News Poll: Industry weighs in on future of in-person conferences

Half of respondents don't see them happening in 2020, with another 50 percent saying they won't attend if they are held
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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

YARMOUTH, Maine—With the coronavirus keeping us all grounded for now, and with the future still not clear as to how long it will take us to get back to some type of normalcy, this month’s SSN News Poll looked to gauge readers' thoughts and feelings on the immediate and long-term future of in-person conferences.

When asked the million-dollar question — do you think there will be any in-person conferences in 2020 — half (50 percent) of those responding said no, with only 24 percent saying yes and another 26 percent saying they were not sure.

Digging deeper into readers’ thoughts and feelings on the topic, when asked if they would attend in-person conferences if held in 2020, 50 percent again said no, with only 30 percent saying yes and 20 percent saying maybe.

When we asked respondents how long it will take before in-person conferences return to their pre-coronavirus glory, only 19 percent said by next year, with the majority of respondents (67 percent) saying it will take some time beyond next year. Only 14 percent feel that we will not return to the same levels we once enjoyed.

“A lot of the industry experts are in the high-risk category, so it would not be safe for them to participate in person,” noted Chrissy McCutcheon, principal and senior security consultant, Security by Design, Inc. (SBD). “Once more people have developed the antibodies, we will be able to slowly transition back to in-person conferences.”

Joseph Valentine, owner, BIDCO Acquisitions & Divestitures agreed, adding: “As with many diseases and viruses — the development of a therapeutic(s), vaccine(s) and/or the routine of herd immunity will allow the return to normalcy.”

Len Simoni, general manager, B Safe Alarms noted that once “a vaccine, a cure or a faster way to test people” is presented, “conferences are going to have restrictions, wearing masks and keeping six-foot distances as the new norm. I will not be attending any in-person meetings. Zoom it is for the next two years, plus.”

Another respondent astutely pointed out that while there may be a willingness to attend these in-person meetings and conferences, and a safe way to manage events, “there may be too much perceived liability for those putting on the events to make them happen this year, especially now that there is talk about a rebound in the fall.”

One respondent agreed, noting that many will want to “see what flu season and COVID together look like in the fall of 2020. Last, you cannot have 20-foot aisles or everyone 6-feet apart on a panel — and everyone in masks and trying to have cocktail events and dinners! So then what is it doing?”

While most think we will eventually get back to normal, one respondent said, “It’s gonna take 5 years before trade shows and conferences return to normal. A vaccine is needed along with 1-2 years of no infections.”

Even if there is a vaccine developed and the pandemic is controlled, some respondents do not see the industry ever getting back to 100 percent. “The past as we know it will return to about 75 to 80 percent of what us old folks are used to,” said one respondent. “Our replacement generation will be the ones structuring our future.”

Many noted, as we have already seen, that there will be more online meetings. “Not just because of health concerns, but now online meetings have been tested and they work,” said one respondent. “More people are familiar and comfortable with online meetings. They add convenience and cost savings. They can also be recorded and available later for those that were unable to attend the live event.”

Another respondent aptly pointed out that the pandemic will spur innovation in virtual conferences, providing stronger content than in-person events. “They’ll be better with more on-site and virtual participation and enablement,” the respondent said. “They’ll also be more global instantly for presenters and participants. They’ll never be like they were; they have to be better to draw attendance.”

But as Morse Watchman’s Tim Purpura points out, nothing beats face-to-face meetings, especially in the world of sales and support. “I believe that face-to-face events are an integral part of doing business,” he said. “Events that happen this year will have attendance loss of over 50 percent and we’ll certainly be challenged to maintain our social distance. We’ll evolve to this new world we live in; we’ll adapt and business will go on. Of the 12-plus shows (globally) we planned this year, we will end up doing four (one already done in January).”

Another respondent agreed, adding, “There is nothing better to assess an individual’s competence than to be able to talk face-to-face and to be able to read body language. Virtual conferences are OK during crises but to eliminate the one-on-one, face-to-face will substantially change how we do business and reduce if not eliminate interpersonal working relationships. Will trust eventually erode?”