The meeting industry new normal – Part 3

meeting industry normalThe old meeting industry normal is long over, and many event professionals are still hoping and waiting for a new normal.

In October 2020 I wrote two posts [1, 2] about what a meeting industry new normal might look like. As I write, two years have passed since the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the world and the event industry. It’s time to take another look. How have my predictions held up? And what does the future hold?

Looking back

Six months into the pandemic, I wrote that three fundamental things had to happen for everything to go as well as possible in the global fight against the coronavirus.

1. “If we’re really lucky, we’ll have a safe, inexpensive, effective vaccine sometime before the end of 2021.”

Well, we were lucky. The hard work of a large number of scientists, years of research on related coronaviruses, plus a paradigm shift in vaccine development led to the rollout of effective vaccines at the start of 2021. Several of these vaccines remain effective against the coronavirus variants that have appeared since the start of the pandemic.

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

This has not happened. As I write this, only 63% of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and we know that multiple doses are needed to provide adequate protection for most people. In addition, only 12% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.

3. “We overcome conspiracy-theory induced fear of vaccination.”

This has also not happened. “Recent growth in conspiracy theory beliefs, particularly those centered on potential vaccine harm, pose a substantial threat to the large-scale uptake of COVID-19 vaccines, and thus the achievement of herd immunity to COVID-19.” Currently, even though vaccination is free and has been readily available for a year in the U.S., only 65% of the population is fully vaccinated, and herd immunity is still a distant target. Vaccine hesitancy, fueled by substantial misinformation on social media and some media channels, remains a significant barrier to taming the ravages of COVID-19.

Conclusions

Even if no further variants appear, the above factors mean that COVID-19 is here to stay for the indefinite future. As I write, for example, South Korea is experiencing a massive surge, the largest of the entire pandemic. The dominant COVID-19 variants are so contagious that it’s currently impossible to prevent further spread and outbreaks until most of the world population is adequately vaccinated or builds up enough (weaker) immunity through repeated infections.

We may eventually tame the pandemic by developing effective and inexpensive antivirals and making them widely available to those contracting COVID-19. However, the virus is likely to develop resistance to such drugs, which are currently in short supply and expensive, so continued R&D will be needed.

Finally, it’s important to remember that we still do not understand the health impact of long covid. The American Medical Association estimates that “anywhere from 15% to 80% of patients might experience long COVID after recovering—even if they weren’t very sick in the first place”. I have friends and family that are still suffering serious effects of long covid—you probably have too. Now vaccines and better treatments have reduced the risk of dying from COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean we can dismiss its significant long-term health consequences going forward.

Holding in-person meetings: what do we now know?

Here’s a quick overview of what I see as the relative risks involved in attending in-person meetings at this point. Two important caveats are that I’m assuming travelers:

  1. Are fully vaccinated; and
  2. Use good quality masks when in public enclosed spaces.

Risks of serious illness for the unvaccinated are at least an order of magnitude higher. See below for situations when masks cannot be worn.

Travel

Airline travel seems reasonably safe these days. Airlines claim “cabin air is refreshed 20-30 times an hour.” If correct, this is more than adequate. The main exposure risks occur during boarding and deplaning when in-flight airplane ventilation systems are not operating. However, I would avoid long plane flights for now if possible, as it’s somewhat risky to unmask to eat or drink on a plane.

Train travel has a similar risk exposure. Amtrak says that its “trains are equipped with onboard filtration systems with a fresh air exchange rate every 4-5 minutes”. Again, if accurate, this is more than adequate.

Public transportation can involve inadequate ventilation and close contact with others. Under these circumstances, wearing high-quality masks is essential.

If attendees and staff follow precautions, traveling to and from meetings is not as high-risk as the following activities.

Accommodations

As described below, very few hotels (and venues) seem to have implemented ASHRAE’S building readiness standards for air quality in their properties. Sleeping in a hotel room when one can’t wear a mask has an unknown and potentially high risk for COVID-19 infection unless you can obtain fresh air by opening windows. Consequently, I currently prefer to stay in self-contained Airbnb properties. There, I can be confident that air from an unknown source won’t contaminate indoor air.

Dining and socializing

Currently, eating and drinking indoors is quite risky unless the location has upgraded its HVAC systems to adequately filter COVID, the space has very high ceilings, or copious fresh outdoor air is available from open windows.

Understandably, people want to connect at in-person meetings. We are drawn to do this during meals and socials where masks cannot be or are not worn. Which can lead to consequences like this:

“…now myself and at least 25% of our participants are sick with COVID. I am hearing from someone else every day…All the precautions in the world don’t really matter if you abandon them when people eat and drink. We all know this yet we are all still doing it for the most part.
—Quote from a meeting planner’s January 2022 conference report

I’ve heard reports of this natural but hazardous behavior at many conferences held over the last couple of years. Given the ease of transmission of dominant COVID-19 variants, the best way to minimize such risks is to hold meals and socials outdoors. Obviously, this is not always practical.

Conclusions

Currently, hardly any in-person events report post-event attendee and staff COVID cases. In many cases, there is no apparent effort made to perform post-event case tracking.

The meeting industry is still wrestling with whether events have an obligation to report COVID-19 cases to the general public. So we don’t know the true infectious impact of meeting in person, though it’s reasonable to assume that more infections occur than are reported.

Consequently, while we all desire in-person meetings, I think it’s incumbent on every event stakeholder to consider the effect of their event on the health of participants and staff, and determine whether, in good conscience, the meeting should best take place in-person or online.

Looking forward: What the meeting industry still needs to do

Two years after COVID-19 started, we know what to do to keep in-person meetings safe. Currently, it’s still critical that vaccination and masking requirements are in place for events to occur safely. Yet the meeting and hospitality industries still have their heads in the sand in one crucial safety area.

Upgrade air quality in venues and accommodations

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. This does not appear to be happening! Since I wrote at length about this important safety requirement back in April 2021, I have only heard of one additional venue that is providing COVID-safe ventilation — the Javits Center in New York City. [Heard of others? Let me know, either directly or via comments on this post!]

Let me put this in simple terms. COVID-19 is here to stay for the indefinite future. Would you want to stay in a hotel room with ventilation that includes air from the room next door where a COVID-positive person is sleeping? Do you want to mingle, unmasked, during a meeting social with strangers where the ventilation rate is inadequate to clear the air of COVID-19 aerosols? Even if you’re cavalier about such infection risks, we have a duty of care to attendees and staff.

Right now, updating venue ventilation for COVID-19 is a competitive advantage. Being able to say a property is compliant with current ventilation guidance is a great selling point, as the Javits Center illustrates.

Plan for future COVID-19 variants (and new pandemics)

To date we’ve had several COVID-19 variants play havoc with our in-person meeting plans. We now need to assume that another new dominant variant could appear at any time.

Dominance occurs because a new variant is more transmissible than older ones. A dominant variant may or may not cause more severe disease than other variants.

What this means is that we now need backup plans for switching in-person meetings that can’t be postponed to online formats at relatively short notice. Yes, our work just got even more complicated than it already was. Meetings sure aren’t getting any easier to plan!

Conclusions for a new meeting industry normal

Finally, it should be clear that at this point I’m still cautious about returning to in-person meetings. Millions of people—the elderly, the immunocompromised, and young children who cannot yet be vaccinated—are particularly vulnerable to severe consequences if they catch COVID-19. Some may have to wear masks for the rest of their lives. Premature removal of mask and vaccination mandates at meetings will cause additional, possibly fatal illnesses amongst this population. I hope meeting planners do not rush to relax these important mandates in the mistaken belief that we have reached or are about to return to the old meeting normal.

My concluding paragraph from Part 2 of these posts still applies:

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

The meeting industry new normal — Part 2

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

What will the meeting industry new normal look like?

One silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic, horrendous though its cost has been, is that it has forced us to think differently. In a July 2020 New Yorker 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.

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

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

Next practices, not best practices

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

This is proving to be difficult.

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

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

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

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

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

The meeting industry new normal — Part 1

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

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

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

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

Let’s think this through.

An optimistic scenario for a meeting industry old normal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of us, save perhaps the most introverted, 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, 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 connections 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 Parts 2 and 3 of this post, where I conclude my explanation why there will not be a meeting industry new normal.