Since many businesses are currently debating whether or how to return to the office – and meeting planners are debating how exactly to host their events – I thought it might be helpful this month to give you some insight into the state of in-person events today.
My first live event post-apocalypse (my cutesy way of referring to the pandemic) took place on June 15. We were in Phoenix, which was not the original location, but restrictions in one state required a move to another state. Approximately 150 people attended and were seated in a room that could easily have accommodated 400, which allowed everyone to spread out (or not) as they saw fit. Overall, attendees behaved remarkably like they did pre-pandemic. They attended sessions, shook hands (albeit maybe less than before), ate a buffet lunch, and drank together at the hotel bar. A few people wore masks, most didn’t, and to the best of my knowledge nobody commented on anyone’s choice. All in all, it was a perfectly ordinary experience.
Since then, I’ve spoken at seven other live events, ranging in numbers from 80 to 2,000, and they have all functioned similarly – which is to say that the people attending today’s conferences are operating much like they did in 2019. Some of them have seen record attendance, and others have struggled to hit their attendance goals. All of them use the pandemic to explain their surplus or deficit of attendees, but in all fairness, I’ve had these same attendance conversations with meeting planners for years.
The one thing that’s been true for all of the conference I’ve spoken at is that the people there are extremely happy to be back together with their peers and customers. If people are worried about traveling and attending a large event, they sure aren’t acting concerned. There are of course some people who keep to themselves and sit apart from everyone else – but again, that’s always been the case. It does not seem like the coronavirus has made that behavior more popular.
The biggest question meeting planners have struggled to answer is how to make attendees feel safe. This is where I’ve noticed the biggest change in the way conferences are working today vs. 2019 – not in the experience itself, but in the preparation for the experience. Some organizers have color-coded badges to help attendees recognize at a glance how close a given person is willing to be to other people. The largest conference I’ve been to, with 2,000 attendees, mailed every attendee an at-home COVID saliva test they were required to mail in before receiving the QR code that allowed them to register – and then had on-site technicians conducting rapid COVID tests to ensure that nobody was sick. That’s the most intensive approach I’ve seen so far, but everything went off without a hitch. I myself have needed to submit two negative antigen tests (despite being fully vaccinated) in order to be allowed to speak, which to me seems like a fairly small price to pay. And I haven’t heard of any of the conferences I’ve attended being a superspreader event – or the ones my speaker friends have attended either, for that matter.
In summary, events today look a whole lot like they always have. There is additional planning involved, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some attendees are spending more time now wondering if they should go to a conference than they used to; there does seem to be a trend toward a lot of last-minute registrations. But if my experience is any indication of the world at large, that hesitation seems to disappear once people are on site, surrounded by people whose company and expertise they value and respect. That’s the state of things as I’ve seen them, and I am very hopeful that things will continue on this trajectory for the foreseeable future.