Recently, I was able to travel to my first industry conference since January 2020. The digital and performance marketing industries have largely shifted to virtual conferences since that time. On March 21, Lead Generation World kicked off the opening night of a multi-day conference in Orlando FL. Since returning from the event, I have had numerous people ask me about the in-person event logistics in the current climate. So, I thought I would write an article to share my experiences and potentially help anyone who has opportunities to attend in-person industry events in the upcoming weeks/months.
Living in Colorado, a trip to a conference in Orlando involved a 3.5-hour flight to Florida. My flight was scheduled to leave Denver mid-morning on Saturday, so when I arrived at the airport it was comparatively empty. The benefit was a quick check-in process with the airline, a fast trip through security (even now, having TSA Pre is well worth the trouble), and then on to a relatively empty terminal and gate area. It did fill up as we approached boarding time since the flight was full.
Some airlines are still flying with empty middle seats, while others have no restrictions. So, be prepared to be physically closer to strangers than you have been for the past year. Boarding processes have also changed. Boarding by section process has changed to boarding by rows from the back of the plane to the front (with business and first-class largely being able to board when they choose). Exiting the plane was effectively the same process in reverse, where they call out rows to get up and exit the airplane, starting with the front and moving back.
I didn’t notice a single person not wearing a mask, unless they were sitting down at a restaurant or taking a drink, eating a snack, etc. People were fairly courteous and perhaps more aware of not crowding other folks than normal. The airline crews were also very friendly and did a good job of reminding people of things like not letting a mask slip down off their noses, without anything getting confrontational. So, the flights were quite smooth, even if having that many people in an enclosed space for several hours felt a bit strange.
Checking in and being around the hotel was largely the same as it was in 2019, with the addition of face masks and people trying to stay a bit more distant than they might have previously. I did note more regular cleaning of common areas and ]room cleaning services were by request only.
Being in Orlando, a nice outdoor pool was part of the equation and there were lots of families with younger children at the hotel (and on my flights). It was cloudy and cold the first two days, so I didn’t see much pool activity going on. But, the sun came out on the last day 80-degree temps, so the pool was a lot more crowded. I did note that walking around the pool, masks were much less common, but people did tend to stay more socially distanced.
The conference took several precautions for attendee safety. Every attendee had to have their temperature checked daily, prior to entering the conference area. Masks were required when walking around common areas, and hand sanitizer stations were located in numerous places. The usual conference snacks, lunches, drinks, etc. were more pre-packaged than usual. So, no lunch buffets that you might see at a lot of conferences. Each of the tables in the session room also had about half the number of chairs as a pre-2020 conference, so help foster more social distancing. The conference organizer worked to set up an event where best safety practices were strongly supported.
Dinners and Networking Events
In my industry, the client and partner dinners, parties, and other after-hours events are not only a highlight but often a driver for a lot of business getting done. I was very curious how these events would be handled. The conference itself chose not to host an official party that might have drawn several hundred people to be in the same place at once. So, various companies in attendance hosted smaller events for their teams and select clients and partners. I personally didn’t see any of these get too large, in keeping with goals of not having big crowds getting together at one time. The local restaurants asked people to wear face masks when not sitting at their tables and weren’t quite as full as they might be at other times.
Seeing People for the First Time
Probably the most awkward moment was seeing someone for the first time. This particularly applies when that person was a close industry friend who you might have greeted enthusiastically under normal circumstances. I saw an interesting mix of elbow bumps, fist bumps, brief handshakes, and a few brief hugs (we honestly do have a very close industry with many people becoming very close friends over the years.) The awkward part was figuring out where each person’s comfort level was for each interaction. But, after the first night, that seemed to be largely cleared up, with a few laughs at the awkwardness of it. I saw most people carrying personal hand-sanitizer and masks continued to be worn regularly, except when people were sitting down for dinner, drinks, etc.
It turns out that a lot of us have learned to read lips at least a little over the years. When you are in a large room with a number of conversations going on, the background noise can make it hard to hear what someone is saying. Prior to 2020, we would have also had the ability to ‘see’ what they are saying by watching their facial expressions and lips moving. But, both of those visual cues are gone when everyone is wearing a mask. So, a lot of people found it harder than normal to carry on conversations with masks on.