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”.

The four meeting professionals you meet in heaven

essential characteristics meeting professionals

The essential characteristics of meeting professionals

If there is a heaven on earth in the event industry, there are four essential characteristics of successful meeting professionals you’ll meet there.

These four characteristics are essential because event professionals who possess and embrace them have what’s needed to thrive in our industry. And, perhaps even more important, they will love what they do.

Attention to detail

essential characteristics meeting professionals
Every successful meeting involves thinking about, planning for and executing countless details. You can create the most original, beautiful event in the world, but if there’s no coffee available on the first morning, attendees are going to complain and remember. Late buses, missing or confusing signage, poor quality A/V, and a thousand other annoyances will mar an otherwise superb event.

Details matter.

So, good meeting professionals obsess about details. Obviously, we make big detailed lists about things that are supposed to happen. But we also think about details of things that could happen. We even think about circumstances that are very unlikely—but they have happened before, so we keep them in mind. We plan for planned and unexpected eventualities.

Good event professionals are seldom late, because they hate to be late. Our lives are sometimes crazy, but we mostly have things together. (Even when they’re not, we have plans on how we’re going to get back on track.) The one career my parents tentatively suggested to me I might want to consider was…wait for it…accountancy. Because they could see I was a detail person.

We are detail people. Paying attention to details is vital to create and execute successful events. It’s an essential characteristic for meeting professionals. But attention to detail is not enough…

Creativity when things don’t go according to plan

essential characteristics meeting professionals
Any experienced meeting professional will tell you that the chances that everything will go according to plan A — what was supposed to happen — for an event is minuscule.

That’s why good event professionals have plans B, C, D… that cover the things that they know from experience might go wrong.

Many times, when things don’t go according to plan A, a backup plan is put into place, and the event goes on smoothly (at least as far as the participants are concerned).

And then there are the times when something completely unexpected happens. The wrong winner for Best Picture gets announced at the Oscars. A hurricane prevents timely delivery of your beautiful signage. A Thanksgiving Day Parade giant Barney balloon explodes.

A pandemic.

However much we plan, experienced event professionals know that completely unexpected “stuff” will happen.

And that’s why good event professionals need to be creative when things don’t go according to (any) plan.

It’s not a coincidence that a surprising number of folks in the meeting industry have a theatrical background. Live theater, whether you’re on or behind the stage, provides a nightly opportunity for things to go wrong; things that need to be fixed or smoothed over right now. The show must go on.

I am rarely responsible for the logistics of the meetings I design or facilitate. And I have been awed and impressed by the creative solutions devised by the poor souls who are responsible in the moment for fixing something out of kilter. I’ve surprised myself with the creative approaches that popped into my head when a session I was facilitating went wonky. But the brilliant ways I’ve seen event professionals respond when faced with the unexpected — well, I’m glad it wasn’t me in charge.

Attention to detail, and the creative ability to solve unexpected problems get you a long way towards being a great event professional. But there’s more…

Great communication skills


I’m indebted to veteran event professional Dan Cormany for adding “great communication skills” to this set. He was kind enough to tell me I possessed this quality when I spoke to a class he was teaching at the Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management. He also said he thought it was essential for good meeting professionals.

I agree.

To have great communication skills, you need to be able to listen well, and have empathy for the people you’re with. You have to pick up on the verbal and non-verbal clues they provide about how your conversation is going. And you need to be able to respond appropriately, in ways they can hear you. People have written books about how to do this. It’s a difficult skill, but one that can always be improved with practice.

And it’s a great skill that will positively impact every aspect of your life.

I’m still working on it.

We’re almost there, but there’s one more characteristic that is, in my opinion, the most important of all…

Love being with people


If you don’t love being with people, all sorts of people, it’s going to be hard to be a great event professional.

Yes, everyone is flawed. We all have personality aspects that are sometimes hard for others to deal with. And there are people around whom it’s best to avoid, if you have a choice.

Although many meeting professionals are extraverts who get energy from interacting with others, there are many who need introvert-style downtime in their lives (including, during meetings). Regardless, both extraverts and introverts can love being with people.

Our industry, by definition, is people-centric. People can be amazing, frustrating, fascinating, challenging, delightful, and, once in a while, frightful. Good event professionals are capable of finding and connecting with the positive aspects of even the most difficult folks they meet. And, yes, loving them as people, even in the midst of turmoil.

I try to do this.

I don’t always succeed, but, nevertheless, my heart is there. And I know many great meeting professionals who strive to wear on their sleeve how they love being with people.

Yay for us!

My journey is our journey

Twenty years ago I was a successful, independent information technology consultant. If you had told me then that I’d leave that career (my fourth) to write a book about meeting design that would catapult me into the heart of the meeting industry, I’d have said you were crazy.

What has surprised me during this journey is meeting so many meeting professionals I like along the way. Those of you who are passionate and committed to this industry will know what I mean. I am like you, and I like you, because we share the fundamental joy of the experience of bringing people together in ways that work.

We don’t usually enjoy all the backbreaking preparation needed to make the meeting happen. It’s the excitement and pleasure we get from creating a great experience for people, in the moment, that makes it all worthwhile.

You folks who share this joy with me are my tribe. We are lucky to be in this heaven on earth community of meeting professionals.

I’m glad I know some of you, and am always happy to meet more. Feel free to reach out to me if you feel the same way.

Do you agree with this set of qualities? Are there other essential characteristics of meeting professionals you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Why people continue to speak for free at meeting industry conferences

speaking for freeWhy people continue to speak for free at meeting industry conferences: Another issue of an occasional series—Dear Adrianin which I answer questions about event design, elementary particle physics, solar hot water systems, and anything else I might conceivably know something about. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please write to me (don’t worry, I won’t publish anything without your permission).

My post Why don’t meeting conferences pay speakers? has attracted attention since I wrote it 9 years ago. Patty Boyd recently posted the following comment:

“I agree that the willingness of some people to speak for free is the biggest hurdle to fixing this problem. If people agree to speak for free, then why would the organizers change their practice?”

Here’s my response:


Dear Patty,

There will always be two sets of people willing to speak for free:

Newbies

There will be newbies, attempting to create a speaking resume so they can up their credibility and, hopefully, eventually get paying gigs. I have no problem with people doing this — all veterans were newbies once. But of course, by definition, the meeting gets someone with:

  • little or no speaking experience;
  • no track record; and
  • an unknown level of expertise.

That may be great for the budget of the meeting organizers, but these are not necessarily the best people to put in front of a paying audience.

Industry providers of goods and services

The other folks willing to speak for free are industry providers of goods and services, who may well have already paid to be at the event to staff their trade show booth or meet customers. They already have a financial incentive and justification to attend, and presenting a session gives them the opportunity to spread knowledge of their existence to potential paying customers. Some of these people are great and don’t promote their company. In my experience, most of them are so-so presenters. In addition, we’ve all had to sit through “speakers” who blatantly promote themselves and their companies on our dime and time.

This group has become far more common at meeting industry conferences over the years. Ten years ago, even when I had just started to present on meeting industry topics, organizations routinely offered fees and reimbursement of expenses. A review of meeting industry conference programs over the last five years confirms a significant trend to supplier-employed speakers, plus a few folks from the meeting industry association itself. Generally, the only speakers who get paid are the “big names” — often “outside” speakers with dubious and transitory value to meeting professionals — whom the association uses to trumpet how wonderful their meeting is.

My experience— and a tip

Currently, I receive several weekly requests to present for free. (That’s despite having been voted one of the top 100 most influential people in the event industry in global polls for the last two years.) Sadly, unless I am unusually interested in presenting at the event, I don’t even bother to respond any more. I know from years of experience that asking for payment will invariably be met with some kind of embarrassed excuse.

[Tip: If you’re reading this, and want to get someone like me to speak at your meeting, try including what you will offer for fee and expense reimbursement in your initial request. Initial offers of payment are so rare, your inquiry will immediately rise to the top of my pile.]

My take

For the reasons given above, it’s unrealistic to expect that a supply of “free” speakers will ever disappear. As usual, you get what you pay for. When you pack your program with free speakers, it’s your attendees who suffer. However, in my experience, meeting organizations don’t seem to care these days.

P.S.

Actually, there is a third group of people who speak for free. I belong to this group, as do many of my colleagues.

I’m referring, of course, to pro bono speaking. Giving back to our meeting industry community is important and it feels good. I am always open to presentation opportunities for organizations that clearly have no source of funding for speaker reimbursement. (Which does not mean that they have a budget with a zero line item for speaking fees and expenses.)

In my case, I currently have a standing invitation for event and hospitality teachers to meet online with their classes for free. I’ve enjoyed multiple opportunities to meet and connect with current and future meeting industry professionals, and look forward to more!

If you have valuable material to share with our industry, please consider pro bono engagements when they fit for you.

The meeting industry new normal — Part 2

meeting industry new normalThe meeting industry old normal is over, and many event professionals are hoping and waiting for a new normal. [See Part 1 of this post for an introduction to this point of view.]

What will the meeting industry new normal look like?

One silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic, horrendous though its cost has been, is that it has forced us to think differently. In a July 2020 New Yorker articleGianna Pomata, a professor of the history of medicine, “compared COVID-19 to the bubonic plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century—’not in the number of dead but in terms of shaking up the way people think.'” But the effects of these two plagues were remarkably different. (For example, the Black Death increased the power of workers because labor was scarce. In contrast, COVID-19 has forced millions of low-paid workers further into poverty.)

The meeting industry old normal

For centuries, the meeting industry has believed that the “best” and “most important” meetings are those conducted face-to-face. For most of human history, of course, this has been the only meeting option. Technology has slowly made inroads on this assumption, with the development of the telephone, the conference call, video chat, etc. Each new technology has taken away a little piece of the need to meet in person under certain favorable conditions.

The meeting industry new normal

In 2020, we have been forced to think differently. Historians regard the devastation of the bubonic plague as the end of the Middle Ages. Similarly, I think that COVID-19 will turn out to mark the beginning of the end of in-person meetings as the bread and butter of the meeting industry.

What will a new normal for the meeting industry look like? There’s no way we can know. Why? Because the future of meetings is no longer tied to the old paradigms we’ve assumed ever since the first official “conference” was held in 1666. (See my book Conferences That Work for the details.) There has been no new normal since the end of the thousand-year reign of the Middle Ages. Similarly, the forced rise of online meetings has moved us into uncharted and unpredictable territory.

The meeting industry is now, perhaps, in what the founder of VISA, Dee Hoc, called the Chaordic Age. In Dave Snowden‘s Cynefin framework, the meeting industry, formerly rooted in the obvious and complicated domains, has now moved into the complex domain. To solve problems in the complex domain, experiments need to be conducted in order to determine what to do.

One thing to learn from history and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the meeting industry? Don’t waste your time pining for or hoping for a static meeting industry new normal.

Next practices, not best practices

In other words, this is a time for next practices not best practices. Our industry needs to experiment to discover what works and what doesn’t.

This is proving to be difficult.

Even pre-pandemic, it was risky to try new meeting ideas, because our clients, understandably, want successful events. Taking risks increases the chances of failure.

Today, with the current collapse of in-person meetings, it’s harder to find the resources, margins, and willing clients we once had, in order to conduct experiments.

Yet our industry must find the resources, courage, and willingness, to experiment with new ways of convening and meeting formats that respond to these new challenges. We are all suffering now. Those who continue to shoehorn what they used to do into our current pandemic and future post-pandemic environment will continue to suffer.

I’m encouraged that our industry is indeed experimenting with a variety of new platforms, marketing and pricing models, and meeting formats. One of the most interesting and welcome developments is the rapid growth of new platforms (1, 2) that provide online incarnations of traditional conference in-person socials. I see them as game-changers for online events, replacing the hallway conversations that have always been an essential and undervalued component of traditional meetings.

We are living in unprecedented times. Experimenting with new approaches to designing and convening meetings is essential. What may be even harder is discovering what works and adopting it, rather than staying locked in the old comfortable ways of making meetings. Meetings will continue to occur, and the meeting industry will survive. But don’t passively buy into the myth of a new meeting industry normal. That is, if you want to remain a player in one of the most important industries the human race has created.

The meeting industry new normal — Part 1

meeting industry new normal
Many event professionals are hoping and waiting for a meeting industry new normal. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated our businesses. We want to believe that, at some point, in-person meetings like the ones we’ve held for decades will return.

Yes, there are a few world regions where cases of infection are currently very low. Such areas are already holding local in-person events, but safe inter-regional meetings are not possible. Even in these places, the meeting industry is not back to the “old” normal.

Some industry members have been trying mightily to claim that useful in-person meetings can occur during this pandemic if we take severe precautions, which include social distancing and face mask use. I have written earlier why I believe that the vast majority of meetings produced under these conditions, even if they are executed flawlessly from a safety standpoint, are not worth attending.

And, as we’ll see, there will not be a meeting industry new normal.

Let’s think this through.

An optimistic scenario for a meeting industry old normal

Suppose that everything goes as well as possible in the global fight against the coronavirus. Three fundamental things have to happen.

1) Scientists develop a safe, inexpensive, effective vaccine.

If we’re really lucky, we’ll have a safe, inexpensive, effective vaccine some time before the end of 2021 (remember, testing takes time).

2) The world mobilizes to provide the vaccine rapidly to a large proportion of the global population.

Optimistic forecasts say this could take place over 12 – 18 months. Presumably, in-person events during this period could become feasible for those who had received the vaccine. Of course, for this to happen safely, everyone involved in the event — attendees, staff, hospitality workers, and transportation personnel — must be vaccinated. Given that vaccine availability will be limited during the production ramp up, we should not assume that in-person events would quickly become feasible.

3) We overcome conspiracy-theory induced fear of vaccination.

We are in the golden age of anti-vaccine conspiracies. Creating herd immunity to COVID-19 requires overcoming such anti-scientific mindsets in a large majority of the world population. Currently we don’t know if this is even possible. Without herd immunity, leading to the virtual extinction of COVID-19, the pandemic will drag on for a long time.

Accepting the above implies that, at best, we will not be able to substantially resume old normal in-person meetings until some time in 2022.

That means we will have two or more years without substantive numbers of interregional in-person meetings.

What will happen in the world of meetings during these two or more years?

Obviously, we have already seen a sudden, unexpected, and massive shift to online events.

All of us, save perhaps the most introvert, bemoan and mourn the loss of meeting in person. We love to complain about the blandness and limitations of online meetings.

Yet, during my experiences of hundreds of online meetings over the last seven months, I’ve noticed some surprising and unexpected developments.

1) It’s possible to significantly improve the quality of online meetings from dreary webinar formats. This is starting to happen.

It turns out that, for online events it’s easy to adapt most of the in-person meeting and session participant-driven and participation-rich formats I and others have developed over the last two decades. Many meeting conveners, responding to the deadliness of watching talking heads for hours a day, are learning how to create interactive online events that maintain attendee interest, improve learning, and build connection between participants.

Over the next two years, the quality of online meeting process will improve. This will make online options more attractive to meeting conveners than they were pre-pandemic.

2) Clearly beneficial meetings that simply would not have been held formerly in-person are taking place online.

Specifically, there has been a large increase in online meetings that support the wants and needs of communities of practice. In the past, these groups, with members typically widely separated geographically, would meet occasionally in-person, if at all.

It’s much easier and attractive for busy workers to attend short, regular, and well-focused and designed online meetings of their professional community than to set aside several days once or twice a year for travel to an in-person event. As a result, I am seeing significant growth of regularly scheduled online meetings for communities. Some of these communities are brand new. Starting them by meeting online is less of a barrier than all the work required and risk involved creating new in-person conferences with unpredictable initial attendance.

Many of these meetings will continue post-pandemic. Some will replace former in-person meetings.

3) The meeting industry is investigating and planning to adopt hybrid meeting formats more than ever before.

By the time the COVID-19 pandemic is (hopefully) over, everyone will be familiar with attending meetings online. Any post-pandemic meeting is, therefore, likely to have an online component, and will use one of the two core hybrid meeting formats. Whatever mix of traditional versus hub-and-spoke hybrid is adopted, we can be sure that there will be fewer old normal 100% in-person meetings.

Like what you read so far? Read Part 2 of this post, where I conclude my explanation why there will not be a meeting industry new normal.

How eventprofs are feeling during COVID-19

eventprofs feeling during COVID-19How are eventprofs feeling during COVID-19? Over the past few weeks in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, I’ve listened to hundreds of people share their feelings at online meetings I’ve led and joined. Though everyone’s response has been unique, three distinct sets of emotions stand out. Here they are, from the perspective of the many meeting professionals I’ve heard.

Anxious

eventprofs feeling during COVID-19I estimate that about 85% of the event professionals I listened to shared feelings of fear, compared to about 65% of the general population. The most common description I heard was anxiety/anxious. But strong expressions like “scared”, “terrified”, and “very worried” were more common than I expected (~5-10%).

This is hardly surprising. Every event professional who spoke had lost essentially all their short-term work and event-related income. In some cases, they were attempting under extreme time and resource pressures to move meetings online. The meeting industry has been struggling for years to understand and develop online meeting models that provide traditional face-to-face meetings’ desired outcomes and are both technically and financially feasible. To have to pivot to such modalities overnight — assuming they are even feasible for the specific meetings in question — is having a huge impact on every aspect of the meeting industry.

When your present circumstances and potential future dramatically change, feeling fear is a normal and healthy response. And fear of anticipated upsetting change leads to the next set of emotions…

Unsettled

eventprofs feeling during COVID-19About half of event professionals, and slightly less of everyone I heard, shared feeling unsettled. “Unsettled” is a mixture of fear and sadness we may feel when we experience the world as less predictable and our sense of control or comfort with our circumstances reduced.

Feeling unsettled is a natural response to perceived chaos, as illuminated by Virginia Satir‘s change model.

Above is a diagram of Satir’s model of change. An old status quo (the event industry before COVID-19) is disrupted by a foreign element (the COVID-19 pandemic). Then we begin to live in chaos, and do not know what will happen next. This provokes our feeling unsettled. Such chaos continues for an unknown period of time. Eventually, a transforming idea or event (in this case, for example, perhaps the development of a vaccine) allows a period transition away from chaos towards a new status quo (hopefully, a post-pandemic world).

Hopeful

eventprofs feeling during COVID-19I was surprised that about half of the general populace mentioned feeling some form of hopefulness about their current situation. Event professionals were far less likely to share feeling this way. This discrepancy is probably because some of the non-event industry people were retirees, and others have escaped significant professional impact.

It makes sense to me that meeting professionals aren’t feeling especially hopeful right now. If/when the chaos and destruction of the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, we don’t know how much delay there will be before face-to-face events are scheduled and run. And we also don’t know how our industry will change for good, and what our new roles in it will be.

My experience

These days, I feel all the above emotions (though not all at the same time 😀). Clients have cancelled all my short-term design and facilitation work. I love to facilitate connection, and feel sad at not having face-to-face interactions with clients and meeting participants. I am anxious about the health of my family and myself, and unsettled about an unknown future for my personal and professional life.

Yet I am also hopeful.

I have reached out to connect in real-time online. Although I have created and facilitated hundred of online meetings over the last ten years (from the days when video chat was a buggy and bandwidth-limited experience) I am continuing to learn more about facilitating connection around relevant content online. And I’m thinking about how online meetings can be significantly improved, using technology to create better implementations of the many in-person participation techniques I’ve developed and championed for decades.

What’s your experience of how eventprofs are feeling during COVID-19?

Please share your own experience and what you’ve heard from others in the comments below!

The corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industry

The corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industry

Let’s talk about the corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industry.

Our industry is abuzz about the news of Marriott’s decision to cut third-party commissions for group bookings by thirty percent. And the response has been “harsh“, especially because of the extremely short notice (it will be going into effect on March 31, 2018) and once it became known that four large site selection firms would be “granted a temporary exception“.

Marriott’s announcement sparked the potential of a commission war (some independent properties are raising group booking commissions). It led to fear of further reductions or elimination of commissions by other suppliers in the future. Taking a wider view, let’s talk about the corrosive effect of commissions on the meeting industry.

(I think the following points are pertinent to any industry that pays commissions, but that’s a topic for another post.)

Why are group booking commissions “corrosive”?

Let’s go back to basics. When a supplier pays an independent agent commission on a group booking, the agent benefits financially. This financial transaction does not directly involve the agent’s client (who may not even be aware of it). The agent, then, is not depending solely on client fees for income.

Who is the agent’s customer? Ideally it would be 100% the client. From the client’s point of view, the agent’s job is to find the venue that best meets the client’s needs. But when commissions enter the picture, the question arises as to whether the commission-paying supplier is now the customer too. After all, the agent provides a service (a sale!) for the venue — and receives payment for it. And that leads to concerns that should be on the mind of any client who is aware of that commissions will be paid. Did my agent steer me to this property because they stand to make money from recommending it, rather than because it’s the best choice for me? Can I continue to trust this agent to act in my best interests?

Remember one of Jerry Weinberg’s ten laws of trust: “Trust takes years to win, moments to lose.

The real-estate industry, which works solely on commission, is upfront about brokerage commission fees, which, though sometimes negotiable, are typically uniform and clearly included in client-broker contracts. The meeting industry does not generally match such levels of uniformity or transparency. For example, I often negotiate with non-traditional meeting venues. None of them have ever offered me a commission (and I would have been surprised and declined if they had). In my experience, commissions can range between 0 – 15%.

Of course, experienced clients are aware of the existence of commissions, and ethical agents disclose them. Nevertheless, commissions tie intermediaries to vendors who pay them, obscure financial transparency. Commissions muddy the waters as to whether the agent is solely acting in the client’s best interest. A naive client may see an agent receiving commissions as less expensive than one who is totally fee-based.

To summarize, group booking commissions are corrosive because they reduce clients’ trust in the impartiality of meeting planners, and they hide and/or distort the financial considerations underlying a booking.

Why trade associations are silent

Compared to the strong response from independent planners, trade associations have been “largely silent” to the Marriott announcement. The few official responses provide excellent examples of how to issue a statement that says nothing substantial.

This is not surprising, due to the financial model adopted by these associations. Kyle Hillman points out that it relies on supplier financial support to an extent that they will not say anything that might offend suppliers.

“…stop looking to the trade associations for help. It isn’t that they are bad, they are just not setup to be independent voices here. Their entire financial structure is based on supplier funding. No matter how egregious a situation is for planners or industry professionals, they can’t get involved without risking their primary revenue source. On internal issues within the industry – trade associations are not our advocates…”

“…I think we romanticize MPI, PCMA, ASAE as our champions when that isn’t their role. Their role is to provide enough value to members so that they can facilitate sellers soliciting their goods. They were never designed to be advocates for buyers.”
Kyle Hillman, Facebook Industry Friends Group

As a side observation, at least MPI and PCMA do not claim that they only represent meeting planners, but ASAE — the American Society of Association Executives — does not have that excuse if its name correctly portrays the people they claim to represent!

For this article I researched the relative numbers of buyer versus supplier memberships at MPI, PCMA, and ASAE but found nothing on their websites (feel free to share in the comments if you know). And unfortunately, these organizations’ annual 990’s do not break out buyer versus supplier support, though the program income figures are interesting and shown below {the 2015 returns are the most recent I could access}.

corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industry
ASAE 2015 program income

corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industry
MPI 2015 program income

PCMA 2015 program income

Regardless, intermediaries have no major association to represent their collective concerns. (Senior Planners Industry Network {SPIN} has published a petition demanding equal commissions from Marriott for all intermediaries.)

Corrosive conclusion

The upheaval caused by Marriott’s abrupt unilateral decision to slash intermediary commissions has created consternation for third-parties who have relied on these commissions for a portion of their income. Is this is the beginning of a trend like the one begun in 1995 when airlines capped and eventually cut commissions to travel agents? We can, however, take some encouraging lessons from the travel agent industry which, in response, reinvented its business models and, though the number of agencies has shrunk by two-thirds, is perhaps the healthiest it has been in years.

Paradoxically, those intermediaries who work solely on a fee-basis and do not rely on venue commissions are in a good position to increase their business as a result of Marriott’s decision, compared to other agents who may now need to find additional revenue sources, or perhaps even leave what is a demanding and difficult business. Ultimately, intermediaries relying less on commissions’ contribution to the bottom line will reduce the corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industry.

Reassuring news for event professionals from WillRobotsTakeMyJob.com

Reassuring news for event professionalsHere’s some reassuring news for event professionals from WillRobotsTakeMyJob.com. Our “Automated Risk Level” is “Totally Safe”. And the industry is projected to grow over time. Even so, there are some ominous clouds on the horizon, and one usually needs to take predictions about the future with a large pinch of salt.

I have other concerns. In the future, I think we’ll see more meetings move online. That will have an impact on the hospitality industry (no room nights, no F&B, and no travel) and, perhaps, reduce the number of event production staff.

Anyway, I hope this prediction’s right.  We’ll see!

Is paid influencer marketing ethical in the event industry?

paid influencer marketing

Is paid influencer marketing ethical in the meeting industry?

Paid influencer marketing is spreading to the event industry, and I doubt that it’s an ethical practice.

I receive a voice mail

Last week I received the following voice mail (identifying details bleeped; transcript below.)

Hi Adrian, my name is _____, I work for an influence marketing agency _____, and I’m reaching out to you this afternoon about an opportunity with _____, who is one of our clients, and I know you are an influencer in the meeting/event/conference planning sphere which is the focus of this campaign with _____  and we’re just hoping to have you involved in this campaign: involves a blog post, some social posting, hopefully a visit to the property with a bit of filming. If you’re interested in more details I would love to chat with you; my phone number is _____. Thanks, and looking forward to talking to you soon; bye bye.”

I quickly learned that the agency called other event professionals with the same pitch. One of them, whom I’ll call InfluentialEventProf, forwarded me an email with more details of how the “opportunity” would work (identifying details replaced with generic terms):

An email pitch

From: YYY@InfluenceMarketingCompany.com
To: InfluentialEventProf@InfluentialEventProfDomain.com
Sent: 9/8/2016
Subj: Paid Campaign Opportunity: Complimentary Stay at Property Z

Hi InfluentialEventProf,

Hope this note finds you very well! Brand X’s Property in Somewhere, USA is a client of ours, and I am working on an influencer campaign to help promote Property Z’s event spaces as ideal venues for conferences and corporate meetings. Brand X would love to have you–a known industry expert on event/meeting planning–involved in this campaign!

We are inviting you to come for a complimentary stay to experience Property Z during a major Industry Sector S conference during TheseDates. Brand X would like you to review the visit and conference experience on your company’s blog and promote Property Z on social media. To give you a general idea of the campaign’s scope, here are some details regarding the influencer package and campaign components:

Influencer package:

One or two (1-2) complimentary nights at Property Z (dependent on your availability)

One (1) complimentary breakfast

One (1) complimentary dinner

$500 compensation

Complimentary parking

Campaign components:

One (1) post-stay blog post highlighting the Property Z as a venue for corporate conferences/meetings/events. Ideally, this blog post would be published both on your company’s blog and on your Linkedin page.

Two (2) real-time Twitter photo posts during your stay

Two (2) post-stay Twitter photo posts

(Use the hashtags of {3 PropertyZHashtags}, and any Property Z social channel handles on all relevant content.)

Would you be interested in participating? If so, I can send you more detailed information regarding these campaign components.

We are really hoping to work with you!

All the best,

YYY

Paid influencer marketing

This is classic paid influencer marketing via social media, a rapidly growing marketing trend since 2014. Celebrities are paid big bucks to casually introduce positive experience of brands into their social media feeds. Now event industry influencers are being asked to do the same thing.

Will Brand X require all resulting social media posts by InfluentialEventProf to be labeled “Sponsored”? (Does “Sponsored” even fit into the resulting tweets?) Will the post-stay blog post include the information that the stay and meals were paid for by Brand X and that the InfluentialEventProf was paid a fee by Brand X?

Even if InfluentialEventProf provides all this information, there is plenty of research that shows that such paid marketing biases influencers to be more positive about their review than they would have been otherwise. (See, for example: High bias found in Amazon reviews of low-cost or free samples, where the provision of free or low-cost products boosted ratings from the 54th percentile to the 94th percentile!)

So, is paid influencer marketing ethical?

I think such practices are ethically questionable. The CMP Standards of Ethical Conduct Statement and Policy includes the pledge “Never use my position for undue personal gain and to promptly disclose to appropriate parties all potential and actual conflicts of interest“, and I’d argue that what is being offered here is “undue personal gain”. In addition, any employee event professional should review their employer’s ethics policy. And consider these questions to0:

  • “In what way could you justify participation to your employer?”
  • “In what way could you justify participation to your clients?”
  • “Are there ways that this participation could influence site selection?”

What do you think?

[My thanks to InfluentialEventProf for permission given to reproduce the above email, and for suggestions that improved this post.]

A request for workshop help

Help request for workshopsI am looking for your help to hold workshops that I believe will significantly improve the quality of meetings.

Since 1992 I’ve been developing participation techniques that radically improve conference sessions and entire meetings. Over the last five years I have run a variety of 3 – 8 hour workshops where participants learn to facilitate and appreciate some of these techniques through direct experience. These meeting industry workshops have been very well received (references are available if you don’t know my work).

I believe there’s a real need for extended versions of these workshops — lasting 1½ – 2½ days — to give meeting planners, facilitators, and presenters a comprehensive interactive learning experience of these simple, yet powerful and effective ways to improve learning, connection, engagement, and action outcomes at our events.

I love designing and running these workshops, and I would like to offer them anywhere in the world there’s sufficient interest. They will typically be small, between 15 to 50 people.

I am not interested in making a ton of money doing this, just covering expenses and my standard fees. The more people who attend a workshop, the less it should cost them.

So I’m looking for partners and volunteers: people and organizations who are interested and willing to help make these workshops happen.

Perhaps:

  • You know people and/or groups who would want to attend and are willing to solicit them?
  • Such a workshop would fit into and complement one of your events?
  • You own a venue that could be used to host the workshop?
  • You, and perhaps others you know, want to attend one and have ideas about holding it at your location or for your community?
  • You can help in some other way?

I’m open to any kind of workable relationships (yes, you can be reimbursed/paid for your contributions) that make these workshops possible. Although my books continue to sell well and influence event design all over the world, after 25 years I’ve learned that most people only fully understand the value of these eye-opening ways to transform meetings by experiencing them, rather than reading about them.

Would you like to make these workshops possible? Can you help? Then I’d love to work with you. Please contact me at adrian@segar.com.