Hotels Behaving Badly

Karma may not always be instant, but, as John Lennon once said, nonetheless, “It’s gonna get you.” Something to keep in mind as we go through hard times and have to make even harder decisions about what to do with employees we can’t actually employ right now. An article in the Boston Globe takes a look at one local hotel that is facing that tune now as it cuts the promised severance packages for its once-furloughed, now laid-off workers from one week of pay per year of work up to 26 weeks now are just getting 10 weeks of pay max. Other hotels are laying people off and making them reapply as new hires when business comes back.

Meeting organizers do take notice of these things, folks. The article cites several who are threatening to take their future events elsewhere, saying how a hotel treats its employees in tough times will factor into their decision=making moving forward.

Yes, the hotel business is hurting. We all get that. But not as much as their front-line banquet servers, concierge attendants, bartenders, and front desk workers — all of whom have much shallower pockets to dig into until times get better.

I have had so many discussions the past several months with hoteliers and meeting products and services providers who are dedicating this down time to nourishing their relationships with their meetings and events clients rather than trying to hard-sell them to make commitments for future bookings. I wonder how many of these clients are asking them how their business is handling furloughed and laid-off employees — and how important their answers will be when the time comes to start booking again.

As Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung says, “Money talks.” In fact, another Boston area hotel tried something similar earlier this year, only to walk it back when its most lucrative clientele objected and threatened to take their business somewhere with more humane policies. Will this one do something similar if the outcry is loud and potentially damaging enough to its future event business? Time will tell.

Is a pandemic a good enough excuse to go back on contractual agreements with employees? I know many people, myself included, who are willing to let those they work with break their contracts with no legal repercussions in hopes that, when things improve, they’ll remember and treat us in kind when they are on a more even keel financially. But we have that choice — these hotel workers have been given no choice, and not much hope that their long-term employers will ultimately do the right thing by them.

If this is important to you, and I hope it is, ask the question, listen to the response, and don’t forget what you learn when good times return. Yes, the bottom line is important. But so is our humanity, and we need to show it now more than ever.

The Least Consequential Effect Yet of COVID-19

Just a few of this week’s toss-aways

I don’t want to talk about how the coronavirus has upended (in all too many cases, just ended) our lives, our livelihoods, our meetings and events, our holiday plans, etc., etc., etc. We all know the big disruptions to life as we knew it, and there’s no point in harping on all we have lost. Except this one stupid, weird and very inconsequential fallout from COVID-19 that just started happening last week, and I can’t stop obsessing about it.

I am running out of cheap ballpoint pens.

You know, the branded ones you pick up in your hotel room, at booths in the expo, in the breakout session rooms — everywhere I went at a meeting back in the good old days less than a year ago, those pens would jump into my pocket, my bag, my backpack. I am always just drowning in giveaway pens.

Until this week, when in what appears to be a coordinated effort, they all are running out of ink at once. First to go was the Marriott pen, then one from the Mirage. Then two show organizer-branded pens went dry — poof and poof. Then a Hyatt pen, and then one from an obscure budget hotel I stayed at in Toronto… I had to dig into my backpack stash, but even the multitude I picked up at PCMA last January — was that really just last January? — are starting to go dry, not matter how hard I shake them.

I’m not one to fall for conspiracy theories, but what are the chances these pens would all give up the ghost at once?

Maybe the ink is really some kind of magical elixir that sops up the coronavirus and then, through some miracle of alchemy, both ink and virus cancel each other out, leaving just the empty plastic shell to tell the tale? Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of a vaccine shot, all we needed to do was stick a bunch of cheap pens in our pockets whenever we ventured out of the house? Yeah, I know, dream on.

I have no explanation, but the truth is out there, and someday, I will figure it out.

In the meantime, all those pens, pads, and other silly, germ-collecting collateral we all took for granted has been stripped away for safety’s sake, so even if I was to venture out to an in-person meeting in the near future, which I have no plans to do, this one dumb little perk I have depended on all my adult life without even thinking about it is likely not to reappear any time soon.

It’s anathema to me, but for the first time since back-to-school shopping as a kid, I find myself thinking about buying pens next time I go to CVS. Oh, the humanity!

Is there any similarly super dumb inconsequential thing that has come out of the last nine months that you’ve been noticing? Inquiring minds want to know!

Why Wouldn’t You Make Your Online Events Engaging?

“Everybody wins when everybody has the opportunity to interact.” That sentence from a recent conversation with facilitator, author, and all-around brilliant thinker Adrian Segar really rang my bell. As becomes all-too-readily apparent to anyone who has had to sit through a one-way, PowerPoint-heavy webinar lately (and haven’t we all?!), this is even more true for online events than it is for the in-person variety. And yet, we still seem to think that people will be willing to sit through these boring digital sessions, at least from my experience over the past seven months or so since everything went online.

But it doesn’t have to be that way! Adrian ran me through just a few ways that we can use online platforms to incorporate some of the interactivity that he outlines in his books, Conferences That Work, The Power of Participation, and Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need. I had the opportunity to actually see some of his strategies in action a few years ago, and the energy in the room throughout the conference was light years ahead of that I’ve experienced at most other events. But does that really translate to the online environment?

Turns out the answer is yes, and in some ways, the engagement and interactivity can actually be better online than in person, believe it or not.

A few examples he gave me:

• Go fish! The fishbowl is a basic technique event organizers can use to keep a conversation under control — even harder to do online when everyone on the Zoom call starts talking at once than in a room where they at least have to go to a mic! In the offline version, you have a facilitator, maybe an expert, and chairs for a couple of people who want to contribute on a stage. People can come up and sit in the chairs to speak their piece, then relinquish their chair for the next person who wants to contribute. “It works really well in person, it’s very fluid and gives everyone an opportunity to speak,” Adrian said.

To make it work online, even with something as simple and ubiquitous as Zoom, just substitute people’s individual cameras for the chairs on stage. Ask everyone to first turn their cameras and mics off, then when they have something to say, turn their camera and mic on. If you’re in the gallery view, their video feed will float to the top. As would be the case for an in-person meeting, the facilitator guides the discussion. If you have more people who want to speak than is practical (or participants who are phone-in-only), have them line up via the chat function. Adrian has used this technique with online meetings of a hundred people on Zoom and it worked just fine. Just be sure to explain the rules ahead of time so people know how to proceed.

 On the spectrum. There’s also the spectrogram, which I experienced both at the conference Adrian led and at IMEX a few years ago, where the facilitator asks people to line up according to where they stand on a specific question. It’s a great way to break the ice, help people connect with others who they have something in common with, and move around to get energy flowing. And it works just fine online. Again, using cameras and mics, the facilitator can ask people to mute/turn off their cameras, then unmute and turn their cameras back on when what the facilitator proposed applies to them. For example, Adrian used it for a recent online “wake” he held for a local college that had to shut down its local campus. The participants all were alumni or otherwise had a connection to the college, so he had people do a digital version of the spectrogram based on things like their class year and geographical location.

Participants loved being able to easily find people they hadn’t seen in a donkey’s age, and to connect with others who share a connection to the school who live in their geographical area, he said.

• Facilitate deeper connections. You know when you go to an in-person event with a list of people you want to connect with, but can never manage to be in the same room at the same time with them? This is actually easier to do online, says Adrian. You can use simple breakout rooms with platforms like Zoom, where people can find others with similar topical interests.

Adrian also likes Gatherly, which enables participants to enter a virtual room as a dot with a name, full of other named dots. With a simple click, you can join a pubic video chat, or you can ask to have a private conversation. Then you can jump to another room and start joining public or private chats with people there. Short of teleportation, that’s pretty hard to do in a big convention center.

And these are just a few example — if you want to build a participatory, collaborative agenda, instead of having people write topics they’d like to discuss on sticky notes and grouping them on a physical wall, you can have people contribute via Google Docs, then import those contributions into an e-whiteboard such as Miro to begin sorting and clustering the topics that will ultimately be the agenda and match them to those in the room who have expertise in each topic to facilitate the discussions.

Adrian also likes to begin conferences with The Three Questions: How did I get here? What do I want to have happen? What experience/expertise do I have that others might find helpful. To translate that to an online environment, break people up into small enough breakout rooms to allow a meaningful conversation to happen, then scribe their responses on a Google Doc that is viewable by all. As Adrian says in a post on how to make online conferences better, “From this data we built an inventory of the learning resources at the event.” Then participants went off into Gatherly rooms to share their learning and form deeper connections.

As Adrian pointed out in our discussion, all of this has been possible online for a while. But now that it’s the only possibility — until in-person events restart anyway — why not take advantage of the online tools we now have to bring more engagement and interactivity into online events?

Because, after all, everybody wins when everybody has the opportunity to interact.

Digital Events Don’t Have to Be Boring

Is there such a thing as KIMO (Know I Missed Out)? There must be, because that’s what I was feeling as I tuned into a recent rebroadcast of one of the most popular sessions from the 2020 ASAE Virtual Annual Meeting & Exposition. I’m a sucker for game-show formats, though they often are more fun than illuminating, but in this case the panelists used a game-show format that, other than a brief freeze in the middle, was just as much fun in the online environment as I imagine it would have been in person. 

It was quick and breezy, but surprisingly informative, as the panelists whizzed through an alphabet’s worth of virtual events tips — 26 in all — in less than an hour. In between buzzers buzzing, audience applause, and a lively live chat among the digital participants, the expert panelists answered questions from A — audiences — to Z, zeitgeist.

Some of my top takeaways from the panelists — Carol McGury, MPS, Executive Vice President, SmithBucklin (moderator); Beth Surmont, CMP, CAE, Director of Experience Design, 360 Live Media; Christine Peck, Senior Director, Education and Learning Services, SmithBucklin; and Sharon Newport, CAE, Chief Operating Officer:

• How do you get those who go to meetings strictly for the networking to buy into a digital event? Those serendipitous hallway meetings, those chance conversations in the buffet line, that opportunity to finally meet that person you’ve been tweeting with for years? Not so easy to pull off online, but that is one value proposition you don’t want to ignore when planning a digital event, they said. 

Carol said that it goes back to your number-one consideration: Know your audience. What type of networking are they looking for? How can you surprise and delight them in a way that will socially engage them and get them interacting? If you’re using Zoom, for example, you can create topical breakout rooms participants can stay in or move through once they’ve gotten what they need. Give people opportunities to problem-solve together in small groups, much as you would at an in-person event, they added. Gamification also can help people engage with content and each other. When you are training your speakers on how to be effective in a digital environment — you are, right? — also prompt them in how to make their presentations more engaging by using vignettes, small group discussions, etc.

A hub-and-spoke format — where you have a number of smaller groups gathering regionally in person, connected through online programming — also can amp up the networking both among those in the smaller groups and as a connected whole. 

And throw in some fun along with the serious stuff. While it’s probably not right for every group, I loved the idea of throwing in an animal attendee — and yes, there are companies that can do that for you! You can do digital selfie stations, with your organization’s branding or that of a sponsor, of course. Maybe a virtual talent show? A surprise guest or celebrity speaker? As Beth said, the pandemic has also affected celebrities, who may be more available and affordable than in pre-pandemic times. Again, it will all depend on your goals for the event and your audience, but definitely toss in a little fun and most groups will run with it — and interact with each other in some new ways too.

• Be inclusive. In addition to ensuring your speakers and content are representative of your audience, check your advertising and promotion to make sure that also reflects those you want to attend. Offer closed-captioning or subtitles — which the ASAE panel had running in real time at the bottom of the screen — for those who may not be able to hear it. If a portion of your audience doesn’t have access to high-bandwidth internet, can you forward handouts to them ahead of time so they don’t get left out? 

If you have participants coming from multiple time zones, schedule so they don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to participate. You can pre-record sessions and then let people chat with the speaker during a convenient time in their part of the world, for example. One cool idea was to start a conversation in the earliest time zone your participants will be in, then advance it across the globe as the day goes on. “By the conclusion of the day, you have a global conversation around the topic that could be very, very powerful,” said one of the panelists.

• Expect that things will get kinky. No, not that kind of kinky! But invariably, something will go awry, again, just like with in-person events, though the form the SNAFUs take likely will be different. The panelists suggested rehearsing, training speakers and preparing them for potential tech glitches, and do everything you can to work out the kinks before you go live. 

Christine suggested having workarounds for every conceivable issue that could come up. “Buy yourself a T1 line.” Assign two people to each session so someone can focus on the speaker while another person can monitor the chat or deal with tech issues.

• Build in some breathing room. This is so important, yet so often ignored, in both in-person and online events, but ignore it at your peril especially in the digital environment, where it is so easy to lose people that you’ll feel pressured to fill every second so they don’t have time to go check email. Except that totally doesn’t work. You’ll only end up driving them away with a too-packed agenda. “People need hang time to process what they learned,” said Christine.

“The tendency can be, because it’s virtual event, to pile things one on top of the other,” she said. Don’t do that, especially now when so many are working from home and may have kids, pets or who-knows-what demanding their attention.

Sharon added, “Sometimes the speakers, and the audience, feel the need to have things go fast and fill up space. For example, when you’re trying to start a discussion group and say, ‘OK, who would like to get us started?’ It can feel really uncomfortable to have that moment where people are trying to figure out who’s going to talk first. Just let it play out and trust that your audience will follow you. Learn to be OK with those awkward silent spaces.” 

How do you keep your online events from being snoozers?

Will We Still Care About Green Meetings Post-COVID?

Remember last spring, when TV ads were all tinkling pianos and “We’re all in this together, yet apart” and we still could stand the word “unprecedented”? I can’t find the link now, but I remember an article about how the worldwide shutdown was actually doing some good things for the environment getting slammed for being insensitive for pointing out that anything good could come from something so horrifying. 

Sure, I think we all got a lift by seeing animals taking advantage of human-free cities as we were all hunkered down at home, with reports of peacocks wandering the streets in Spain and coyotes padding the pavement in San Francisco, but at that point we weren’t ready to talk, for example, about how NASA found air quality rising as air traffic plummeted, and New York City’s carbon emissions fell almost by half as the city went into lockdown. It just was unseemly, given the death and destruction of our ways of life to even talk about any possible environmental benefits back then.

But now I think we’re in a different place emotionally, even though COVID-19 remains the evil anti-gift that keeps on giving, having killed more than a million people worldwide and more than 200,000 in the U.S. It’s still devastating the world economy with production slowdowns, supply-chain and market disruptions, business shutdowns, and unemployment levels not seen in the U.S. since the Depression. And, of course, the meetings and events industry has been hit harder than most. According to US Travel, more than half of the 15.8 million pre-pandemic, travel-supported jobs in the U.S. (51%) disappeared between March and May 1, and the U.S. economy is on pace to lose more than $505 billion in travel spending this year. 

But the environmental benefits of the shutdowns are beginning to wane as businesses begin to stir back to life. Air travel is coming back, albeit in dribs and drabs. Traffic is getting more congested as work-from-homers start venturing back into the office. Even some meetings are starting to take place in person again, albeit in mostly in small, socially distanced ways. Pollution levels are rising again, and we are still contending with rising garbage levels as grocery stores stopped allowing customers to bring in their own reusable bags, and I don’t know about you, but the level of discarded masks and gloves I see littering even the most remote hiking trails has been pretty disheartening, and all that take-out food and all those disposable containers have bumped up the trash level as well.

So is it too soon to talk about the greening of meetings that so many of us were passionate about just seven months ago? While the pandemic-induced plastic-wrapped, individually portioned everything is likely to be with us, even at meetings, for a long time to come, there’s no reason to believe we’ll backslide on things like digital handouts and brochures, and touchless electronic registration seems like an even better idea mid-pandemic. And, now that we know just how much going digital can extend the reach of an event around the world, will anyone not include a hybrid piece moving forward?

So here are my (cautiously optimistic) predictions/wish list for the eco-friendliness of future meetings and events ecosystem, in no particular order:

Venues

Hotels and convention centers have invested too much in new infrastructure, technology and practices to go back to where we were 10 or 20 years ago, so my prediction is that they will continue with projects already underway. Case in point: New York’s Javits Center’s adding solar arrays that will generate about 2.5 megawatts of electricity and its two megawatt battery storage unit that’s built into its new transformer building, which will allow it to both be more sustainable in terms of energy generation, and also enable it to go independent of the grid should the need arise.

As Javits President and CEO Alan Steel said during a panel on advancing sustainability in events during the Nest Summit, held in conjunction with Climate Week NYC, September 21-25, “I think sustainability for us will only become more important because there is no doubt our customers are suddenly seeing this as something that their customers are expecting from them.” 

While I’d like to think that sentiment is widely held — and it may very well be — the reality is that, with meeting and event venues reeling from the economic fallout of COVID-19’s travel restrictions and the heebie-jeebies so many have about staying anywhere other than home or an RV, unfortunately I don’t think a lot of venues will be launching new eco-projects in the near future. The emphasis likely will be more on getting heads in beds again so their people can get back to work, at least for the next few years.

Airlines

If any industry is hurting worse than hotels right now, it may well be the airlines, which are predicting massive layoffs — more than 75,000 in the U.S. alone, as of now — if they don’t get more relief from the government, which already supplied $25 billion in payroll support earlier this year. Again, my guess is that they’re going to be more focused on survival than anything else for the next couple of years, given that they’re dealing with a 70% decline in capacity right now.

Still, they’ve done a lot of work in recent years to make planes lighter, more aerodynamic and fuel efficient, though air travel remains one of the biggest sources of CO2 emissions. There has been some movement in recent years, including a global market-based measure, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), adopted in 2016 by the countries of the International Civil Aviation Organization to limit carbon emissions of international flights between participating countries from 2021 to 2035. 

Will CORSIA be more fully implemented, or joined by other of these types of environmental programs? We’ll have to wait and see if these types of measures, and airlines’ voluntary efforts to make planes more efficient, reduce delays and use more efficient flightpaths, use more sustainable, lower carbon alternative fuels, and/or invest in emissions offsets, will take a backseat to raw survival until and unless air travel gets back to its pre-COVID levels (if in fact that does happen).

Business and Meetings Travel

Now that businesses of all stripes, including hospitality and meetings/events, have figured out that some workers can actually be productive working from home, that’s likely to continue, at least in greater numbers than before. As President of Global Workplace Analytics Kate Lister said, “Our best estimate is that 25-30% of the workforce will be working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.”

Part of that working from home entails, as we all are all-too-well-aware, so many Zoom meetings! I predict that smaller meetings, such as board meetings, will continue to stay in the digital realm now that we all have been forced to admit that, while not ideal, the benefits outweigh the costs (environmental, as well as time and expense) of flying people to meet face to face.

McKinsey is predicting a long road ahead for business travel — longer than for leisure travel — which will of course also impact recovery for hotels and airlines. Regional travel by car will come back first, they predict, which bodes well for smaller, more regional meetings. Domestic air and train travel will come back next, with international travel lagging.

Meetings and Events

For meetings, McKinsey predicts that vital in-person sales or client meetings will be the first to return, followed by internal meetings, training events, and other smaller gatherings. Larger events, such as trade shows, conferences and exhibitions, are going to take a bit longer, they think. But hybrid and hub-and-spoke models that don’t require much or any travel will be the rule, they say. However, big trade shows are already returning in areas where the coronavirus is at least somewhat in check at the moment, including China and South Korea, with mandatory health and safety requirements.

As for industry sectors, they predict that manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, and construction will be the first to rebound, followed by tech, real estate, finance, and energy. Slower to recover will be meetings related to healthcare, education and professional services.

In addition to more hybrid and digital events, some lasting environmentally friendly changes I think/hope we’ll see as we eventually creep back towards normalcy include:

• More efficient meeting schedules. Could that five-day meeting be reduced to two or three, maybe with some flipped education to get the parts that don’t need to be done face-to-face accomplished ahead of time? 

• Smaller, better qualified attendance. While some mega shows will undoubtably bounce back eventually, I think there will be a greater emphasis on getting the right people to the show, not the largest number possible. This dovetails with what I think will be a continued reluctance on the part of Corporate America to send anyone and everyone possible to a show moving forward. The reduced carbon footprint of a reduced participant level could make a big difference. Of course, this means event organizers are going to have to be scrupulous in putting financial metrics around how their events generate value for their various constituents.

As Freeman Chair of the Board Carrie Freeman Parsons said during the Nest panel, “I think people are going to be more discriminate about what trips they choose to take, and companies are going to be considering what investments they want to make in order to market their product.”

• But don’t count out the big shows. The flip side of this is that there are economies of scale — including environmental economies — in large conventions and trade shows. While flying is not likely to go carbon-neutral any time soon, one trip to see 200 clients or vendors is a lot better for the environment than having to make a bunch of individual trips. I think this will become even more front and center moving forward.

• Digital partners will become even more important. As mentioned earlier, I think COVID-19 was a catalyst to push the industry full-force into the future of hybrid and digital events, and that will be having some sticking power. I also think we’ve discovered some cool tools along the way in terms of data capture, matchmaking, touchless registration, online networking and more that will only become more integrated into both in-person and digital events.

• We’ll start looking at all the products and services used by the industry on a supply-chain level, much like we’re starting to do with food and beverage with the farm-to-table movement. What are the environmental costs involved in producing pipe and drape, or show floor carpeting, or signage, from manufacturing through the life cycle of those products? I see it as something that can incorporated into the “design thinking” movement in events, not just what can we reduce, reuse, and recycle, though those are vital, but also how much energy went into making that product, and how much waste was generated during manufacturing, transport, etc.? Once we have all those facts in hand, we can better measure the environmental, and likely cost-saving, effects of putting environmental questions in all our RFPs.

So, to make what turned out to be a very long story short, I believe sustainable events are here to stay, and that we’ve learned a lot through this awful pandemic that can help catapult us into a greener future. Not that we don’t have some very real and intractable problems to face in the short term, but I believe the will is still there, perhaps even stronger than before, to play a greater role in the larger issues that affect our planet. 

Going paperless is just the start.

Ghosting: Not Just for Halloween (or Dating)

A few years ago, someone I know was set to meet her then-boyfriend for a drink before she took off for a trip early the next morning. He never showed. After numerous frantic calls/texts — none of which were answered — she started calling hospitals, thinking he may have been in an accident. But no, turns out he was posting on social media all along and was just fine. She had been ghosted.

She was devastated, of course, and I felt terrible as she went through all the, “What did I do wrong?” and “Why did he do this?” heartbreak, feeling glad that I was in a very long-term marriage and not in today’s dating scene, where apparently this happens all the time.

Then it happened to me. This summer, a person I had interviewed for years and thought I had a great working relationship cancelled our call, citing the need to take care of some personal issues. Cool, no problem. But then this person never returned my increasingly frantic calls and emails. As the summer wore on and my attempts at contacts continued to go unanswered, I started to get really worried. Given the current world situation, I was terrified that this person had been laid low by the coronavirus, but then a colleague at another publication told me they had just interviewed this person and all was fine. Thank goodness for that!

So what happened? Did I misquote this person? Somehow offend them without knowing it? I wish they’d let me know what happened. At this point, I’m guessing the relationship is irreparably damaged, but if I can’t rectify whatever wrong I did this person, I would at least like to know what happened so I can avoid doing it in the future.

As someone who avoids conflicts like the plague, I get why someone would want to sidestep having a difficult conversation, but please, I beg of you, do not do this to anyone, either personally or professionally. If you have a problem, talk about it. If it’s fixable, fix it. If not, at least let the other person know why they are suddenly persona non grata.

P.S. I was talking with my significant other (who is in a completely unrelated business) about this last night, and he said it happens to him all the time — he’ll send hours talking with a potential client, learning their challenges and coming up with ideas they may want to try, only to have them stop taking calls/emails and disappear into the mist. I hear this a lot too from independent planners and vendors, who have clients pump them for “free” ideas, then take them to others to implement. That’s a little different from what I experienced, but I would posit even more disrespectful and just wrong.

Or am I just being overly sensitive?

Transcription Tech Tip: Microsoft 365

If you offer transcriptions of your sessions for those who may have hearing impairment (of course you do!), there’s now a free tool that is an absolute godsend.

You all may already know this, but it was news to me: If you have a subscription to Microsoft 365, you can use the online version of Word to transcribe any audio or video recording. I had been using Rev.com, which is dirt-cheap for machine transcribing, but free is even better. You do have to go through and clean it up, as you would for any machine transcription, but it beats the other alternatives I’ve tried by a mile.

Here’s a quick tutorial. You’re welcome!

Is It Time to Start Ramping Up Face-to-Face Meetings Again?

I love meetings. You know that! I wouldn’t be covering this industry if I didn’t understand how important they are, how irreplaceable those in-person events can be, how vital are all the intangibles that have enriched my life in so many ways. I almost cried when IMEX America, which has become as much a harbinger of autumn as apples and foliage for me, had to cancel its in-person event in Las Vegas this year.

And I understand and appreciate the general anxiety among those in the meetings and events industry as they — and of course I am just as affected! — have watched business dry up and wither away as COVID-19 continues to sweep through the world, decimating travel in general and business travel in particular with lock-downs, travel bans, quarantines, and all the other tools being used to slow the virus’s spread. This is unutterably awful in every possible way.

I get that we all want desperately to get to business as usual (or as usual as it can be, given the circumstances). In much of Asia, where COVID-19 is still mainly in abeyance, trade shows have begun to restart — including the Shenzhen International Furniture Exhibition, which actually saw its exhibitor and attendee numbers grow (by 75% and 40%, respectively) over the previous show. And now Europe is starting to open up, after a two-thirds drop earlier this year, though most are scaled back and regional at this point. That may change though, as Germany recently declared traveling to that country for a trade show to be “essential travel,” as long as you can prove you are registered, have a valid visa, and have at least one scheduled meeting during the show.

Even in the U.S., shows are starting to resurface, again mostly as smaller, regional and hybrid events. I know a number of small, socially distanced and appropriately sanitized meetings have already taken place this year, and more are planned, often as hybrid events such as Meeting Professionals International’s World Education Congress, which will include an in-person event along with an online component when it happens later this fall.

And yet, and yet: We now have crossed the grim border of 200,000 dead from COVID-19 and predictions that infections, hospitalizations, and more potential deaths could continue to rise now that more people are hunkering down for the winter.

None of this screams, “Let’s restart meetings!” to me. As IMEX’s Roy Bloom and Carina Baeur said when announcing the cancellation of IMEX America 2020, “We must also be realistic about the current reality.” Though in my heart I really want to go to WEC, I’m with the two-thirds of meeting professionals who told Northstar’s Pulse Surveyors this summer that they were saying, “no thanks” to attending any in-person events for the remainder of 2020, citing discomfort with the idea of getting face to face with anyone outside their “pod,” not to mention having to travel to get there. And this was before the CDC cited a study saying that air travel may not be as COVID-safe as we had hoped, despite all the enhanced cleaning protocols many airlines have put in place.

I know, I know, we’re trying. Facilities large and small have gone through the GBAC-STAR certification to ensure they’re doing everything humanly possible to keep attendees, exhibitors, staff, and everyone else as safe as possible. Meeting professionals are handing out hand sanitizer like gum drops, spacing out seating, and rethinking F&B to minimize contagion.

But like so many others, I just can’t justify the risk. I have parents in their late 80s with compromised immune systems, and my desire to see them outweighs my desire to go to any event, no matter how many precautions are in place. I am a total content hound, but I don’t need to travel to get that content now that there is so much available online (anyone else have free webinar overload?).

And, while I hate to say it, the idea of a socially distanced, sanitized event just is not enticing enough to counter-balance the risk. I look at the photos of what these events that are taking place look like, and frankly, it looks like all the essential precautions may reduce potential infections, but they also suck out all the fun, the camaraderie, the joy of getting together that drives me to attend in person. 

So, at least for now, I am not on the “let’s meet now” bandwagon. Yes, I will continue to attend online as much as possible. I will continue to do those interminable Zoom meetings, which exhausting as they are, are still better than not meeting at all. I will continue to support those who, unlike me, are willing and able to produce, host, and attend in-person events. I will continue to support U.S. Travel and other industry organizations that are doing their best to get temporary financial relief for our beleaguered industry members who are trying to hang on to their businesses until the tide turns. And I will continue to be amazed at how resilient this industry is as everyone continues to find new ways to accomplish their event’s goals — some of which likely will become industry norms (hybrid anyone?) once we climb our way out of this pandemic-induced horror show.

Most of all, I will continue to pray that an effective and safe vaccine becomes available before we all go broke.

The Good Thing About Bad Bosses

emma-matthews-digital-content-production-O_CLjxjzN3M-unsplashI recently interviewed Nancy Walsh, Informa Markets President of the Fashion Portfolio and winner of the IAEE 2020 Woman of Achievement Award, about how she got to where she is. While she had much to say about the great mentors and leaders who have helped her along the way, she also said something that rang my bell in a big way — how she had much to learn from even the worst bosses she’s had. Her point was more about learning what not to do, but the discussion reminded me of one of my first jobs in journalism, where one of my bosses was, well, really lazy.

This guy, let’s call him “John,” had been editor of his magazine for quite a while, and he was obviously on autopilot. I had been hired to sit at a card table and type in manuscripts (yes, this was even before people could submit articles on disc, much less as email attachments!), but since I’m a fast typist and had some extra time once I finished plowing through the pile, I found myself hanging around his office a lot, asking if there was anything I could do to help him out.

“John,” being eager to cut his day short and hit the golf course, was only too happy to let me do pretty much any and everything on his desk at the moment. I learned so much by doing — and to his credit, he did check to make sure I didn’t make any egregious errors — that after six months at that card table, I graduated to researching and launching several magazines that I became full editor of.

I can’t imagine how long it would have taken me to get to that point had I not been working under someone who was more than happy to offload his workload. I will be forever grateful to “John.” Whatever his motivations may have been, he gave me so much opportunity to dive in and learn by doing — my preferred learning mode by far!

In fact, it set the attitude I’ve taken toward work ever since. I always say “Yes,” even if it’s something I’ve never done before, because I learned early on that, given free rein to dig in and learn on my own, I will thrive much more than I will if my every move is micromanaged (also a scenario I have worked under, though much less successfully).

It may not work for everyone, but I would urge you to, instead of complaining about a boss’s shortcomings, look at those shortcomings as opportunities. Even under the micromanaging situation, I learned what not to do — more along the lines of what Nancy was talking about — but benign neglect also can be a tremendous avenue for growth if you aren’t afraid to take the wheel if you have the chance.

Have you ever had a negative about a boss turn out to be a positive? I’d love to hear your stories!