What one Costa Rican event planner did when COVID-19 came out of nowhere.
When I hear the words events, planning and COVID-19, the tune “one of these things is not like the other” comes to mind. Although the words COVID-19 and event planning are not a harmonious pairing, Erika Barreiro, an event and wedding planner in Costa Rica is pivoting her business while trying to survive this pandemic.
Originally from Colombia, where she graduated as a lawyer, Erika moved to New York before her final move to Costa Rica to start her business, Amore Paraiso Weddings & Events. Thanks to effective marketing and word of mouth, by March 2020 her business was a success and she was looking at a jam-packed 18 months of work. In fact, she had so many events on her roster that she was even considering leaving her office job side gig.
That office position is where I met and started working with Erika. As a former Meeting Professionals International (MPI) Toronto member I chaired committees and loved volunteering, so we hit it off immediately. Our office jobs were terminated due to COVID-19 and the lockdown.
Watching both the Canadian and Costa Rican event landscape, I wondered just how my new friend was doing. Here’s what she told me about her current experiences and how she’s working to make “pivot” her middle name.
Costa Rica closed its borders on March 18, 2020. What happened to your business at the outset?
At the beginning, it was really unbelievable. As a business that depends 90 percent on tourism and destination events, the border closure was downright scary. The first thing I did was communicate to all my clients and reassure them that I am here for them. We had many conversations that led to postponements and a few cancellations. The entire industry in Costa Rica was united to transmit the message “postpone, don’t cancel.” Advice like being flexible and not charging extra fees to push postponements due to COVID-19 was a must to reassure our clients. Also, reminding them they were not alone and Amore Paraiso would be here to ensure a successful event down the road.
What challenges have you experienced over the last six months?
One of the biggest challenges I faced was to go through all of this with such uncertainty. At the beginning, not being able to tell my clients when the borders would reopen or what the rules were because the government would constantly change them. That was hard. However, I’m proud of the way some policies have been handled and the protocols and safety measures that were enacted in a timely manner, so things were kept under control. It made the possibility to go back to normal a closer reality.
Staying calm was another challenge. I continue to strive to keep my clients relaxed because for most of them the thought of moving dates was devastating. Constant communication was critical for them to see I’m here and that we are doing everything in our power so their events can come to reality soon.
Lastly, booking new clients was challenging. In the beginning, with the borders closed and all the uncertainty, people were scared to book or commit. Now things are improving, I started booking clients for late 2021 and 2022. One of the benefits of events is that we start the planning way ahead of time.
With the event business landscape altered, how have you been able to pivot your business?
With all my events being postponed or cancelled, 2020 is very quiet and it forced me to think and be creative. Online events became a new way for my business to grow. Needing income, I decided to pivot by starting to host and organize events such as dinner and wine tastings and online workshops.
My hope is that everything will start looking better by February 2021…and it will be a great business year.
My next challenge became how to market events. Do people want to think about having fun or being socially engaged while circumstances surrounding the everyday feel chaotic? I had a hard time posting or knowing what to post because I did not want to be insensitive. I also didn’t want to be forgotten as a business.
Being creative with my marketing has helped my business be seen. I started posting inspirational and positive quotes instead of just selling. It has been good not only for the exposure of my business but also to bring a smile to the people who follow my brand.
What is an example of one of these events?
I was hired by an amazing chef in the area, who is starting his own restaurant, to host and organize a virtual event. It is a Wine + Dine. I needed to create the marketing, organize the Zoom calls and help make the event a success. It consists of a six-course gourmet dinner accompanied by three types of wine. The products are delivered to the attendees’ homes and then a sommelier explains all the wine tastings through the Zoom call.
What do you focus on most in a day? How do you keep that focus being home most of the time?
Right now, I’m focused on my social media presence and planning new events. I have been busy educating myself, learning and improving. When you are constantly working it’s hard to take time to educate yourself. I am focusing on taking time to incorporate the many online offerings to keep myself updated with certifications, health and security protocols, new trends, and just event business education in general.
My previously scheduled events are not happening anymore, but there is a lot to plan for next year! The country has been thinking positively and it helps me know things will get better. We keep planning, securing new vendors, signing contracts, designing beautiful events and destination experiences for our clients.
Do you see any new COVID-19 protocols becoming standard practices in your future live events?
This is a great question. Event companies have been talking about new standards and practices to add to their regime, and I find it very interesting that many of them are practices we are already doing in Costa Rica. Having smaller events, for example, is being touted as a safer way to function, and a typical destination wedding or event in Costa Rica is already considered a micro-function of about 30 guests, rarely going above 50 people.
The ICT [Costa Rican tourism board] has been very active educating planners through webinars and online certifications on protocols for tourism and events. The application of all these protocols are mandatory right now, given that tourism in Costa Rica is open for a few countries. At this time, events of up to thirty people are allowed. The safety protocols include mandatory masks inside, social-distanced receptions—no more than five people per table—and, of course, the use of hand sanitizers at all times.
I had a hard time posting or knowing what to post [on social media] because I did not want to be insensitive. I also didn’t want to be forgotten as a business.
Everyone in the meetings and events industry is encouraging outdoor events, and this is how we typically manage. When a group comes all the way to Costa Rica, they want as much outdoor activity as possible. Often on the beach, or in the garden, or even the rainforest. In my mind, due to this alone, there has never been a better time to hold an event in Costa Rica.
I will be incorporating new standards like offering hand sanitizers at the entrance of an event and in the bathroom areas. Having my vendors, suppliers and my team wear face shields or masks will be imperative. Thankfully, the event guests will all have been cleared of COVID upon entering the country* and spending time with each other regularly, so they won’t need to wear any face coverings. This is especially important for any photos being taken.
In the future, my company will also be using the protocols and guidelines from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Countries allowed to visit to date include Canada, Australia, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Ireland and Latvia. As well, they have recently opened up to certain U.S. states.
How do you see the future of your business over the next year?
I feel very positive. Borders in Costa Rica have opened for Canada, parts of Europe and the United Kingdom. I know tourism will not improve immediately, but it is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, these first tourists will lead us to improve protocols, to understand what systems work and which don’t. When 2021 rolls around both the country and my business will be prepared.
My hope is that everything will start looking better by February 2021 and if everything goes well, it will be a great business year. Some of the events from 2020 and those we already had planned for 2021 will make it a busy, exciting and fun comeback!
Stephanie Hiltz is a meeting and event planner with more than 15 years of experience. She currently lives in Costa Rica with her husband Jonathan and two children Violet and Clark. She specializes in the production of trade shows and conferences, event marketing and operations. A past member of the MPI Toronto Chapter, Stephanie won the New Member of the Year award in 2013 and was a finalist for Planner of the Year in 2014. Event planning is one of her greatest passions along with travel, experiencing adventure and trying new foods. She can be contacted at email@example.com.