant general manager at U.S. Bank Stadium, is seeing interest in business meetings and holiday parties from small local companies so far, she said.
"There's obviously a lot of room here so they can spread out and be safe," Dunne said. Next year, the stadium is planning to host business events of up to 30,000 people.
But event organizers will need to develop alternative plans and be prepared for quick changes, said Cookie Coleman, a Minneapolis-based event planner.
She organized a 200-person fundraiser event in a tent at a benefactor's home in September, which had been arranged as a safer alternative to a much larger gala dinner. But as infection numbers rose during the delta variant's surge, she suspected it would be canceled — and in the end, organizers decided to go virtual.
John Cosgrove, of the VoiceHive web-based events platform, was hired to emcee an agricultural conference this year that's typically attended by 200 farmers from Minnesota. The event went to a hybrid format and was able to attract more than 400.
"All of a sudden, a farmer in Minnesota is talking to a farmer in Brazil about best practices," he said. "That wouldn't have happened if it was just in person."
The 6Smith Restaurant in Wayzata was designed to flex for groups up to 74 and owner Randy Stanley is seeing the rehearsal dinners and holiday parties that make up 20% of its winter business return.
"In my demographic studies and observing the market, it appeared there was a shortage of that opportunity and to survive the winter it would be critical to have that event business and it turned out I was correct," Stanley said.
More common in the future, said industry observers, is for venues or event hosts to require some combination of vaccines, testing, masks or social distancing.
Under a city of Minneapolis mandate, the Minneapolis Convention Center requires face masks. The facility also has undergone ventilation upgrades, Foerster said. He expects many large hotels and event venues to be doing the same as they seek to facilitate safer gatherings.