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”.
That same day, it took me just thirty minutes to get a gut feeling that this man could not be trusted. I’ve worked in and with non-profits—in board member, volunteer, and consultant roles—for decades. When I asked Seth about Democracy Builders’ missing 990’s, the reports that every federally tax-exempt organization has to file with the IRS every year, he was clearly evasive and kept trying to change the subject. (In retrospect, now knowing that Seth is alleged to have stolen government funds the year before and transferred them to the exact non-profit I was asking about supplies a new perspective to his reactions.)
I considered adding this illustrative tale into my presentation. But, with ten minutes until showtime and a promise that the talk would take fewer than 21 minutes, I reluctantly omitted this remarkable story about trusting my gut response to Seth Andrew.
Regardless, my presentation includes other personal stories about how trusting my gut has worked out for me.
2 • How to trust your gut
How did I come to be giving this presentation in the first place? Well, a couple of months ago, my friend, the warm and oh-so talented association maven Kiki L’Italien, invited her Association Chat community members to share anything they wanted to talk about — in just 21 minutes. While reading her invite, “How to trust your gut” somehow popped into my head. I’ve never spoken on this topic before. Nevertheless, trusting my gut, I immediately signed up for a presentation.
3 • When your gut leads you astray — the story of vaccine hesitancy
As I share in the presentation, sometimes it’s not a good idea to trust your gut. A good example of this is the current issue of vaccine hesitancy: folks delaying acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite the availability of vaccination services.
Such gut feelings can be very strong, and it’s hard to override them using facts and scientific findings.
Unfortunately, relying on such gut feelings and passing up opportunities to receive a COVID-19 vaccine can have deadly consequences. There are countless stories of COVID-19 deniers dying of COVID-19. Here are a few: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
Don’t ignore your gut feelings, but test their veracity!
My presentation includes suggestions on what to do to check the accuracy of your gut feelings.
How to trust your gut—the presentation
Last week, I went on Kiki’s show. In 20 minutes, I shared everything I’ve learned (so far) about how to trust your gut, how trusting your gut can change your life, how to get better at doing it…and when you shouldn’t. The presentation includes illustrative personal stories, the four qualities you need in order to trust your gut, how to learn when you shouldn’t trust your gut and two things you can do about it, plus a section on avoiding getting “stuck”.
I hope you enjoy it!
Additional presentation resources
Finally, here are two resources I mention during the presentation for learning about the importance of our gut responses. These excellent books explain in detail why our feelings, rather than our cognition generally drive us to act.
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.
I’d like to be clear that I don’t hate in-person meetings, despite what some have been posting recently on a Facebook group for meeting professionals:
“Often wondered why so many on this feed hate live events.”
“It is my opinion that this group does not support any in-person meetings or gatherings of any kind…”
” I am sad to see so many industry giants verbally destroying our industry – apparently with glee.”
Let’s explore what’s causing opinions and feelings like this in the meeting industry.
The tension in the meeting industry
As I’ve said before, the pandemic’s impact on lives and businesses has been devastating, especially for the meeting industry. COVID-19 has virtually eliminated in-person meetings: our industry’s bread and butter. Many meeting professionals have lost their jobs, and are understandably desperate for our industry to recover. We are all looking for ways for in-person meetings to return.
Unfortunately, I and many others believe there is a strong case to make against currently holding in-person meetings. Ethically, despite the massive personal and financial consequences, we should not be submitting people to often-unadvertised, dangerous, and life-threatening conditions so we can go back to work.
I’ve been posting bits and pieces of the case against currently holding in-person meetings on various online platforms, and decided it was time to bring everything together in one (long for me) post. I hope many meeting industry professionals will read this and respond. As always, all points of view are welcome, especially those that can share how to mitigate any of the following concerns.
The strong case against holding in-person meetings right now
Here are four important reasons why I think we shouldn’t be holding “large” in-person meetings right now. (Obviously, “large” is a moving target. Checking Georgia Tech’s COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool as I write this, a national US event with 500 people is extremely likely (>95%) to have one or more COVID-19 positive individuals present.)
meticulously observed social distancing and masking;
could safely travel to and from events;
be housed safely; move around event venues while safely maintaining social distancing; and
eat and drink safely.
Even if one could meet these difficult conditions, I questioned the value of such in-person meetings. Why? Because meetings are fundamentally about connection around relevant content. And it’s impossible to connect well with people wearing face masks who are six or more feet apart!
In addition, there’s ample evidence that some people won’t follow declared safety protocols. Since I wrote that post, we have heard reports and seen examples of in-person meetings where attendees and staff are not reliably social distancing, and/or aren’t wearing masks properly or at all.
This is most likely to happen during socials and meals, where masks have to be temporarily removed. It’s understandably hard for attendees to resist our lifetime habit of moving close to socialize.
2) We perform hygiene theater—but please don’t ask us about our ventilation systems
Many venues trumpet their comprehensive COVID-19 cleaning protocols. Extensive cleaning was prudent during the early pandemic months, when we didn’t know much about how the virus spread. But we now know that extensive cleaning is hygiene theater (1, 2); the primary transmission vector for COVID-19 is airborne.
A recent editorial in the leading scientific journal Nature begins: “Catching the virus from surfaces is rare” and goes on to say “efforts to prevent spread should focus on improving ventilation or installing rigorously tested air purifiers”.
I haven’t heard of any venues that have publicly explained how their ventilation systems minimize or eliminate the chance of airborne COVID-19 transmission!
Why? Because it’s a complicated, and potentially incredibly expensive issue to safely mitigate. And venues are reluctant or unable to do the custom engineering and, perhaps, costly upgrades necessary to ensure that the air everyone breaths onsite is HEPA filtered fast enough to keep any COVID positive attendee shedding at a safe level.
Adequate ventilation of indoor spaces where people have removed masks for eating or drinking is barely mentioned in governmental gathering requirements (like this one, dated March 3, 2021, from the State of Nevada). These guidelines assume that whatever ventilation existed pre-COVID is adequate under the circumstances, as long as all parties are socially distanced. We know from research that there are locales — e.g. dining rooms with low ceilings or inadequate ventilation — where this is not a safe practice, since it’s possible for COVID droplets to travel far further than 6 feet.
In case you are interested, current recommendations are for MERV 13 filtering throughout the venue. Does your venue offer this?
P.S. I expect there are venues that have done this work. Do you know of venues that have done the engineering to certify a measurable level of safe air on their premises? If so, please share in the comments! We should know about these conscientious organizations.
3) Inadequate or no pre-, during-, or post- COVID testing, and contact tracing
Shockingly, many in-person meetings now taking place require no pretesting of staff or attendees. (News flash: Checking someone’s forehead temperature when they enter a venue will not detect anyone who is infectious for the two days before symptoms appear, or who is asymptomatic.)
Even if everyone in the venue is tested daily, the widely used quick tests are simply too unreliable. From Nature again:
“Deeks says that a December trial at the University of Birmingham is an example of how rapid tests can miss infections. More than 7,000 symptom-free students there took an Innova test; only 2 tested positive. But when the university researchers rechecked 10% of the negative samples using PCR, they found another 6 infected students. Scaling that up across all the samples, the test probably missed 60 infected students.” —Nature, February 9, 2021, Rapid coronavirus tests: a guide for the perplexed
Finally, I find it upsetting that venues like the OCCC keep claiming that they are #MeetingSafely when they are doing no post event follow-up! If an attendee contracts COVID-19 at the event, returns home, and infects grandma, how would the OCCC ever know?! Under the circumstances, I think it’s misleading, dangerous, and unethical for such a venue to publicly claim that they are providing an #MeetingSafely environment.
4) We’re meeting safe—but you can’t sue us if we’re not
“I voluntarily assume full responsibility for any risks of loss or personal injury, including serious illness, injury or death, that may be sustained by me or by others who come into contact with me, as a result of my presence in the Facilities, whether caused by the negligence of the AKC or OCCC or otherwise … I UNDERSTAND THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY AND AGREE THAT IT IS VALID FOREVER. It is my express intent that this Waiver binds; (i) the members of my family and spouse, if I am alive, and (ii) my heirs, assigns and personal representatives, if I am deceased.” —Extract from the Orlando, Florida, OCCC American Kennel Club National Championship Dog Show, December, 2020, Waiver
I’m not sure how you can bind people to a contract who may not even know they are a party to it. But, hey, I’m not a lawyer…
So, can we safely and ethically hold in-person meetings right now?
For the reasons shared above, I don’t believe we can safely and ethically hold in-person meetings right now. Consequently, it’s alarming that many venues, and some meeting planners, are promoting in-person meetings in the near future.
Do I hate in-person meetings?
By now it should be clear that I stand with meeting professionals like Cathi Lundgren, who posted the following in our Facebook group discussions:
“I’m not going to be silent when someone holds a meeting in a ballroom with a 100+ people and no masking or social distancing…I own a global meetings company—and we haven’t worked since March but no matter how much I want to get back at it I’m not going to condone behaviors that are not positive for the overall health of our industry.”
—Cathi Lundgren, CMP, CAE
And here’s how I replied to the first Facebook commenter quoted at the top of this post:
“For goodness sake. I LOVE in-person events. It’s been heartbreaking for me, like everyone, to have not attended one for a year now. But that doesn’t mean I am going to risk stakeholder, staff, and attendee lives by uncritically supporting in-person meetings that are, sadly, according to current science, still dangerous to attend. When in-person meetings are safe to attend once more — and that day can’t come soon enough — you bet I’ll be designing, facilitating, and attending them.”
I hope it’s clear that I, and those meeting professionals who are pointing out valid safety and ethical concerns, don’t hate in-person meetings. Realistically, the future of in-person meetings remains uncertain, even with the amazing progress in developing and administering effective vaccines. More mutant COVID-19 strains that are resistant to or evade current vaccines, transmit more effectively, or have more deadly effects are possible. Any such developments could delay or fundamentally change our current hopes that maintaining transmission prevention plus mass vaccination will bring the pandemic under control.
I’m cautiously optimistic. But, right now, there are still too many unknowns for me to recommend clients to commit resources to future large 100% in-person events. Hub-and-spoke format hybrid meetings look like a safer bet. Regardless, everyone in the meeting industry hopes that it will be safe to hold in-person meetings real soon.
In the meantime, please don’t attack those of us in the industry who point out safety and ethical issues and consequences of prematurely scheduling in-person meetings. We want them back too! We all miss them.
When’s the right time to solve small problems? The right answer is almost always “as soon as practically possible!”
Why? Because small problems often become large problems if we don’t work on them in a timely fashion.
Unfortunately, people don’t appreciate the value of promptly solving small problems, because (see cartoon below) we love to acknowledge and reward heroes — people who solve big problems, aka emergencies — rather than the folks who proactively solve small problems and prevent emergencies in the first place.
“Prevention is better than Cure. But which one makes a better story?” by @workchronicles
Two societal examples
Here are two examples of the value of solving small problems early, and the consequences when you don’t. The first is one where solving small problems in advance averted major world disruption. During the second, world leaders delayed solving small problems, resulting in millions of avoidable deaths.
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 are my current thoughts about COVID-19, hybrid meetings, and the future. Earlier this year I wrote:
Unfortunately, it currently looks like one potential short-term improvement outcome, containment, will not be successful. In the long-term, however, the current turmoil caused by the spread of COVID-19 is likely to subside. The development and introduction of an effective and affordable vaccine may bring the virus under control. Or, enough people may get COVID-19 and develop an immune response, leading to herd immunity.
Eventually, the coronavirus is most likely to either burn out, or return seasonally, like influenza.
Traditional in-person plus online stream plus online meeting concierges that mediate the in-person portion with those online. (Emilie Barta has a decade of experience mediating such meeting formats.)
Hub-and-spoke style meetings (long championed by Maarten Vanneste), with facilitated in-person pods that are internet connected, usually to a central in-person meeting. Once again, include one or more online meeting concierges to facilitate what happens between pods and the central in-person meeting.
COVID-19 has temporarily suppressed the market for hybrid meetings, but I believe their future is bright!
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.