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.
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:
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.
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.
Here are the statistics (from the next webinar slide).
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.
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,
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:
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.
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.)
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?
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:
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.
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”.
Attention, meeting planners! Safe meeting venue ventilation for COVID-19 is critical. As we start thinking about returning to in-person events, it’s crucial to check that venues are upgrading their HVAC systems to handle potentially virus-infused air.
There has been little public discussion on this important topic. In this post, I’ll explain why questions about venues’ HVAC safety should be at the top of your site visit checklist.
Before we start, I need to make clear I’m not an HVAC engineer. My (perhaps) relevant background is an ancient Ph.D. in high-energy particle physics, and two years spent exploring ventilation systems—specifically air-to-air heat exchangers—when I owned a solar manufacturing company in the 1980s.
Since the pandemic began, the science on COVID-19 transmission has evolved rapidly. Because early theories turned out to be inaccurate, current preventative measures are frequently misdirected. So I’ve included a short history of theories of COVID-19 transmission that shed light on the reasons we’ve underestimated the importance of ventilation in creating safe environments for indoor events.
Next, I’ve outlined what current research indicates venues and properties should be doing.
Finally, I’ve aired my concerns about how well venues and properties are responding to the safety concerns I’ve introduced.
The 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 article, Gianna 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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s a standing invitation for event and hospitality teachers.
I will meet online with your class for free.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, much education has moved online. One small silver lining of this disruption? It’s a good time to invite guest presenters into your online classroom.
As an experienced facilitator and designer of participant-driven and participation-rich meetings, I love to share what I’ve learned during my four decades in the meeting industry. No pitches or selling anything.
You won’t get a canned presentation. Rather, we’ll discuss beforehand what you and your students want and need. A session on a specific syllabus topic you choose? A freewheeling Ask Me Anything about meeting design that delivers optimal learning, connection, engagement, and action outcomes? Or a session that we build on the fly in real time to respond to what’s top-of-mind for your class that day? (I love doing those.)
You get to choose.
I hope you’ll take advantage of this standing invitation for event and hospitality teachers. Contact me to set up a mutually agreeable date and time!
This is not an easy post to write. The pandemic’s impact on lives and businesses has been devastating. COVID-19 has virtually eliminated in-person meetings: our industry’s bread and butter.
In order to overcome the many significant challenges created by the coronavirus, the meeting industry has made valiant efforts to rethink in-person meetings. The goal? To bring people safely into the same physical space, so they can meet as they did before the pandemic.
Wear face masks that cover the nose and mouth; and
Stay six or more feet apart.
Here’s what that looks like at an in-person meeting.
Let’s set aside the significant issues of whether attendees can:
safely travel to and from events;
be housed safely;
move around an event venue while safely maintaining social distancing; and
be fed safely.
While difficult, I think we can do all these things. Well-meaning meeting industry professionals are understandingly desperate to bring back in-person meetings from oblivion. But they assume that if they can solve the above challenges, an effective meeting can occur.
But good meetings are not about listening to broadcast content
As I have explained repeatedly in my books and on this blog (e.g., here) assuming that conferences are fundamentally about lectures ignores what is truly useful about good meetings.
Among other things, good meetings must provide personal and useful connection around relevant content.
Masks and six or more feet separation ≠ connection
Unfortunately, you cannot connect well with people wearing face masks who are six or more feet away!
Why? Because we are exquisitely sensitive to body language and facial expressions. With everyone social distanced and faces half hidden, the normal cues of connection, such as microexpressions and subtle shifts in posture, are hard to read. In my experience, it can often be easier to read emotions and responses in video chats than socially distanced situations.
New tools for online connection
In addition, new online social platforms (two examples) provide easy-to-learn and fluid video chat alternatives to the in-person breaks, meals, and socials that are so important at in-person meetings. Do these tools supply as good connection and engagement as pre-pandemic, in person meetings? Not quite. (Though they supply some useful advantages over in-person meetings, they can’t replace friendly hugs!) Are they good enough? In my judgment, yes! In the last few months, I’ve built and strengthened as many relationships at online meetings as I used to in-person.
A depressing conclusion
Right now, the learning, connection, and engagement possible at well-designed online meetings is at least comparable — and in some ways superior — to what’s feasible at in-person meetings that are safe to attend in a COVID-19 world.
Now add the significant barriers and costs to holding in-person meetings during this pandemic. The challenges of providing safe travel, accommodations, venue traffic patterns, and food & beverage all have to be overcome. Even if credible solutions are developed (as I believe they can be in many cases), potential attendees must still be persuaded that the solutions are safe, and your meeting can be trusted to implement them perfectly.
My own example
I’ll share my own example, as a 68 year old who, pre-pandemic, facilitated and participated in around fifty meetings each year. Since COVID-19 awareness reached the U.S. five months ago, I have barely been inside a building besides my home. I have only attended one in-person meeting during this time: a local school board meeting held in a large gymnasium with the fifteen or so masked attendees arranged in a large circle of chairs in the center of the room. I am not willing to fly anywhere, except in the case of an emergency. Everyone has their own assessment of risks taken during these times. But I will simply not risk my health to attend an in-person meeting at present. Especially when online meetings provide a reasonable substitute. I don’t think I’m alone in this determination.
I do not think that the research initiated and venue upgrades made are a waste of time, money, and effort. There may well be a time when an effective vaccine exists and is being introduced. At this point, in-person meetings may be able to start up again without the critical barriers introduced by universal masks and social distancing.
Until then, I don’t see a credible use case for holding significant in-person meetings in a COVID-19 world.
If you missed David Adler‘s & my closing keynote Leadership, Events, Shackleton, Survival, and Hope at Untethered2020, you can watch it at the end of this post. I’ve also included a lightly edited transcript, complete with timeline, so you can watch/listen/read as the fancy takes you.
David and I structured this session as an unrehearsed conversation, so it’s a little rough — but I think that keeps it fresh! It includes plenty of short videos and images that illustrate the points we’re making.
Leadership in Events transcript
[0:00] David Adler DA: So, welcome Adrian! We’re here in front of this Untethered Conference; this is supposedly the end keynote, and I wanted to have a conversation with you.
This is a little bit of a mash-up of a couple of different concepts.
When I was a kid I did Outward Bound. I don’t know how many people out there did Outward Bound. It was one of the things that completely changed the way I thought about the world.
I was in 11th grade and I did this 26-day Outward Bound course; my grades went from C’s to A’s following this course. There was something about what Outward Bound did. It was outdoor wilderness training, an amazing experience that gave me confidence as a kid. It has been one of the things that has driven me through my entire life, and has made me look at conflict and look at things I couldn’t do and say oh my God maybe I can try that.
And it all comes down to that great Robert Kennedy quote:
“As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, those he touched and I still have to touch him. Some men see things as they are and say ‘Why?’, I dream things that never were and say ‘Why not’.”
And we are in this moment especially with what’s going on in the world today where we have to dream about why not. How do we change things, how do we do things? So this Outward Bound thing was really incredible.
So I want to bring you [AS] in on this discussion. I guess you are one of the great innovators in meetings and facilitation, and I believe that facilitators — people that know how to be collaboration artists — are going to be what is really important in the event industry, in the meeting industry, in the conference industry going forward.
Why don’t you say a few words about what are the things that you’ve developed over the years?
[2:18] Adrian Segar AS: Thank you David and thank you for the nice things you said about me. I just want to add that I always enjoy talking with you so much; I really appreciate being invited in on this conversation. As some people know, I’m interested in creating meetings that are the best possible meeting for each person involved. I realized that I needed to create meetings that became — in real time, during the meeting — as much as possible what the participants and the sponsors and all the stakeholders wanted, and that’s driven my work ever since.
[2:59] DA: And you developed the unconference? And brought it into the popular culture.
[3:00] AS: Well, I can’t say that I invented the word “unconference”. Open Space was around, was developed right around the same time but Harrison Owen had the good fortune to write a book about it right away; so Open Space became synonymous with unconference. I didn’t invent that word, and in some ways I don’t like it because I think conferences should really be about conferring. And unfortunately, as we all know, at many traditional conferences there are still too many people talking for long periods of time, and everybody else is listening.
[3:40] DA: With that said I’m going to share my screen right now. One of the things I learned from Outward Bound, the lectures that we heard on the rock for the morning meetings that were so inspirational when you watched the ocean, were the lessons of Ernest Shackleton. He was the guy that was caught in the Antarctic and had to take his crew and make them survive. One of the things I heard was all these great lessons, and I realized that Ernest Shackleton really was what I call a collaboration artist.
Because you cannot be a leader today without collaborating in the best possible way and I’m sure you agree with that as well, right Adrian?
[4:18] AS: Of course, yes.
[4:19] DA: Collaboration arts are the key and are the future. This [slide] is just a little bit on Adrian and I. I want to go into what we’ll learn from Ernest Shackleton. He did leadership through collaboration. And event organizers and meeting planners and conference planners are all collaboration artists. I wanted to talk about a program that I created called Collaborate America.
[4:47] Various speakers during the Collaborate America video:
“With Collaborate America we simply want to make artistic and smart collaboration a goal of everyone who purposely gathers people together, no matter what the reason. We want our culture to recognize collaboration artists the same way that they have celebritized culinary figures and the risk takers of the start-up world. We want collaboration artists to really be recognized.”
“Artful collaboration might be our most critical resource going forward, in terms of the outcome of mankind. A collaboration artist knows how to bring people together, drive consensus, and enroll people in a common mission. Create ideas, and translate ideas into solutions.”
“Imagine if artful collaboration were taught to children, and seen by them as one of the most important skills to have. And so we are at this event to honor and learn from some of the greatest collaborators of our generation.”
“Artful collaboration not only represents an opportunity that is essential to our survival as a species; I think if you look at the level and the scope of the challenges that we’re facing in the world today, how can we possibly solve those things without effective collaboration. The answer is that we can’t — we all have a responsibility to do everything we can to build trust, build cooperation, and give people access to the brilliance that’s in everyone’s minds in the room.”
[6:17] DA: So, I believe that future events need to be more valuable than ever, that we can’t waste people’s time with badly produced or badly facilitated events. You don’t want to go to an event if it’s going to kill your grandmother. So, with that said, I have this hypothesis that I want to share with you Adrian, and you can beat me up on it or you can fight it or you can tell me I’m full of it. But the idea is that leaders today need to be collaboration artists.
We’re seeing that in our general leadership in the country today. I put a picture of a president on there because I think you need to have effective national leadership to solve problems. And I also believe that event organizers use collaboration arts as their number one skill. Yes, it’s great to have great food & beverage and great design, but if people don’t connect in the room and connect for a purpose then why are they there? And so I believe that event organizing in person or virtual is a key leadership tool so that we cannot think of our industry as superfluous but actually primary to help society.
Survival skills, like what we’re about to go into with Ernest Shackleton, depended on collaboration and are dependent on the people that he’s leading and the leader listening to other people. So with that I want to do a little bit on what Ernest Shackleton went through, in a very brief period. There’s a lot of literature on what he did and I’m going to talk about some of the takeaways that have been around for a few years.
[7:52] AS: The only thing I would like to add is that behind collaboration ultimately is connection. We as human beings need connection in our daily lives, nearly all of us. The pandemic has brought this into sharp relief, and I see collaboration as the piece behind that. That’s how you turn the desire for connection into the reality of the shared experience of the collaboration and connecting experience. And so collaboration is kind of a tool but it meets this fundamental need for connection — and at meetings, the connections are always around something relevant to people: topics, issues, challenges that people currently have.
[8:38] Ernest Shackleton video: “Setting sail from Plymouth on the 8th of August 1914, the Endurance became stuck in the ice flows before sinking in November 1915. With no chance of rescue, Shackleton planned a daring and dangerous rescue to sail a lifeboat to South Georgia. With five other crew, they launched the James Caird into the treacherous seas of the Antarctic, and against all the odds they reached South Georgia. Then, having to trek across mountain ranges, they finally reached help on the 20th of May 1916 before rescuing his crew on the 30th of August. Every one of them still alive.”
[9:18] DA: So, at this rock that I sat in front of in the morning at Outward Bound when I was 16 years old, the guy gets up and gives these 9 points, these 9 lectures, that I’ve been actively living with in every part of my business. Whether it’s to survive a crisis, whether it’s to get through an event, it’s whether how to get through the day in my team, these are the nine things I think that everyone should think about in terms of how they are approaching the world.
And the number one is never lose sight of the ultimate goal and focus on short-term objectives. So the idea is, how do you get to the day, how to get to the next moment, how do you survive till tomorrow?
[10:02] AS: First of all, this is Simon Sinek’s point about understanding your “Why?”. It can be your own personal “Why?”, it can be the “Why?” of a meeting, but once you have that clear — and sometimes it’s really hard to get that! The corollary of that is: once you have that goal it makes focusing on the short-term objectives to get it so much clearer. Once I realized that what I love to do in life is to facilitate connection between people in meetings — that drives everything I do. So that creates the short-term objectives that I, then, sit down every day and say what should I do today.
[10:42] DA: This is a leadership fundamental that has been, between Simon Sinek and everyone else; this is the main thing. So, number 2: Set a personal example with visible memorable symbols of behavior.
When I go out and I lead a group of people, if I’m not in the game with them they’re not going to listen to me. If I’m not setting up things that that are goals and be smart about the behavior of the group then you’re going to lose people right away.
[11:17] AS: What you’re amazing at: I remember seeing you at meetings and you’re running a major event, and I see you at lunch time and I see you going around and creating conversations at every single table with hundreds of people. You’re modeling behavior. You’re saying: I’m doing this, I’m leading this event but this is important, we’re here to have conversations. You’re modeling, and you can’t expect people for example to take risks if you’re not willing to show that you’re willing to take risks too. Or to be vulnerable about a situation that’s difficult if you are not willing to do that too.
[11:59] DA: You know, I learned this when I was working at the state department and we had a big event for David Cameron who is the prime minister, and I noticed that he got up and went to every single table, like you do at a wedding or a bar mitzvah or any kind of social.
I believe that CEOs are been terrible hosts lately, and they’re not mirroring behavior. Or leaders are going to an event and they’re not wearing their masks. So that is, to me, kind of an example of the person’s not going to be with you. So, instill optimism and self-confidence but remain grounded in reality. You always have to be very optimistic, but at the same time you got to be realistic. We all know that behind the scenes of an event things go wrong all the time, but at the same time, to the crowd you got to say okay everything’s going well when you don’t notice it.
But you still know that you’ve got to get that person off the stage cuz they’re taking up too much time, or this is not going according to schedule. So you have to be on both sides and this happens every day with leadership all the time, but you have to make sure that you’re being honest.
[13:16] AS: And this goes back to the first point again; not only do you have to know what your ultimate goal is but you have to believe in it and basically want it to happen. It has to be congruent with who you are as a person. If those two things are satisfied then you’re going to be optimistic about it. I mean it’s not like “yes, I know I’m going to succeed” but you’ll be coming from that place where it’s like “I think we can do this and we’re going to make it happen to the best of our ability”.
[13:46] DA: This is the tenet of most entrepreneurs, because most people say their ideas suck and they’ll never be successful. And so you have to be optimistic and you have to be self confident but you have to know that cash flow is king. Especially with what’s going on today, what I’m seeing with entrepreneurs, their cash is running out so they have to pivot, they have to do other things, but the same time they can’t lose the optimism.
So number 4 is take care of yourself, maintain your stamina, and let go of guilt. The idea is, make sure that you’re in good health, that you are, instead of getting up every morning and just getting to work, that you should go do your meditation or get grounded, and also if you make a decision and it’s not popular let go of the guilt; you cannot please everybody all the time.
[14:35] AS: That’s right, well I think that this one is pretty self-evident to anyone who’s been in the meeting industry for any length of time. Because we all work incredibly hard preparing meetings, and then, of course, at the event itself. Letting go of guilt is very important because we do make mistakes, we’re not perfect, and as you say. We can’t satisfy everybody. If you run a meeting of any size, there will always be a few people who say “I didn’t like this, I didn’t like that” and so on. And if you let that overcome the fact that 98% of the people who had a great time it’s going to affect your effectiveness.
[15:13] DA: I’ve also heard stories today of people that have to let go people and furlough people and you’re making these awful decisions, but if you’re mired in guilt nothing will get done, you have to get over that, there’s no way around it because it’s survival.
So number 5 is “Reinforce the team message consistently; we are one, we live or die together” — now this cannot be more true than today. It also cannot be more true in every event that we ever do because we’re managing teams and for short periods of time in some cases. Wearing that mask is saving other people’s lives.
“Minimize staff differences, insist on courtesy and mutual respect”: the idea that when we set up processes we’ve got to follow them. We have to make sure that there are protocols in place that allow us to create the discipline to have a day that works the way the last day worked in order to accomplish goals, and the idea of courtesy and respect is something that is just part of life, and this way if people understand the rules then there is a lot less problems.
[16:25] AS: This goes back to the modeling. David, you epitomize courtesy in every dealing I’ve had with you, and seeing you working with other people you epitomize courtesy & mutual respect. And that’s going to affect and influence the people you are with.
[16:44] DA: I would say we’re all not perfect. I’m certainly not perfect at this, but the idea is that we have to develop processes, so one of the things that I’ve actually done it well in this situation where we’re in tight quarters with other people is: we’re actually in a small group of people having a meeting every single day to figure out what we’re planning on doing that day. So that there are certain norms that, even in a very odd situation, you can actually rely on as to create a new reality in a sense. And I’m sure that Shackleton did that every single day, in terms of making sure that his people were doing something on a regular basis.
This is one that I’d use all the time: “Master conflicts, engage dissidents, and avoid needless power struggles”. My feeling is, the minute you look at how to turn a blind eye to conflict you’re dead. That you have to confront it right away. It means making faster decisions. It means understanding what other people are thinking, to not get involved in the politics of the moment.
[17:51] AS: The piece of advice I really like in this is about engaging dissidents; it’s something that I’ve learned over the years of facilitating and so on. You often have people who are like “No! I really disagree!” and maybe they’re in a minority, you have to make a decision.
The most important thing you can do in those situations is make sure that those dissidents feel heard. You really need to listen to them, you may not agree with them, you may not end up doing what they want. But if they feel heard — we all know that we don’t always get our way in everything we want — but if they feel heard, they’re much more likely to not harbor resentment, and to say, “okay, I guess I don’t agree but the majority thinks we should do this and I’ll go along with it”.
And then you’ve deescalated a potential conflict that otherwise could last for a long time.
[18:43] DA: Can you go through … I’ve learned from you, because you’re a tremendous mentor to me, how you do it in a public space? You are able to have these techniques for allowing people of different opinions to actually be heard. Give one example of something that works.
[19:02] AS: One of my favorite techniques is what I use when you want to have a genuine discussion and you’ve got, maybe, hundreds of people in the room. There’s no way that you’re going to be able to hear from everybody, and you also don’t want the discussion to be dominated by people who just want to talk all the time.
And I use something called Fishbowl for that, which allows people to have their say because anyone can come up and speak at any time in Fishbowl. But the social dynamics of it, the rules — which are very simple and explained at the start — make it almost impossible for even someone who would love to hog the spotlight, from staying in the spotlight for a longer than a reasonable amount of time. Again, I refer people to my books and articles about Fishbowls — one of the things I’ve mentioned — but it’s an example of how to how to engage dissidents but not let them take over.
[20:11] DA: This is a skill; this is not just put yourself in a burning fire, running into a burning building. You need to know how to do this.
[20:21] AS: You do need to know how to do it, but the interesting thing is … I don’t know how many thousands or tens of thousands of people I’ve run Fishbowl with. Some of those people take it and they see how well it works, and then they take it and go on. It’s not like I’m the only person who can do this. A large number of people are perfectly capable of being part of a Fishbowl and saying “I see how that works! That was great, I like how that worked. I’m going to try that in my place of business or organization.” And they can do it just as well as I can.
[20:57] DA: So here is the one that I believe is at the heart of what many people do other than people that are hosting meetings and when we have events. The idea is what Shackleton said: that you always have to find something to celebrate and something to laugh about.
And the idea is, even when Wuhan opened up a few weeks ago, even though it was precarious, they had an event to celebrate the opening. They did video mapping of all the buildings; if you see some of the videos on YouTube it’s pretty incredible how our industry is part of leadership. And so when I see the idea of celebrating something, every major leader in the world knows that they have to do something when they achieve a goal. They need to pat people on the back, they need to show that they’re caring about all the work that someone has done to create the end of the mission, and also to be human and to laugh and to show emotion. Because I think emotion, especially positive emotion brightens up everyone’s day.
And I also think about what’s happening every day in New York City at 5 o’clock. People are getting on their balconies and applauding, and they’ve been doing that in Italy and in France and other places. Our business is the business of leadership, and that is why it cannot be minimized. And that is why it is more important than anybody could imagine.
I always used to say that in our industry, for years, we were sitting at the children’s table for Thanksgiving. And I believe that we are so much at the adult table from a strategic perspective. Every major leader: when you see President Obama give a speech like he did the other night, when you see the leaders of the world at ceremonial events, that’s all about celebrating something, and that’s all such a key part of what we do. So we cannot minimize our efforts in this world, and [it’s] why what we do in the event / meeting / Festival business is so important.
The last two things I have: “Be willing to take the big risk”. Now in every event that you ever have it’s “oh, what are we going to do next year, what are we going to do to make this different”. A lot of people fall back on “we did this this year; let’s do it again next year”. You know, the idea of moving to an unconference or changing the way things are structured, to confront people in different ways. We have to be thinking about this every day. Because what we do is events in the ephemeral moment, so we have to create ephemeral moments every time. And everything that Adrian does, different techniques, is risk taking in massive ways.
Talk about some of the things you have seen and how people have changed through that type of big risk.
[24:01] AS I want to acknowledge you first, David, because I see you again as the epitome of risk taker. You know, a big risk to one person may be a small risk to someone else. The crucial word is “risk” because every single person has a particular level at which they say, well, this is a risk to me. And it won’t be the same for someone else. Throughout your career — building BizBash and all the things you’ve done — you have all these creative ideas. And you’re willing to try ‘em out all the time, you try things on. And just like me, I try new things all the time; some of them don’t work.
[24:48] DA: Lots of them don’t work!
[24:49] AS: Also, it’s the continued risk taking. When I started running meetings 30 years ago I was terrified about being out on stage, a common thing. It’s not like one day I wasn’t terrified anymore. Went out and took that risk every day, and eventually it got better! I like to try new things, learn at every meeting I do. I learn new things, and I try to import them. And I have ideas and I try them and sometimes they don’t work. That’s how you learn.
[25:27] DA: There’s one more that I left out and that is: always there is another move. And, to me, that is one of the most important things. Especially with today with so many people who are seeing their businesses completely falling apart. The idea of pivoting, to always make another move, there’s always a way. And the way you up your game and survive and thrive is to be accompanied and see what’s going on out there in the world. One of the things we’ve done through BizBash was to allow people to peek over the fence to see what other people are doing. And when you see what other people are doing you say, “oh, I can do that”, “oh, I have a better idea than that”.
So everything that we talked about today is here to make you think. And we want to make sure that this address today is for you. For you to think about your future and to put yourself through your own Outward Bound experience and get the confidence that you could do anything. Because, believe me, once you get through this there’s not one thing that you will not be able to do. Adrian, do you have any final comments?
[26:35] AS: I think you’ve covered things beautifully; I’ve really enjoyed my time talking to you. I love this kind of spontaneous conversation that we’ve had from time to time and what it brings forth. Thank you very much for the opportunity.
[26:52] DA: Thank you, Adrian, and I encourage people to go read all of Adrian’s books and, of course, I encourage everyone to go look at BizBash every day — you never know where we’re going to be going. The world is changing radically; you want to see new ideas, we’ve got new ideas just for you. We’re in the age of innovation, yes, we want to be safe, but it is remarkable how people are innovating and changing the world every single day. And we want to be a part of that and that is our mission, so thank you so much for the opportunity to speak to you. Thanks!