Are in-person events COVID safe?

in-person events COVID safeSeptember 2021 — Are in-person events COVID safe? The worldwide meeting industry is desperately, and understandably, waiting for the answer to this question to be “Yes”. Well, Freeman, the largest global event management firm, has just announced “the truth is, in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store — and we have the data to prove it”.

Sadly, while I acknowledge and appreciate Freeman’s significant work on the case for recommencing meeting in person, I believe this claim is misleading, and the underlying modeling and research include flawed assumptions.

Make no mistake; I love to design and facilitate in-person meetings. I strongly desire to be able to safely return to facilitating and attending in-person events. But, as meeting professionals, we have a professional duty of care during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I think it’s important to provide a realistic assessment of risk for meeting stakeholders—especially potential attendees. Articles are already appearing in meeting publications (1, 2) that highlight the one-line summary of the Freeman announcement above. Such opinions, buttressed by what seems to be solid research and modeling, can easily give our industry the impression that in-person meetings can safely recommence.

My concerns about Freeman’s statements

I have two broad concerns about Freeman’s summary of research “Inside LIVE: The data you need to navigate the Delta variant for events” on the safety of in-person events. You can watch Freeman’s 55-minute webinar, posted on August 25, 2021, below.

1—Freeman’s overall conclusion is misleading

My first concern is that Freeman’s big picture conclusion that “in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store” is a misleading characterization of the statistics they present.

in-person events COVID safe

Here are the statistics (from the next webinar slide).

in-person events COVID safe

This slide compares the mid-August, 2021 rate of COVID cases amongst the entire population in the United States with the reported rates from four recent large in-person events. The second column shows the infection rate as a percentage.

The entire U.S. infection rate is indeed higher than the reported rates from the listed recent in-person events. (I’ll add that we know that reported rates are typically significantly lower than actual rates, but let’s assume that both sets of statistics are undercounted to the same degree.)

Unfortunately, Freeman’s statement that “in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store” does not follow from the data on this slide!

Why?

Because the statement conflates the risk of a masked visit to a grocery store with the overall risk in the United States of getting infected! The latter regrettably includes a significant fraction of the U.S. population who won’t or can’t get vaccinated, don’t wear masks to protect against airborne transmission of COVID-19, and don’t social distance. The risk of contracting COVID-19 during a grocery store masked visit is far less than the overall risk for everyone in the U.S.

The headline statement is, therefore, comparing apples to oranges. You’d expect any event that implements precautions against COVID-19 transmission to have a lower infection rate than the entire United States. That doesn’t mean that attending an event is a safe enough choice for attendees and staff.

This brings us to what’s actually important to people trying to make a decision whether to attend an event. The event modeling, performed for Freeman by Epistemix, and discussed later, suggests that those who are currently likely to attend a large in-person business event that implements mitigation strategies such as vaccination requirements, masking, and social distancing, are significantly more likely to be vaccinated (~80%). That statistic seems credible to me.

Such potential attendees, who are already more careful than the average American about how they live their lives in a pandemic, aren’t interested in whether an event environment provides a risk of getting COVID-19 comparable to the average risk of the entire population of the U.S. Rather, they want to know if attending the event will significantly (defined by them) increase their likelihood of contracting COVID-19. And that brings me to the second concern about the assumptions made by Epistemix’s event risk model.

2—The event risk model used for risk calculations is flawed and incomplete

When I heard about the Freeman webinar (thanks Julius Solaris!), I posted some initial responses. Freeman’s Jessica Fritsche was kind enough to reach out to me and arrange a Zoom call with John Cordier, the CEO of Epistemix, to walk through the data modeling used in the research. And John generously offered an hour of his time for us to talk. We were also joined by Sarah Shewey, Founder/CEO of Happily who was also interested in learning more about how infection rates at meetings could be modeled.

During our hour together, John shared an overview of the Epistemix model. This gave me a better understanding of Epistemix’s approach. The model essentially attempts to simulate the entire population of the United States at an impressive level of detail. It includes numerous geographic and social factors that affect infection risk. However, during our conversation I asked about a number of important factors that I believe Epistemix has not incorporated into their model of calculating meeting risks.

Probably the most important of these is adequately modeling the air quality at the event, given the paucity of information available about the safety of specific venues and properties from an air quality perspective. In addition, the model does not include the additive risks for travel to and from an event, and staying in a hotel during an event. Though it’s likely possible to model the increased risk during (unmasked) eating and drinking social activities during the event, it doesn’t appear that the Epistemix model does this. Finally, though the Epistemix model incorporates information about COVID-19 variants as they become known, I’m skeptical that it can accurately predict in a timely manner the impact of brand new COVID-19 variants.

In the following sections, I’ll expand on these issues in more detail.

Flaws and omissions in Epistemix’s meeting model

First, a tiny introduction to modeling human systems. All models are an approximation of reality. Consequently,

All models are wrong, but some are useful
—aphorism generally attributed to the statistician George Box

My model building background

I learned to program computers in high school, over 50 years ago. Through a series of summer jobs, undergraduate and graduate work, and consulting assignments, I’ve spent years creating computer models of city traffic systems, the interactions of high energy particle beams bombarding matter, the consequences of obscure physics theories, and the functions of complicated administrative systems.

Two fundamental considerations when building and trusting computer models are:

  1. The assumptions one makes in building a model are key to the model being actually useful rather than wrong. Computer models are very seductive. They seem precise and authoritative, and it’s hard to discover and accept their limitations and/or even their completely wrong predictions. Choosing the right assumptions is an art, not a science. One poor assumption can doom a model’s reliability.
  2. Even if you choose good assumptions, implementing them correctly in computer code is difficult. It’s hard to be sure that an implementation faithfully reflects core assumptions. An incorrect implementation of a potentially useful model typically leads to incorrect predictions. If you’re lucky, it’s obvious that a model’s outputs are wrong. But sometimes, predictions are subtly wrong in ways that are easy to overlook.

I’m going to assume that Epistemix models faithfully implement the assumptions made to create them (#2 above). However, I’ve identified four factors that I feel Epistemix has not incorporated into their model of calculating meeting risks. Some of these factors are interlinked.

1—Adequately modeling airborne COVID-19 transmission at a specific event

While talking to John, it became clear to me that the current Epistemix approach does not adequately model the air quality—and the consequent risk of COVID-19 transmission—at a specific event. The model has some capacity to estimate risks (which are generally minimal) in very large, high-ceiling spaces like convention halls. But, of course, the typical meeting venue contains multiple meeting spaces, some of them small, and, critically, the venues do not in general have a good handle (if any) on the air quality in those spaces. (Or, if they do, they’re not talking publicly about it.)

When I wrote about this issue six months ago, I put out an industry wide request to learn of venues and properties that had upgraded their HVAC systems to current ASHRAE recommendations (typically ~5 air changes/hour plus MERV 13 or better air filtering). I promised to publicize the venues that had made these upgrades.

I know such upgrades can be costly, but you’d think that venues and properties that have implemented them would love to promote themselves as having air quality that meets current pandemic-based standards.

To date, I have not been told of a single venue that is now compliant with ASHRAE pandemic recommendations. (I hope that by now there are some, and that they will let this be known.) During the webinar, Freeman said that such work has and is being done. Please share this information, folks! Meeting planners want to know!

Frankly, without this information a) being made available and b) being incorporated into the Epistemix model it’s hard to have much confidence in the infection risks Epistemix’s model predicts.

2—Additive risks for travel to and from an event, and staying in a hotel during an event

Epistemix’s model does not include the additive risks for attendees (and staff) traveling to and from an event. The main concern is air travel. The air industry has stressed that air change rates in aircraft are high (over 10 air changes/hour) and, now that masks are mandatory, infection risks should therefore be low. An excellent investigation by the New York Times “How Safe Are You From Covid When You Fly?” has tempered this assessment somewhat. Of particular interest are comments from a couple of readers who monitored the carbon-dioxide level—an excellent proxy for air quality—during their entire travel. They found that boarding and deplaning air quality was drastically reduced, as well as during the last thirty minutes of one person’s flight. Exposure at terminal restaurants, where masks must be removed, is also potentially risky.

Quite apart from the “event” itself, staying in a venue may greatly increase one’s risk of infection. I wrote about venue and property ventilation concerns in detail in April, 2021, and later articles by PCMA (1, 2) and the New York Times (1) have echoed this concern.

Again, travel risks are not included in Epistemix’s model. They can be significant, and have to be included to determine the relative risk for an event attendee who is choosing whether to participate or staff an event, or not.

3—Modeling the increased risk when masks are off for socials and group meals

Most in-person meetings include meals and socials, when masking is not possible. Unless you hold such unmasked get-togethers outdoors or in safely ventilated venues, airborne transmission of COVID-19 amongst everyone present (attendees and staff) is a potentially significant and unknown risk. Outdoor locations are only possible for limited periods in much of the U.S. As mentioned above, venues and properties remain silent on whether they’ve upgraded and certified their facilities to current ASHRAE recommendations on air quality.

We have also seen reports of numerous cases of reduced, unmasked social distancing at socials and meals. This is understandable in a world where we’ve been masked and apart for so long. But it is still a risky activity, especially in spaces where ventilation is inadequate.

My understanding (which may be incorrect) of Epistemix’s model is that masking is a global parameter for an event. The model does not handle unmasking in specific event spaces for periods of time. Even if the model does have this flexibility, the lack of knowledge of whether such spaces are safely ventilated prevents an accurate risk assessment.

4—Can Epistemix model the appearance of brand new COVID-19 variants?

I am also still skeptical that Epistemix can build new variants into the model predictions in a timely fashion, given how the world took about six months after the delta variant was first identified to realize that it was radically changing COVID-19 transmission rates. While Epistemix’s model includes the infection characteristics of multiple variants, and new variants can be added once they are identified, I wonder if an event organizer who made a go/no-go decision about a fall meeting early this summer based on the Epistemix model would be happy about the increased predicted risks once the delta variant was added.

But John and I didn’t have time to fully explore this issue, so this concern may be overblown.

Are in-person events COVID safe?

I really appreciate John Cordier’s willingness to share an overview of Epistemix’s infection risk model for events. Obviously, my brief introduction means there’s no way I can authoritatively review the extensive assumptions that are built into the model. Epistemix’s model is impressively detailed and, if correctly implemented (which I have no reason to doubt), seems to comprehensively cover core demographics, the data needed to model infection spread in regional populations, and most major components for predicting infection at a specific event.

When I brought up the concerns I’ve listed in this post, I felt that John largely talked past me, continuing with an explanation of the model without responding directly to what I was asking. This was somewhat frustrating. The two exceptions to this were:

  1. My question about whether the model could accurately predict in a timely manner the impact of brand new variants. This arose at the end of our meeting. John indicated that he believed the model was able to do this, but we didn’t have enough time to explore this issue fully. I’m still skeptical, though he might well have been able to convince me otherwise if we’d had more time.
  2. My primary concern about modeling air quality in detail. John admitted during the meeting that the model does not currently handle specific venue air quality architecture at the detail that’s necessary to simulate, say, what happens when you have a session in a smaller classroom with an HVAC system that is not up to current ASHRAE recommendations. It also omits risks due to event participants (and staff) spending time in properties that may have inadequate air quality. He wrote to me afterwards that “he’d be glad to follow up on the air-quality parameters that you think are most important”.

I’ve seen so many pretty models of systems over the decades. To a casual viewer, they look impressive. It’s only because I spent years building and validating such models that I know how misleading they can be, and the difficulty and importance of identifying the key factors and approximations that form the basis of the model and limit its scope and/or accuracy.

Leaving out detailed venue specific air quality modeling, plus the incoming and return travel risks and accommodation risks during an event, plus inadequate modeling of the risk of transmission during socials and food & beverage sessions make the outputs of the Epistemix model suspect. And I’m skeptical that Epistemix can build new variants into the model predictions in a timely fashion.

Finally, I haven’t covered in this article the feasibility of implementing the various mitigation strategies that are available to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection at meetings. Personally, I’d insist on proof of vaccination (no exceptions) and maximal masking at any event I’m likely to attend in the near future. But I’ll just add here this observation from the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society‘s HIMSS21 Las Vegas conference for 19,000 attendees. Vaccination was mandatory for all attendees. There were six positive test results (0.03% infarction rate). However, this PCMA article on the event includes the statement:  “…you will not be able to service your show if you require every single vendor employee, every single supplier employee, every single temp employee to be vaccinated — there’s just not enough labor out there.” Something to bear in mind.

Are in-person events COVID safe? Ultimately, each of us needs to decide the answer to this question. But, in my opinion, until the COVID-19 case count drops drastically and/or venues can show that their facility ventilation is safe, it’s a violation of our professional duty of care to mislead attendees and those who work in our industry by telling them “in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store”.

On our different responses to adversity

responses to adsversityWe all have different responses to adversity, and none of them are “wrong”.

I write this post a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, sparked by the personal experience of an old friend, psychotherapist and author Nancy Leach. She shared the following:

This was the journey

I thought I had successfully managed my emotional wellbeing through almost a year and a half separation from my daughter and grandson, who live in California. I was deeply sad at times, but phone calls, texting and FaceTime usually took the edge off and so I carried on. I was grateful that I and my Toronto family were safe and well, and that I not only love my husband but like him and enjoy his company. The addition of an 8-week-old puppy just before Christmas kept us both incredibly busy and provided many moments of unbridled joy.

Then there was an emergency in the extended California family and in response I hopped on a plane. Twelve hours and two flights later, my daughter and I fell into each other’s arms. I was not surprised to feel a tsunami of love and relief; I was well aware that I was suffering without physical proximity. But I expected the pain of the past year to resolve itself quickly. I’m someone who feels intensely, and I tend to mine feeling for insight, so I figured I was pretty-much in touch with my inner state.

It therefore took me by surprise, when a few days later we stopped on the road to talk over the fence with a neighbour. “You must be so happy to be together after all this time” said she. A lump suddenly appeared in my throat and tears came to my eyes. “How was it to be in airports?” she asked, to which I replied, “It was a little crazy, but I didn’t care…” Deep breath as I struggled to let the grief move through me. “I would have walked here.” Sheltered in the soft and deep silence of a redwood forest and in the company of the two I had missed so much, my very cells were releasing the cumulative sadness of more than a year.

It wasn’t until at least a week later that I felt I had fully “metabolized” the loss of a pandemic shutdown. My daughter is of very similar sensibility and often conceptualizes and better articulates an experience we share. She commented that it was almost as if she had been gaslighting herself, telling herself she was okay when she was not.

Of course, we need to “carry on” even when conditions are far from optimal. But I’m sharing this because I wonder how many of us have convinced ourselves that because no family member has been incapacitated with Covid or we haven’t lost our job or aren’t devastated at the impact on a vulnerable child we are doing okay. My “suffering” was but a small fraction of what so many people have endured, and I simply didn’t realize how much ground I had lost.

Well, what is ground but an illusion? The deeper message is one that is always with us, but we don’t always want to acknowledge. When we investigate the nuances of our suffering, we come face to face with the reality that any certainty we feel about life is an illusion. Throughout our lives, our hopes, dreams, plans, even parts of us that identify with a certain narrative or condition must die. In these small deaths is a reminder of the fragility of the “self” we have so painstakingly built over this lifetime – and the reality of the impermanence of all things.

We don’t like to be reminded of our death and despite the passing of each moment, sadness or joy, we cling to all vestiges of what seems to endure. But in the end, we cannot change the law of impermanence; we can only strive to make peace with it. As the worst of the pandemic restrictions ease, I hope I won’t be too quick to put that insight behind me.

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No, I do not hate in-person meetings

hate in-person meetingsI’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.)

1) Posted safety protocols are not followed

Seven months ago, I explained why, in my opinion, in-person meetings do not make sense in a COVID-19 environment. I assumed that in-person meetings could, in principle, be held safely if everyone:

  • 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.

Orlando, Florida, OCCC Together Again Expo, July 2020

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.
hate in-person meetings

4) We’re meeting safe—but you can’t sue us if we’re not

In fact, some in-person meetings quietly acknowledge that they may not be providing a “safe” environment. One meeting venue held an in-person meeting that required waivers that forever bind attendees and their family members, and “heirs, assigns and personal representatives” not to sue if they contract COVID-19.

“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.

Don’t be a hero — solve small problems!

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.
solve small problems

“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.

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The meeting industry new normal — Part 2

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

What will the meeting industry new normal look like?

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

The meeting industry old normal

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

The meeting industry new normal

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

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

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

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

Next practices, not best practices

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

This is proving to be difficult.

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

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

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

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

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

The meeting industry new normal — Part 1

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

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

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

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

Let’s think this through.

An optimistic scenario for a meeting industry old normal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COVID-19, hybrid meetings, and the future

COVID-19, hybrid meetings, and the futureHere 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.

I am not focusing on hybrid meetings at the moment. Why? Because I see little, if any, benefit of holding in-person meetings at this time. When we are able to have in-person meetings safely without masks or 6′ social distancing, I expect to be designing for two basic kinds of hybrid meetings.

  1. 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.)
  2. 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!

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