(This column originally appeared in The Guardian)
Hesitant about holding or attending an in-person event because of Covid or other communicable viruses? You’re very much in the minority. Just look at the data.
Spending on services such as travel, dining and events has been steadily rising since January 2021. Travelers at airports have exceeded 2019 levels at various points of the year. Hotel occupancy rates are still slightly below 2019 levels but have been running above the 10-year medium since the middle of the year. Las Vegas — the epicenter of conferences and conventions — has caught up to pre-Covid levels with October 2022 visitors exceeding October 2019 levels.
Infection rates may still be worryingly high but for most people, Covid is in the rear-view mirror. Just about everyone I know is going to conferences and conventions. So what’s changed? During the past year I spoke to business groups and associations at more than 50 in-person events around the country. And here’s what I learned.
Lots and lots of happy business owners and managers are back to attending their industry conferences. They’re shaking hands, embracing, chatting, drinking, networking, learning and laughing. At the conferences I attended, I noticed few masks. I’m assuming most of the attendees were vaccinated, although there’s no way to be sure. I noticed that pretty much all of the conferences have given up on the Covid-protocols like social distancing, spaced seating and other health rules that were in place in 2021. Basically, there’s little difference from before the pandemic. As far as these business groups were concerned its business as usual.
So what about virtual? In 2020 and 2021 many of my scheduled appearances were changed to a Zoom (or similar) presentation. For a speaker, the impact (of course) was significant. Speaking into a webcam is not like speaking to a live crowd. But what about for the attendees? I asked many of the conference organizers about their virtual offerings and the response was generally the same: meh.
Attendance at these events were dramatically lower and engagement fell. So what does this mean for virtual offerings going forward? Many companies are continuing to invest heavily in online platforms to hold their meetings, with a few dipping their toes into the Metaverse, which promises an immersive virtual reality experience. But, based on the people I’ve spoken with, virtual options are not a primary consideration.
That’s because conferences aren’t just about information. They’re about connecting. They’re about meeting colleagues, partners, vendors, customers and your friendly competitors and talking shop face to face. They’re about taking the family away (or not) to a fun destination like Las Vegas, Orlando or New Orleans. They’re about roaming and thinking and brainstorming and sharing ideas. You don’t get this kind of experience at a virtual event.
Not that there’s not a role for virtual offerings to play in events. Some conference organizers insist on streaming their presentations to members — and their office staff — who are either unable to make the conference or can’t afford the expense. They’re experimenting with different pricing plans for those members that come on site and those that prefer to just watch a session or two from home. Virtual platforms are a potential addition to their revenue streams but certainly not a replacement.
But make no mistake: if you’re still not attending events in-person because of the fear of getting sick then you’re missing out. Your competitors have left Covid behind and are out there talking to your customers.
I get it if you have legitimate health risks that may preclude you from getting back on the road. But if that’s not the case then my advice is to get back to it. Update your vaccinations and, if you choose to do so, wear a mask. You’ll be one of the few people at the conference (or even on a plane) doing so. But if that’s making you feel better, then go for it. Your business may depend on it.