I was recently honored to be a panelist for IWL – Integrating Women Leaders – in a hybrid keynote session where I was on stage at Markey’s studios in Indianapolis with other panelists and the moderator (including execs from Salesforce and Amazon) while being viewed online by 1,400 people in 19 countries (and if you’re wondering, yes, I was the lone male panelist and, also yes, I was surprised and delighted to be included).
I knew I would be asked about the industry I work in and whether it would rebound or see a dramatic, permanent decline. So I had been giving my answer some thought before the event and realized that the vast majority of citywides (large group events typically held in a convention center) ultimately strive to deliver one or more of what I am calling the “4 C’s of Citywides.”
These categories are all relatively self-explanatory so I won’t embellish them but I came to the conclusion, the realization, that virtual meetings only deliver one of these C’s anywhere near as well as face-to-face events, and that’s content.
Yes, Zoom and its counterparts are a pretty good and convenient alternative to face-to-face learning (although my 8-year-old daughter would disagree, she prefers going to school). But, I asked the virtual audience, how many IWL “attendees” were feeling really connected with other viewers via their computer chat boxes the way the four of us on stage and the IWL staff and board members were feeling in person in the studio?
I made connections in that studio with people who had been strangers beforehand that will almost surely mean they’ll take my call or respond to my email, and vice-versa, if and when that time comes (and that has already happened with the Salesforce exec). I doubt the online-only viewers made many, if any, of those kinds of new connections or nurtured existing ones.
So we all agreed, in that room at least, that 100% virtual meetings struggle with connecting people in a truly meaningful way. In addition, they generally can’t deliver anywhere near the experience and revenue when commerce is the primary objective of the citywide, as is the case for trade shows, or conventions with large trade shows built into them.
Buyers making five, six, or even seven-plus figure purchases (that would be millions, and Indy has several annual trade shows like that) want to see and touch the merchandise, ask questions in real time, and size up the integrity and trust-worthiness of their sales and service reps. They just can’t get these things from a virtual event (and God help the event organizer if the virtual event has tech issues or outages).
As for competitions, we’ve already seen that sporting events are finding ways to safely meet in person even at the height of the pandemic. It’s why Indy had basketball tourneys throughout the summer. It’s why we’ve lined up many additional sporting events for the coming months - because the demand is there. (Our current January through March 2021 schedule could be summed up as: cheerleading, volleyball, volleyball, volleyball, volleyball, gymnastics, NFL Combine, more volleyball, NCAA Men’s Final Four.)
Now this isn’t to say we’re close to recovering. We’re not. At best, if vaccines and effective therapeutics become widely available in the next six to nine months, 2021 will be a transition year where some groups will still cancel or go 100% virtual (especially in Q1 & Q2) but others will begin offering hybrid events with stringent in-person safety protocols. Many can’t afford not to; they’ll go out of business or severely regress otherwise. And competitions will continue to consider every option to make their events happen, from on-site rapid results testing to vaccine mandates (just an educated guess).
While we still have a long road ahead, I’m very bullish on a full industry recovery in line with what many hotel and economic analysts such as STR, CBRE, and Tourism Economics foresee, with convention and hotel business getting back to 2019 levels, or beyond, by 2024.