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An affordable air quality tool for meeting planners

air quality tool meter CO2
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the in-person meeting industry. Though it took too long to recognize that COVID-19 spreads via air transmission, we finally have effective procedures (vaccine mandates, masking, air quality standards, and social distancing) to reduce infection risk at in-person meetings. Now, meeting planners can add an affordable air quality tool to their site visits.

How can you determine air quality at a prospective venue?

Look around the room at an in-person event and you’ll see if masking and social distancing are taking place. We can implement vaccination mandates using third party vendors such as sharemy.health, CLEAR Health Pass, Safe Expo, and others. But how can we determine the air quality at a prospective venue?

Currently, we don’t know how to detect airborne COVID-19 viruses. (This is likely to be true for a long time. We still have no test for airborne tuberculosis bacterium (TB) transmission two centuries after identifying TB as a distinct disease.)

Luckily, under conditions I’ll outline below, we can obtain useful information about a venue’s air quality by using a device that measures a proxy for air pollution: carbon dioxide (CO₂).

People breathe in air, typically containing about 0.04% CO₂. They breathe out a mixture of gases containing about 4 – 5 % CO₂. People with COVID-19 co-exhale respiratory aerosols containing the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

If an occupied building space has effective ventilation, the occupants’ excess exhaled CO₂ is quickly diluted with fresh air, and the CO₂ level in the air remains close to normal values. Measuring the level of CO₂ in the air can, therefore, tell us whether effective ventilation is present or not.

Here are the generally accepted standards for CO₂ levels:

~400 parts per million (ppm) – Normal outdoor air level.
400 ~ 1000 ppm – Typical value level indoors with good ventilation.
1,000 ppm – the OSHA/ASHRAE recommended maximum level in a closed room.
> 1,200 ppm – Poor air quality – requires ventilation to the room.
2,000 ppm – This level of CO2 typically produces a significant increase in drowsiness, tiredness, headaches, lower levels of concentration, and an increased likelihood of spreading respiratory viruses.

Until recently, meters that measure CO₂ levels in the air cost hundreds of dollars. (Some models with especially accurate sensors or the capability to measure other air pollutants still do.) But today we can buy an affordable air quality tool — a hand-held CO₂ meter for under $100. The one I just purchased (illustrated above) cost $80, and there’s a wide variety to choose from (for example, from here or here).

My 3.27″ (diameter) x 1.26″ (depth) meter measures CO₂ levels from 0 – 5,000 ppm. It can run on standby for 18 hours, supports USB charging, and includes a battery level indicator and temperature and humidity readings. While its specifications omit accuracy, inexpensive CO₂ meters are typically reliable within ±100 ppm. This is good enough to provide a decent estimate of the air quality in an enclosed space.

My unit shows a concentration of ~350 ppm CO₂ outside my rural Vermont home, which was built tightly. In my home office, the level increases to about 450 ppm, and rises to about 525 ppm if I’m sitting next to the unit for a while. Slightly cracking open a window quickly brings down the reading.

I haven’t had time to explore other buildings yet, but am looking forward to seeing what I find out when I do.

Is a CO₂ a proxy for indoor air quality in occupied spaces?

Can measuring CO₂ levels give us a useful indication of indoor air quality?

The answer is a qualified yes. It depends!

First of all, we need to measure CO₂ levels in occupied spaces. A meeting planner doing a site visit should take CO₂ readings in occupied meeting rooms, restaurants, hotel lobbies, etc. Taking measurements in empty spaces will only show high readings if the building ventilation system is grossly inadequate (with CO₂ infiltrating from other areas.) Also bear in mind that increasing the number of occupants in a space increases the likelihood that an infectious person will be present and the number of people possibly infected. Doubling occupancy can thus cause a four-fold increase in risk of transmitting COVID-19.

Second, there are sources of CO₂ that are not related to human exhalation but will increase meter readings. A common source is combustion emissions such as gas stoves, which can significantly increase CO₂ levels. Pets can also increase CO₂ levels, though animals are unlikely to be sources of the COVID-19 virus. Such sources will cause increased levels of CO₂ without increasing the incidence of COVID-19 transmission.

Finally, air treatment options, such as MERV 13 or better filtering, or possibly ultraviolet-C radiation, may reduce the prevalence of active COVID-19 aerosols. When venues employ these mitigation strategies, CO₂ levels will not be decreased. Of course, if a venue has deployed these preventative measures, they will surely inform you about them when asked!

Due to these factors, you shouldn’t rely solely on measurements of CO₂ levels to determine whether a space is ventilated enough to mitigate transmission risk.

However, a simple CO₂ meter like the one I now own can be an effective air quality tool, providing valuable information to anyone who wants to investigate the air quality of occupied spaces at venues, hotels and properties, restaurants, and other meeting locales. I’ll be bringing mine when I travel, and I encourage you to do this as well!

More information on the relationship between CO₂ levels and COVID-19 exposure

If you’d like to learn more about the relationship between CO₂ levels and COVID-19 exposure risk, here are some useful references:

And here are some less technical media articles on CO₂ meters:

Humanity’s problem is a meeting problem

Meeting problemIn 2009, the biologist E.O. Wilson described what he saw as humanity’s real problem. I think it’s also a meeting problem:

“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”
E. O. Wilson, debate at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Cambridge, Mass., 9 September 2009

Wilson sees emotions, institutions, and technology as disjointed in time. Emotions have driven human beings for millions of years, our institutions are thousands of years old, and we can’t keep up with our advances in technology.

And so it goes with meetings.

Emotions

Much as we would like to believe otherwise, our emotions run us, not our rationality. Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Economics, wrote a long book about this. It’s why businesses sponsor meetings. It’s why we judge meeting experiences largely based on how they were perceived at their peak and at their end. And it’s why transformational learning occurs when a group experiences a positive emotional connection together.

Want more evidence? Well, information dumps from an expert lecturer are one of the worst ways to learn anything important. And simple workshops that support connection (which may be emotional) between participants around relevant content provide better learning experiences.

Emotions run us; our rationality comes in a distant second. All meeting design needs to recognize this reality.

Institutions

The things we do reflect our culture. And the organizations we’ve constructed incarnate our culture. Our largest and most powerful institutions — political and religious — are also the oldest, with roots thousands of years in the past. What we think of as modern business meetings and conferences are hundreds of years old. Changes in their forms and traditions have been principally influenced by technology (see below) rather than any deep changes in human psychology.

The traditional top-down formats of meetings and conferences reflect the top-down structure of the institutions that still largely dominate our world. Traditional institutional norms discourage the creation of meetings that provide freedom for participants to steer and co-create learning and connection experiences that are optimally better for everyone involved. All too often, top-down institutional culture leads inexorably to hierarchical meeting formats.

So there’s a disconnect between what’s best for meeting participants, due to their fundamental psychological makeup, and the dictates of their institutional bosses and the organizations that organize the events.

Technology

And finally, there’s E.O. Wilson’s “god-like technology”. Even though technology is continually being redefined as anything that was invented after you were born, it’s impossible to ignore how rapidly technology has evolved and changed our culture and our meeting experiences. I carry in my pocket a phone that has more computing power and far more utility to me than a machine that filled an entire office building when I was a student. And the COVID-19 pandemic has vividly illustrated how technology has allowed us, almost overnight, to redefine what we have thought of as meetings for hundreds of years to a largely—at least for now—online experience.

Consequently, vendors flood us with technological “solutions” to problems we often aren’t even aware we have. In some cases, these solutions are actually manufactured for a plausible yet illusory need. But even when there’s a genuine problem that the right technology can solve, our emotions can make it hard for us to see its value, and our institutions may be resistant to implementation.

The tension between emotions, institutions, and technology at meetings

Wilson’s definition of humanity’s problem resonates for me. As I’ve shared above, our emotions, institutions, and technology also frequently conflict when we are planning meetings. There isn’t a simple solution that perfectly responds to these elemental forces that affect what we do. In the meetings industry, our best meeting problem solutions recognize the effects of these forces on our gatherings and use conscious design to take advantage of them.

That means designing meetings that incorporate active learning via creating emotional experiences together, working with institutional stakeholders to convince them of the value of emotion-driven, participant-driven, and participation-rich approaches, and using the right technology — often human process technology — to make our meetings the best they can be.

Yes, humanity’s problem is a meeting problem. But we have the tools to solve it. All we need to do is to use them.

These aren’t the unconferences you’re looking for

unconferences
I’m noticing that event promoters are increasingly using the word “unconference” to describe traditional conferences. <Sigh>. Please stop doing this! There’s a big difference between unconferences and traditional events.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines an unconference:

“An unconference is a participant-driven meeting.”
“Typically at an unconference, the agenda is created by the attendees at the beginning of the meeting.
Unconference, Wikipedia

Well, surely titan Google would accurately describe their annual Search Central conference?

Nope.
unconferencesIn case you can’t read that, it says:

“In particular, the word ‘unconference’ means that you get to choose which sessions you want to attend and actively participate in. You will shape the event by taking part in discussions, feedback sessions, and similar formats that need your input.”
The Search Central Unconference is back, Google Search Central Blog

Wow. According to Google, “‘unconference’ means that you get to choose which sessions you want to attend”. Umm, Google, that’s what happens at every conference! Oh, you also get to “actively participate in” sessions? Google, we call that “having a discussion” or “a breakout”.

Dave Smart’s blog post My experience of the Google Search Central unconference makes it clear that Google chose the entire conference program beforehand.

Abraham Lincoln once posed the question: “If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does it have?” and then answered his own query: “Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” Sorry, Google, but calling your conference an unconference doesn’t make it one.

Let’s call what you’re doing an ununconference.

Sadly, Google is not alone.

A few examples of ununconferences

Here are three ununconferences that people promoted this week. I noticed several others, but adding all those black bars to remove identifying information takes time. Twitter is full of folks who already know they’ll be “speaking” at an ununconference (e.g., the second example). The last example announces that their “unconference” is closing session proposal submissions six months before the actual event!
unconferences

Conference programs that are predetermined with attendee input are not unconferences

I have been convening and facilitating unconferences for 29 years. (I prefer the term peer conferences, but no one else cares.) Why? Because they provide a far better conference experience. Better, because creating the conference program in real time at the start ensures that the event optimally meets participants’ in-the-moment wants and needs.

In 2o10, I explained why asking attendees in advance for program suggestions doesn’t work. And a couple of years later, I shared why a program committee or the mythical “conference curator” don’t do any better:

“In my twenty years of organizing conferences, I’ve never found a program committee that predicted more than half of the session topics that conference attendees chose when they were given the choice. During that time I’ve seen no evidence that any one person, whether they are given the title of “curator” or not, can put together a conference program that can match what attendees actually need and want.
Jeremy Lin and the myth of the conference curator, February, 2012

Seth Godin puts it this way: “We have no idea in advance who the great contributors are going to be.” Just about every unconference I’ve convened or attended, has brought to light participants whose valuable knowledge, expertise, experience, and contributions were unknown to the conveners (and most, if not all, of the attendees). You can’t do this effectively at a traditional conference with a predetermined program.

Unconference is not a marketing soundbite

Marketers: stop using “unconference” as an event marketing buzzword. We’re not selling cereal here. Robert Kreitner says, “Buzzwords…drive out good ideas.” Unconferences are participant-driven, which involves building the program in real time during the event. Having (well-designed) discussion sessions during an event is great, but that doesn’t make a meeting an unconference.

Meeting conveners: Learn about what unconferences actually are before calling your event one. (Any of my books will give you detailed information about these meeting formats, and how well they work.)

I care about how people use the word “unconference” because I’ve met too many folks who believe that an event that’s billed as an unconference must be one. Then they attend and are underwhelmed. I’d hate to see unconferences suffer because marketing folks see the word as a way to make an event sound hip, sophisticated, and cool. Let’s banish the ununconference instead!

Are in-person events COVID safe?

in-person events COVID safeSeptember 2021 — Are in-person events COVID safe? The worldwide meeting industry is desperately, and understandably, waiting for the answer to this question to be “Yes”. Well, Freeman, the largest global event management firm, has just announced “the truth is, in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store — and we have the data to prove it”.

Sadly, while I acknowledge and appreciate Freeman’s significant work on the case for recommencing meeting in person, I believe this claim is misleading, and the underlying modeling and research include flawed assumptions.

Make no mistake; I love to design and facilitate in-person meetings. I strongly desire to be able to safely return to facilitating and attending in-person events. But, as meeting professionals, we have a professional duty of care during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I think it’s important to provide a realistic assessment of risk for meeting stakeholders—especially potential attendees. Articles are already appearing in meeting publications (1, 2) that highlight the one-line summary of the Freeman announcement above. Such opinions, buttressed by what seems to be solid research and modeling, can easily give our industry the impression that in-person meetings can safely recommence.

My concerns about Freeman’s statements

I have two broad concerns about Freeman’s summary of research “Inside LIVE: The data you need to navigate the Delta variant for events” on the safety of in-person events. You can watch Freeman’s 55-minute webinar, posted on August 25, 2021, below.

1—Freeman’s overall conclusion is misleading

My first concern is that Freeman’s big picture conclusion that “in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store” is a misleading characterization of the statistics they present.

in-person events COVID safe

Here are the statistics (from the next webinar slide).

in-person events COVID safe

This slide compares the mid-August, 2021 rate of COVID cases amongst the entire population in the United States with the reported rates from four recent large in-person events. The second column shows the infection rate as a percentage.

The entire U.S. infection rate is indeed higher than the reported rates from the listed recent in-person events. (I’ll add that we know that reported rates are typically significantly lower than actual rates, but let’s assume that both sets of statistics are undercounted to the same degree.)

Unfortunately, Freeman’s statement that “in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store” does not follow from the data on this slide!

Why?

Because the statement conflates the risk of a masked visit to a grocery store with the overall risk in the United States of getting infected! The latter regrettably includes a significant fraction of the U.S. population who won’t or can’t get vaccinated, don’t wear masks to protect against airborne transmission of COVID-19, and don’t social distance. The risk of contracting COVID-19 during a grocery store masked visit is far less than the overall risk for everyone in the U.S.

The headline statement is, therefore, comparing apples to oranges. You’d expect any event that implements precautions against COVID-19 transmission to have a lower infection rate than the entire United States. That doesn’t mean that attending an event is a safe enough choice for attendees and staff.

This brings us to what’s actually important to people trying to make a decision whether to attend an event. The event modeling, performed for Freeman by Epistemix, and discussed later, suggests that those who are currently likely to attend a large in-person business event that implements mitigation strategies such as vaccination requirements, masking, and social distancing, are significantly more likely to be vaccinated (~80%). That statistic seems credible to me.

Such potential attendees, who are already more careful than the average American about how they live their lives in a pandemic, aren’t interested in whether an event environment provides a risk of getting COVID-19 comparable to the average risk of the entire population of the U.S. Rather, they want to know if attending the event will significantly (defined by them) increase their likelihood of contracting COVID-19. And that brings me to the second concern about the assumptions made by Epistemix’s event risk model.

2—The event risk model used for risk calculations is flawed and incomplete

When I heard about the Freeman webinar (thanks Julius Solaris!), I posted some initial responses. Freeman’s Jessica Fritsche was kind enough to reach out to me and arrange a Zoom call with John Cordier, the CEO of Epistemix, to walk through the data modeling used in the research. And John generously offered an hour of his time for us to talk. We were also joined by Sarah Shewey, Founder/CEO of Happily who was also interested in learning more about how infection rates at meetings could be modeled.

During our hour together, John shared an overview of the Epistemix model. This gave me a better understanding of Epistemix’s approach. The model essentially attempts to simulate the entire population of the United States at an impressive level of detail. It includes numerous geographic and social factors that affect infection risk. However, during our conversation I asked about a number of important factors that I believe Epistemix has not incorporated into their model of calculating meeting risks.

Probably the most important of these is adequately modeling the air quality at the event, given the paucity of information available about the safety of specific venues and properties from an air quality perspective. In addition, the model does not include the additive risks for travel to and from an event, and staying in a hotel during an event. Though it’s likely possible to model the increased risk during (unmasked) eating and drinking social activities during the event, it doesn’t appear that the Epistemix model does this. Finally, though the Epistemix model incorporates information about COVID-19 variants as they become known, I’m skeptical that it can accurately predict in a timely manner the impact of brand new COVID-19 variants.

In the following sections, I’ll expand on these issues in more detail.

Flaws and omissions in Epistemix’s meeting model

First, a tiny introduction to modeling human systems. All models are an approximation of reality. Consequently,

All models are wrong, but some are useful
—aphorism generally attributed to the statistician George Box

My model building background

I learned to program computers in high school, over 50 years ago. Through a series of summer jobs, undergraduate and graduate work, and consulting assignments, I’ve spent years creating computer models of city traffic systems, the interactions of high energy particle beams bombarding matter, the consequences of obscure physics theories, and the functions of complicated administrative systems.

Two fundamental considerations when building and trusting computer models are:

  1. The assumptions one makes in building a model are key to the model being actually useful rather than wrong. Computer models are very seductive. They seem precise and authoritative, and it’s hard to discover and accept their limitations and/or even their completely wrong predictions. Choosing the right assumptions is an art, not a science. One poor assumption can doom a model’s reliability.
  2. Even if you choose good assumptions, implementing them correctly in computer code is difficult. It’s hard to be sure that an implementation faithfully reflects core assumptions. An incorrect implementation of a potentially useful model typically leads to incorrect predictions. If you’re lucky, it’s obvious that a model’s outputs are wrong. But sometimes, predictions are subtly wrong in ways that are easy to overlook.

I’m going to assume that Epistemix models faithfully implement the assumptions made to create them (#2 above). However, I’ve identified four factors that I feel Epistemix has not incorporated into their model of calculating meeting risks. Some of these factors are interlinked.

1—Adequately modeling airborne COVID-19 transmission at a specific event

While talking to John, it became clear to me that the current Epistemix approach does not adequately model the air quality—and the consequent risk of COVID-19 transmission—at a specific event. The model has some capacity to estimate risks (which are generally minimal) in very large, high-ceiling spaces like convention halls. But, of course, the typical meeting venue contains multiple meeting spaces, some of them small, and, critically, the venues do not in general have a good handle (if any) on the air quality in those spaces. (Or, if they do, they’re not talking publicly about it.)

When I wrote about this issue six months ago, I put out an industry wide request to learn of venues and properties that had upgraded their HVAC systems to current ASHRAE recommendations (typically ~5 air changes/hour plus MERV 13 or better air filtering). I promised to publicize the venues that had made these upgrades.

I know such upgrades can be costly, but you’d think that venues and properties that have implemented them would love to promote themselves as having air quality that meets current pandemic-based standards.

To date, I have not been told of a single venue that is now compliant with ASHRAE pandemic recommendations. (I hope that by now there are some, and that they will let this be known.) During the webinar, Freeman said that such work has and is being done. Please share this information, folks! Meeting planners want to know!

Frankly, without this information a) being made available and b) being incorporated into the Epistemix model it’s hard to have much confidence in the infection risks Epistemix’s model predicts.

2—Additive risks for travel to and from an event, and staying in a hotel during an event

Epistemix’s model does not include the additive risks for attendees (and staff) traveling to and from an event. The main concern is air travel. The air industry has stressed that air change rates in aircraft are high (over 10 air changes/hour) and, now that masks are mandatory, infection risks should therefore be low. An excellent investigation by the New York Times “How Safe Are You From Covid When You Fly?” has tempered this assessment somewhat. Of particular interest are comments from a couple of readers who monitored the carbon-dioxide level—an excellent proxy for air quality—during their entire travel. They found that boarding and deplaning air quality was drastically reduced, as well as during the last thirty minutes of one person’s flight. Exposure at terminal restaurants, where masks must be removed, is also potentially risky.

Quite apart from the “event” itself, staying in a venue may greatly increase one’s risk of infection. I wrote about venue and property ventilation concerns in detail in April, 2021, and later articles by PCMA (1, 2) and the New York Times (1) have echoed this concern.

Again, travel risks are not included in Epistemix’s model. They can be significant, and have to be included to determine the relative risk for an event attendee who is choosing whether to participate or staff an event, or not.

3—Modeling the increased risk when masks are off for socials and group meals

Most in-person meetings include meals and socials, when masking is not possible. Unless you hold such unmasked get-togethers outdoors or in safely ventilated venues, airborne transmission of COVID-19 amongst everyone present (attendees and staff) is a potentially significant and unknown risk. Outdoor locations are only possible for limited periods in much of the U.S. As mentioned above, venues and properties remain silent on whether they’ve upgraded and certified their facilities to current ASHRAE recommendations on air quality.

We have also seen reports of numerous cases of reduced, unmasked social distancing at socials and meals. This is understandable in a world where we’ve been masked and apart for so long. But it is still a risky activity, especially in spaces where ventilation is inadequate.

My understanding (which may be incorrect) of Epistemix’s model is that masking is a global parameter for an event. The model does not handle unmasking in specific event spaces for periods of time. Even if the model does have this flexibility, the lack of knowledge of whether such spaces are safely ventilated prevents an accurate risk assessment.

4—Can Epistemix model the appearance of brand new COVID-19 variants?

I am also still skeptical that Epistemix can build new variants into the model predictions in a timely fashion, given how the world took about six months after the delta variant was first identified to realize that it was radically changing COVID-19 transmission rates. While Epistemix’s model includes the infection characteristics of multiple variants, and new variants can be added once they are identified, I wonder if an event organizer who made a go/no-go decision about a fall meeting early this summer based on the Epistemix model would be happy about the increased predicted risks once the delta variant was added.

But John and I didn’t have time to fully explore this issue, so this concern may be overblown.

Are in-person events COVID safe?

I really appreciate John Cordier’s willingness to share an overview of Epistemix’s infection risk model for events. Obviously, my brief introduction means there’s no way I can authoritatively review the extensive assumptions that are built into the model. Epistemix’s model is impressively detailed and, if correctly implemented (which I have no reason to doubt), seems to comprehensively cover core demographics, the data needed to model infection spread in regional populations, and most major components for predicting infection at a specific event.

When I brought up the concerns I’ve listed in this post, I felt that John largely talked past me, continuing with an explanation of the model without responding directly to what I was asking. This was somewhat frustrating. The two exceptions to this were:

  1. My question about whether the model could accurately predict in a timely manner the impact of brand new variants. This arose at the end of our meeting. John indicated that he believed the model was able to do this, but we didn’t have enough time to explore this issue fully. I’m still skeptical, though he might well have been able to convince me otherwise if we’d had more time.
  2. My primary concern about modeling air quality in detail. John admitted during the meeting that the model does not currently handle specific venue air quality architecture at the detail that’s necessary to simulate, say, what happens when you have a session in a smaller classroom with an HVAC system that is not up to current ASHRAE recommendations. It also omits risks due to event participants (and staff) spending time in properties that may have inadequate air quality. He wrote to me afterwards that “he’d be glad to follow up on the air-quality parameters that you think are most important”.

I’ve seen so many pretty models of systems over the decades. To a casual viewer, they look impressive. It’s only because I spent years building and validating such models that I know how misleading they can be, and the difficulty and importance of identifying the key factors and approximations that form the basis of the model and limit its scope and/or accuracy.

Leaving out detailed venue specific air quality modeling, plus the incoming and return travel risks and accommodation risks during an event, plus inadequate modeling of the risk of transmission during socials and food & beverage sessions make the outputs of the Epistemix model suspect. And I’m skeptical that Epistemix can build new variants into the model predictions in a timely fashion.

Finally, I haven’t covered in this article the feasibility of implementing the various mitigation strategies that are available to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection at meetings. Personally, I’d insist on proof of vaccination (no exceptions) and maximal masking at any event I’m likely to attend in the near future. But I’ll just add here this observation from the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society‘s HIMSS21 Las Vegas conference for 19,000 attendees. Vaccination was mandatory for all attendees. There were six positive test results (0.03% infarction rate). However, this PCMA article on the event includes the statement:  “…you will not be able to service your show if you require every single vendor employee, every single supplier employee, every single temp employee to be vaccinated — there’s just not enough labor out there.” Something to bear in mind.

Are in-person events COVID safe? Ultimately, each of us needs to decide the answer to this question. But, in my opinion, until the COVID-19 case count drops drastically and/or venues can show that their facility ventilation is safe, it’s a violation of our professional duty of care to mislead attendees and those who work in our industry by telling them “in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store”.

Presentation versus interaction at meetings

What is the mix of presentation versus interaction at your meetings? What should it be?

Traditional meetings focus heavily on presentation. Interaction is limited to a few questions at the end of sessions, plus conversations “outside” the formal sessions. And this has been the norm for hundreds of years.

The written word

Let’s explore the popularity of the written words presentation versus interaction over time. If you do this, using Google Books Ngram Viewer, you’ll notice a curious thing.
presentation versus interaction
In 1804, the earliest year included in the Google Books database, the word interaction barely appears. The word presentation is a hundred times more frequent. Both words slowly become more common over time, but presentation stays predominant. But, in the 1950s, something strange happens. The popularity of interaction abruptly rises. In 1964, interaction becomes more frequently used. It has remained in first place ever since.

Presentation versus interaction at meetings

Society, as reflected by books in English, now talks about interaction about twice as often as presentation. But our meeting designs, in large part, haven’t changed to reflect this shift in cultural awareness. Presenters still rarely incorporate interaction into their sessions, even though there are ample reasons why they should.

Since my first book on participant-driven and participation-rich was published 12 years ago, I’ve been gratified to see how the meeting industry has at least started talking more about the importance of bringing interaction and engagement into meeting sessions. But, despite all the talk, meeting owners and presenters still all too often serve up the same lecture-style sessions that are far less effective and engaging than learning in community through well-designed interactive process.

In the 1960s, we finally began focusing on interaction versus presentation in our culture.

That was half a century ago.

It’s time to practice what we preach.

How to provide new experiences at meetings

new experiences at meetingsHow can we provide new experiences at meetings? Not new F&B, decor, or glitz. Something deeper.

Here’s a story…

A memorial service

Last month, I staffed an online memorial service for E, a friend who died tragically, at age 42, of breast cancer. With over a hundred attendees, most listened as friends and family spoke. When the main service ended, I hosted one of several breakout rooms for those who wanted to stay and talk.

People were allocated to the breakout rooms randomly. A woman in my room looked quite upset, and I asked her how she knew E. She shared that they met each other in high school, and were friends for many years. They eventually drifted apart, and only reconnected when she heard about E’s cancer.

The woman looked really upset. So I asked her if she wanted to tell us more. She burst into tears. “We found out we had breast cancer at the same time, and both went into treatment.” She sobbed harder. And then she cried out, “But I survived. I’m OK.”

We talked a little about her guilt at surviving. We gave her the gift of listening. Afterwards, she looked better, and perhaps she felt a little better too.

New experiences

We gave the woman an opening to share her feelings of guilt. She gained a new experience, one that I think was significant to her.

It was also a significant new experience for me. At the start of the breakout, I had no idea what would happen. I felt happy to be able to give this woman a place to voice her feelings. It’s the kind of work I love to do, my ikigai.

Providing new experiences at meetings can be as simple as this.

Creating environments and opportunities for new experiences to happen.

Fear of new experiences

To an infant, all experiences are new. Rapidly though, as we grow older, experiences repeat and they become comfortable and familiar. It’s tempting to desire to try and relive old, pleasant experiences, rather than seek out new ones. That’s understandable. New experiences can be scary. Not only for the person experiencing them, but also for society. As D.H. Lawrence said a hundred years ago:

“The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything. Because a new experience displaces so many old experiences…The world doesn’t fear a new idea. It can pigeon-hole any idea. But it can’t pigeon-hole a real new experience.”
D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature

This universal fear is the reason the meeting industry continues to struggle with incorporating new experiences into events. Often, we sidestep the issue and tell ourselves that some novel venue, decor, food and beverage, or lighting will provide attendees with “a new experience”.

We choose to forget that magic happens outside one’s comfort zone.

And another opportunity for providing meaningful new experiences at an event is missed.

The alternative? Be brave, and explore and implement the practical suggestions below!

How to provide valuable new experiences at meetings

There’s a simple answer to the question: “How can we provide valuable new experiences at meetings?”

It requires a shift of perspective. At traditional meetings, it’s assumed that the meeting conveners are responsible for specific new experiences. This implies that the attendees are passive receivers of the program. They have no role in its creation. At traditional meeting after meeting, the onus is solely on the conveners to provide valuable new experiences. The temptation is to come up with cosmetic changes that, while possibly entertaining to some degree, do not fundamentally change what happens at the event.

Here’s what to do instead.

Instead of dreaming up changes to the physical environment of the meeting — the F&B, decor, etc. — provide a process environment that supports and encourages appropriate new interpersonal experiences around the content they want and need.

Doing this makes the participants co-creators of experiences that matter to them.

And doing this isn’t hard! I, and many others, have been designing and facilitating such meeting environments for decades. Here are the books I recommend that explain what you need to know and how to implement. And here’s how to make it easier for attendees to risk having new experiences at your event.

If you want to know how well this works, take a look at the randomly chosen comments that participants have made about my events over the last thirty years, and that appear in the sidebar of this blog.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

If I can help you in any way create an environment for new experiences at your meetings, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Original image attribution: Flickr user tauw under CC BY-NC 2.0 license

Lessons learned from online meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic

lessons online meetings COVID-19The Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) has published some useful lessons learned from organizing six online scientific meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is my summary of what I think are the most interesting findings, plus some commentary. All quotes are from the article Virtual Growing Pains: Initial Lessons Learned from Organizing Virtual Workshops, Summits, Conferences, and Networking Events during a Global Pandemic in the Limnology and Oceanography Bulletin. Check it out for full details!

Online meetings improve access and attendance

Clearly, online conferences can make it easier for people to attend who might otherwise not be able to do so:

…participation [at in-person meetings] can favor more privileged scientists (e.g., well-funded, connected, established) while excluding talented but less privileged scientists who may not have available funds or flexible schedules to overcome barriers such as financial resources, travel time, disabilities (De Picker 2020), dependent care responsibilities (Calisi and A Working Group of Mothers in Science 2018), or visa acquisition (Matthews et al. 2020)

Conferences are an important learning and support resource for early career scientists. Online events make it easier for them to attend.

“…a hiatus from scientific meetings would also have come at a cost, especially for early career researchers (ECRs) who rely on scientific meetings to share their work, find career opportunities, and establish a peer cohort that provides emotional, mental, and personal support in addition to professional support.”

But barriers to attending online conferences still remain:

“…the online format removed potential barriers and likely increased participation by peers unable to participate in previous years. Still, some barriers remained, and new barriers arose, such as access to a reliable computer and internet connection, time zone management for conferences with a globally distributed audience, the unexpected energy demand of sustaining online attentiveness (the newly coined term “Zoom fatigue”), and finding time for dependent care as many schools, nurseries, eldercare services, and similar facilities enacted restrictions or limited services as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Nevertheless, attendance at three of the meetings was significantly higher than when previously held in-person. (The three other meetings did not share historical attendance data.)

“Attendance increased 50% over previous successful conferences with a significant portion (40%) of first-time symposium attendees.”

“The in-person meeting was space-limited to 65 participants. The virtual format opened registration to anyone. In total, 205 people had registered to access the workshop materials, with 150 individuals and 110 individuals consistently joining on days 1 and 2, respectively. Instead of the original limit of 15 in-person graduate students, the conference welcomed over 50 graduate and undergraduate students.”

“Initially planned as an in-person, ~ 50-person workshop in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.A., the inaugural workshop took place 18–20 August 2020, virtually over Zoom … In total, 1038 registrants from over 30 countries participated, with individual session attendance in the low-hundreds.”

The full article also describes an overall increase in diversity of attendees at their online conferences. However, expanding presenter diversity wasn’t successful at one of the meetings.

Online platforms and tools used

The six meetings used a variety of online platforms and tools: Zoom (used in every meeting), webex, Voice Thread (used for poster sessions), SlackWhova, Poll Everywhere, QUBES Hub (an online community for STEM activities), Slido, and Google Forms. Attendees were largely happy with these tools, with only a few problems reported. Read the article for details.

There was a general consensus that socializing opportunities online were inferior to in-person meetings. This was despite the use of backchannel communication platforms such as Slack during several of the events.

“Communication software, such as Slack, could not really replace the casual “hallway chats,” but did provide more complete documentation of conversations and a forum that could continue following the meeting.”

None of the meetings used one of the online social platforms I’ve described on this blog (1, 2, 3). I suspect that incorporating such platforms into future conferences would provide a better social experience for participants.

Online program fatigue

Several meetings reported their attendees experienced fatigue:

“Aside from programmatic needs, the community learned that mental and physical fatigue are inherent to both in-person and virtual formats. Much like an in-person, session-packed meeting, virtual meetings occurring for long hours, across multiple time zones can drain energy. Although a virtual format may more easily afford attendees the chance to “log-off” from the meeting, building in diverse events, such as social hours, breakout or working group sessions, and mixed presentation formats are crucial to prevent attendees from logging off too often or feeling drained by a meeting.”

I’ve written about how frequent scheduled breaks will help minimize online meeting fatigue. Some of the meetings reported that distributing their typical in-person program over a longer time period (e.g., a few hours per day over several days) helped reduce fatigue and maintain attendance.

Closed-captioning content

Three of the meetings added closed-captioning to pre-recorded talks, and attendees found this helpful. One of the report’s conclusions:

“Closed-captioning content benefits many, especially non-native English speakers.”

When online meetings use prerecorded videos, adding closed-captioning is an easy way to improve the viewing experience. Hopefully, real-time closed-captioning will become more accurate, affordable, and common in the future.

Hybrid meetings in the future

Several of the meeting groups expect to hold hybrid meetings in the future:

“GLEON is increasingly aware of barriers for meeting attendance, despite a long running sponsorship program. Hence, some form of a hybrid style meeting may offer the best way forward.”

“Hybrid models tailored to a specific society’s resources and needs could incorporate components of both the in-person and virtual experiences. One variant could be offering both the in-person and virtual components simultaneously, allowing attendees, who are not able or willing to travel, to partake in in-person sessions and panels through video-conferencing software. Here, an alternative hybrid form could consist of regional in-person meetings, to minimize travel, while still being connected to other regional meeting hubs via a shared online program. Another hybrid model could be re-envisioning the in-person conference altogether, where traditional presentation and poster sessions are conducted virtually, and a companion, asynchronous in-person conference parallels the themes of the virtual meeting but with a focus on working groups, networking, and research products.”

Although many attendees hoped to return to in-person conferences, they generally agreed that online meetings have shown their value and will remain an important option for future meetings.

Conclusion

Some of these insights may be familiar, some less so. Let’s thank the numerous scientists who took time to share lessons learned from holding online meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic! Such information is helpful to everyone working to make meetings better.

Image attribution: composite image created from images in Volume 30, Issue 1 of the Limnology and Oceanography Bulletin.

Achieve success one small step at a time

achieve success one small step
I’ve written frequently about facilitating change. Despite attempting to practice what I preach, I still sometimes fail to create a desired change in my life. Here are two recent examples that led me to realize that I need to achieve success one small step at a time.

1) Meditation and gratitude practice

For 25 years, I’ve been a member of a small local consultants group that meets monthly. Recently I’ve been facilitating a set of meetings to work on changes we want to make in our lives. This involves figuring out what they are, and supporting each other in making these changes a reality.

To model the process, I went through it myself first with our group. Two of the changes I wish to make are maintaining a daily meditation practice (something I’ve been struggling with for years), and creating a daily gratitude practice.

My group made two good suggestions for creating these desired changes:

  1. To maintain my daily meditation practice, I committed to meditating for a minimum of five minutes per day without fail. This is much shorter than my old time goal. I also gained a group buddy who wanted to meditate more frequently. We would send each other an email when we’d completed our daily meditation, helping us to keep on track.
  2. For a gratitude practice, I decided to write down daily three things for which I was grateful. I found some small cards and a box for them, and kept these on my desk.

I have been able to faithfully maintain my meditation practice since our last group meeting. Hopefully, this change will become a habit for me. However, I started to miss days for the gratitude practice. This was a little upsetting, and I kept trying, unsuccessfully, to get back on track.

I realized that attempting to make both changes simultaneously was a barrier to complete success. So I’ve dropped the gratitude practice writing. (I still try to notice moments for gratitude when they arise, and I’m getting better at this.)

My goal now is to work on maintaining my daily meditation practice until it becomes a solid and permanent change. At some point I may increase the minimum time I meditate. Once I feel secure in this change, I will begin work on maintaining a daily gratitude practice.

One success out of two is an improvement! One small step at a time.

2) Tying my shoes

Don’t laugh! OK, laugh if you want; I don’t mind.

My physical therapist recently showed me a cool new way to tie my shoes. (If you don’t want to learn it, feel free to skip the next bit.) When I was a kid, my mum taught me the most common method, as shown in the first 30 seconds of this video.

one small step

The above knot is easy to untie by pulling either lace end. However, over the years, I found that it would occasionally unexpectedly untie. So I added tying the two loops in a half knot. The resulting knot doesn’t spontaneously untie, but you can’t just pull a lace end to untie your shoe; you have to untie the half knot first.

Last month, while fitting some orthotics into my brand new running shoes, my physical therapist saw how I was tying my shoes. She suggested a better method, with one extra step. Watch it in the second half of the same video.

Changing something I’ve done the same way for 60+ years isn’t a piece of cake. But I found it fairly easy to get in the habit of tying the thick laces in my running shoes the new way.

However, the skinny laces in my everyday sneakers are another matter. For some reason, it’s much harder for me to add the extra step with these laces. I got frustrated trying to tie my sneakers in the new way, and it was affecting my running shoe tying muscle memory.

So, instead of trying to make the change in two different places, I decided to give up the new method for my sneakers. Using the new method, but only to my running shoes, is becoming more and more automatic. And I have no problem staying with my childhood method for my sneakers.

Over time, I hope that typing my running shoes the new way will become completely automatic. I’ll have successfully made one small change. Then it will be time for me to work on adding the change to tying my sneakers, achieving success one small step at a time.

Jerry Weinberg’s take

I’ve learned so much from my late mentor Jerry Weinberg. And he had something to say about achieving success one small step at a time. Jerry was a consultant to Ford on the ill-fated Edsel. As he recalls in his jewel of a book, The Secrets of Consulting, the Edsel project was a great triumph. Ford “…installed some terrific new computer systems that ultimately were adopted by the entire auto industry.”

What Jerry realized, twenty-five years later, was that the Edsel was a flop because Ford, scared of all the “better ideas” put all of them into one car. “That approach guarantees that even if each one of the individual ideas is terrific, the result will be a debacle.”

From this experience he derived The Edsel Edict.

“If you must have something new, take one, not two.”

In other words, achieve success one small step at a time.

One small step

Have you tried to make changes in your life and, like me, sometimes failed? Perhaps reducing the number of simultaneous changes you attempt may help you achieve success one small step at a time.

Image “one step behind” by Andreas Schalk under CC BY 2.0 license

It’s not an entrance it’s a layer

At a Marlboro Music Festival rehearsal last week, I heard the words entrance and layer used in a single sentence. And it made me think about meeting design.

entrance layer
Marcy Rosen, right, leads a rehearsal

The rehearsal

On August 8, my wife and I attended a rehearsal of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132 at the 2021 Marlboro Music Festival. Such free rehearsals give the casual audience an opportunity to hear world-class musicians play and learn together. They are very different from a formal concert, and surprisingly, in some ways, better!

After the start of (I think) the third movement, the players stopped, and I heard the cellist Marcy Rosen — “one of the intimate art’s abiding treasures” — say:

“It’s not an entrance, it’s a layer.”
—Cellist Marcy Rosen

They began again.

I heard the difference.

Instead of creating a transition, an entrance to the movement, they created a shimmering context, a layer.

And, me being me, I thought about what Marcy had just said in the context of meeting design.

It’s not an entrance it’s a layer

As spectators, our lives are full of transitions.

And meetings are no exception.

The session ends. A social begins. A chime marks the end of hallway conversations, and we walk to another room to listen to someone else.

When we’re spectators, we notice transitions.

But when we are fully engaged in a meeting, we are just there, immersed in and responding to what is happening. We aren’t looking at our watches or phones. We aren’t thinking about where we’ll go for lunch. Instead, we are in the moment, living in a layer of context.

The art and craft of the meeting designer

It’s a meeting designer’s job to create these contextual layers. Each layer is an environment that supports and enables full participation in and active experience of what’s going on.

A good example of a key meeting layer is safety.

A layer of safety

We don’t hold meetings in burning buildings, on rapidly melting ice floes, or in the middle of a sandstorm. Attendees want to feel safe. But even when our meeting venues are conventionally safe places, they may not feel emotionally safe for attendees to participate in what is going on.

A good meeting designer and facilitator knows this, and designs to create and support emotional safety for participants. For example, they may model participation throughout the event, and allow participants to opt out of any activity. They can also create a culture of listening, obtain agreement on group-wide covenants, strive to give clear instructions, and provide process that is comfortable for introverts.

Designs that incorporate optimal protective process provide an important layer of safety that maximizes participants’ levels of comfort and their readiness to participate in the event.

Other important layers at a meeting

Other important process layers at a meeting include:

  • Incorporating event crowdsourcing which allows participants to design the event and sessions they want and need; and
  • The design of the conference arc, which includes everything necessary for participants to discover, learn, connect, and engage around the topics or issues that brought them together.

And the traditional layers that professional meeting planners provide:

  • Consistent quality of service and experience, e.g., food and beverage, decor, and production;
  • Reliable, timely, and clear information about the program, sessions, meals, exhibits, and socials.
  • A comfortable physical environment throughout the event.

Focus on layers as well as transitions

Sometime, meeting stakeholders concentrate on the transitions at meetings at the expense of the layers. It’s tempting to focus on creating dramatic build-ups to peak moments, or how we will then move participants to an outdoor social. While a session or social is taking place, we may get a little breathing space. Our planning energy switches to preparing for the next transition.

Of courser, transitions during a meeting are both unavoidable and important. But unduly focusing on them at your event can lead planners to overlook the value of creating an environment that powerfully engages participants and builds significant connections between them.

By also focusing on the meeting layers I’ve identified above, you’ll create an improved environment that will amplify value for participants and stakeholders throughout and after your event.

Image attribution: Journal Register Co.

Good meeting design is cheaper than special effects

good meeting designFar too much money is spent on meeting glitz at the expense of good meeting design. Seth Godin makes an analogous point in this post…

Good writing is cheaper than special effects

“In movies, that’s obvious. It costs far less to make The Big Lebowski than a Marvel movie.

But the metaphor applies to just about any sort of creative project.

We often err on the side of ‘special effects’. It’s easier to staff it up, to spend the money…

…But the race to spend more and more on special effects…it might be worth more to take the time and invest the effort to design something great instead.”
Seth Godin, Good writing is cheaper than special effects

“There’s no budget”

I’ve noticed over the years that every meeting has a budget for F&B. There’s usually a budget for decor and production—sometimes a big budget. There’s often a budget for a dramatic big-name speaker or two. If you ask about a budget for event design, stakeholders think you’re talking about decor and drama. But “there’s no budget” for core event design, which is actually about designing great meeting process. Meeting conveners have a blind spot about the importance of meeting process design: what happens for stakeholders at their meeting.

It turns out that designing good process into your meeting is cheaper than paying for special effects. For the price of a coffee break, you can make an event fundamentally better by significantly improving the realization of its purpose and its impact on participants. Learn how to do this from my books, from the hundreds of articles on this blog, or get in touch!

[P.S. In case you’re wondering, I fed the two words “meeting design” to an AI program, which generated the animated image accompanying this post.]