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Forbes:  I attended a live, in-person convention:  Here's how the organizers tried to make it safe

Forbes.com /  Ben Baldanza / October 19, 2020

For three days in October, I attended the International Aviation Forecast Summit’s 25th anniversary conference, held this year in Cincinnati at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. This conference is normally held in August, but was postponed this year for obvious reasons. Hosted by Mike and Marian Boyd, they pulled off something few thought could happen - a live, in-person business conference long before people thought this could be possible. It worked very well, and here are five key takeaways from this conference during covid:

The Hotel Had Seven Months To Prepare

The hotel was ready for this conference, and it was the first one the hotel had hosted in seven months. The major conference room was huge with six foot tables, spaced apart, with one table for each attendee. This allowed everyone to hear the speakers and watch the presentations with minimized risk. The audio-visual support was also excellent, meaning that despite the large room, multiple screens and good speakers made it easy to see and hear from wherever you sat.

Beyond the main room, gathering and networking areas were large and there was a lot of signage reminding everyone to wear their mask. There also were tables of masks and sanitizers throughout. The staff was highly attentive and several commented that they had been laid off and due to this conference they got their job back. Those comments alone made it worth attending.

Many People Came, Some Stayed Remote

In what may be the future for all conferences, this was held both in-person and virtual. People were able to log in and see the presentations streamed live, and a few presenters did so remotely as well. This highlighted a reality that I had forgotten. In the breaks, bathrooms, elevators, etc. I had many conversations with people I knew and some I had just met. We discussed our businesses, our families, why we decided to come to this conference instead of join remotely, and more. But after each conversation, I realized that this did not happen for any of the remote attendees. When I think back on the event, some of the best times from the conference were exactly these spontaneous, uncoordinated meetings. That’s something I had taken for granted before Covid, and having that back was a real treat.

One thing that could have been better is to have a sense of how many people actually were participating remotely. There was not a big screen with people’s names, for example, so while sitting in the room and seeing 50 to 70 other people you knew there were at least that many listening on line but not exactly sure when or where they were. In smaller business meetings, when some people are physically together and others are remote, keeping everyone engaged and “in the flow” can be a challenge. This was true in this larger setting as well. As my son heads back to a hybrid school structure at the end of the month, I worry about that too since some kids will be in the classroom and others will be live-streamed in. I imagine that the teachers will have to work hard to keep everyone equally involved and engaged.

 

Communicate Your Own Social Comforts

Stickers to show comfort with contact

Pick your color to show how you'd like others to approach you.

 
BOYD GROUP, 2020

Participants were asked to put a sticker on their tag expressing their own personal comfort view: green for handshakes are ok, yellow for talking but no touching, and red for strict guidelines please and minimal contact. Most people had yellow stickers, though I saw a few greens and only one red. I thought “if you have a red tag, should I even be seeing it?” But this worked well and guided behaviors closely. This was a thoughtful approach and again reminded everyone that we were doing something new for this era. I saw several people contemplating what sticker was right for them as they registered to get their tag.


The Conference Itself Encouraged Other Safe Behaviors

The conference organizers had worked hard to pull this off, and their passion to do it right was evident everywhere. At each introduction and administrative announcement, they reminded us that it is was our responsibility to prove that a conference like this could be done safely, and successfully, and that we needed to set this precedent. Social activities were distanced and everyone behaved. Some things were staged in groups so that no large gatherings needed to occur. The conference had its own app that allowed people to check schedules, communicate with each other or the organizers, and know where to go making human contact for these things not necessary.

Everyone Left With A New Realization And A More Open Mind

Throughout the conference, the feeling built that this really worked and several commented about “how normal” things felt again. I found this a bit funny since they said this while wearing a mask and next to a table full of pocket sanitizers. But the point was well taken. I was happy to have gone, and know that this would have been much less enjoyable had I joined remotely. I think that everyone who went would say the same thing. I never felt any real risk as all the right structures and behaviors were in place. This must have been very tough for Mike and Marian Boyd to pull off, especially not even knowing at first if a critical mass of people would chose to attend in person. Thankfully they did, and the result was a realization that a business conference can happen safely today when the organization, hotel, and participants all want it to.

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