COVID-19, in-person meetings, and wishful thinking

COVID-19 and in-person meetings 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.

Sadly, I believe such efforts are based on wishful thinking.

Wishful thinking

It’s nice to imagine that, if we can figure out how to bring people safely together in person in a COVID-19 world, our meetings will be the same as they were pre-pandemic.

But until we create and broadly administer an effective vaccine (or we suffer the disastrous and massive illnesses and deaths that will occur obtaining herd immunity) they can’t be the same meetings.

Moreover, there are two reasons why there is no persuasive use case for holding almost any in-person meetings in a COVID-19 world.

Why in-person meetings do not make sense in a COVID-19 environment

By now we know that in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19, people near each other must:

  • 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.

COVID-19 and in-person meetings

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

In doing so, they have reverted to the old, deeply embedded notion that, fundamentally, in-person meetings are about listening to broadcast content. Since the rise of online, broadcast-format content can be delivered far more inexpensively, efficiently, and conveniently online than at in-person events.

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.

Image attribution: Erin Schaff/New York Times

3 thoughts on “COVID-19, in-person meetings, and wishful thinking

  1. I teach the IAEE international association for exposition and events CEM program in-line for Ten years. The program is taught mostly facilitator as a one day live or the 4 week online. I decided online because I can build relationships. Each exercise includes a peer comment on each student post providing my knowledge and 35 years of experience. The class often 40 developed a virtual conversation.
    However this is may seem like an online conference session it is not. There is 4 weeks of learning Reading other students exercises.
    The timing of the sessions run concurrently and fits into attendees schedule. The CEM program is highly regarded and many professionals are seasoned in the industry often are show managers. OSC and tourism etc
    They work or attend live meetings as I do. We miss all that live is. The hugs the sharing information meeting new people all that face to face has from the times in the 1800s when where outdoor marketplace was the venue where goods were sold and battered
    SARS hot spot was Toronto. I launched an exposition 3 days after the WHO advised a travel advisory not to go to Toronto. It was different and cannot be compared to this pandemic. Ee opened and there were no masked or social distancing. People died 8,000 In all over the world. Still we opened.
    Today I leave have underlying conditions. It kills me that I can’t touch my little grandchildren and my son and daughter. I am sick of Zoom. But I teach and I am still part of the industry
    This may seem like my outlook is very different than yours about MO our industry. Virtual shows dined cut it. Papers and getting ready for shows reopening won’t be for many years. Think of the jelly bean effect. There is a bowl of jellybeans every one has their own spoon however 2 brand have COVID. Would you take the chance of eating them. I bet no one would. Your comments touch on almost all points. You have the courage that most of us don’t have

    1. Thank you Jai for your long service to the IAEE CEM program, and for sharing your detailed perspective. Shortly after the pandemic lockdown started, I was surprised to feel deep grief for about a week, being denied normal in-person contact with my family members and personal and professional friends. I miss them, like you do. I have adjusted to this continuing of the current and likely near-to-mid future, and am lucky to have been able to avoid the terrible direct impact COVID-19 has made on so many lives and careers.

      And I am optimistic about the potential of well-designed online meetings to open up new possibilities for meetings that our industry might otherwise have never seriously explored.

      However, for now, I think it’s important to be realistic about the dismal likelihood of significant in-person meetings taking place under the current circumstances, and that’s why I wrote this piece.

      I wish you well, and am sure you will join me in hoping we obtain a vaccine that allows us to hold in-person events again.

  2. Adrian, as ever your commentary is well observed and very wise. It’s 10 years since we organised our first hybrid event and, having cancelled over 220 meetings and conferences in 2020 so far, we have started to help our clients to meet and engage again. Our first COVID safe event was distanced as you describe and, in many ways, the human connections were a poor experience compared to what we are used to. On the other hand, there were benefits to the human connections and shared experience – not least the inspirational presentations and charisma of presenters, which does not translate well digitally. Our advice to clients remains, small, local gatherings (fewer than 30 attendees), with safety procedures in place, digitally connected with a mixture of live and online content, are working, effective and appropriate. As you say, we will have to wait some time before real gatherings can take place again, for now safety first, but there is much our expertise can bring to this interim world.

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