As we write this, it is April 23, 2020 and Spring conference season has effectively been canceled. What started as a ripple of event cancellations and postponements became a wave that spread across every sector, industry, and geography. Many are struggling to embrace the paradigm-shifting moment we are facing and simply moved their dates a few months. COVID-19 is not a temporary disruption for the convening industry, it is an invitation to re-examine how we gather. 

As Topher Wilkins, CEO of Opportunity Collaboration and Co-Founder of Conveners.org shared “When’s the last time we questioned the power of proximity? When have we ever wondered whether or not we should BE together? We are, after all, social beings. We crave opportunities to convene, and yet, in this new COVID-19 era, we are forced to find new ways of being in community with one another, new ways to share ideas, resources, and best practices, new ways to build effective partnerships and collaborations. Ironically, we need each other now more than ever.”

So, Why Should We Be Looking to Fall 2022?

We Won’t Convene Until a Vaccine is Developed…and Distributed

Convenings are “super spreaders” (look no further than the Biogen conference in March where a single attendee infected 92 others in a matter of hours.) We’ve seen, and applauded, how mindfully conveners have navigated the responsibility to protect the health of our communities without losing the incredible impact unleashed from the convenings you host. It would be irresponsible to host large, global gatherings before a vaccine is developed. And vaccine development takes time. At least 12 months (though probably more like 18 read more here as well). Once the vaccine is developed, we have to ramp up production and distribute it – to almost every human on the planet, which has its own challenges. So let’s say it’s 6-12 months to really get a vaccine out in the world.

We Won’t Convene Until Our Communities are Psychologically Ready 

Beyond the biological constraints of the vaccine and treatments, there will be the deep and lasting psychological impact of this experience on both individuals and the companies that typically fund participation in international convenings.  Even if we are all vaccinated, there will be a steep psychological barrier to overcome on feeling safe in an international gathering. Large, international convenings won’t come back until the felt need of the community overcomes the felt risk, and it will be a telling study in value propositions that return to in-person first.  

We Won’t Convene Until There’s Been an Adequate Virus-Free Sales Cycle

Then, of course, there’s the practical lead time it will take to sell tickets and prepare for a large international event.  The sales and prep cycle on a big international event is typically 6-12 months. And it would be risky at best to begin that cycle before your community is psychologically ready to engage. 

So How Can This Uncertainty Be an Opportunity for Our Community?

Convenings, gatherings, festivals, sporting events all play an important role in our global community. It will be a loss when World Expo, Burning Man, DreamForce, CES, and other large events don’t happen next year. The Olympics and professional sports won’t be the same without thousands of spectators. A full and complete stop to these experiences for the next two years would have devastating consequences for our economy, society, and political landscape. So what do we do?

  1. Focus on Hyper-Local Experiences in the Near-Term.
  2. Change Our Approach to Virtual Convening- Now and Forever
  3. Center Inclusion and Equity Considerations
  4. Invest in Convening Technology 

 

  1. Hyper-Local Experiences

Our prediction is that we will see the fastest return to hyper-local experiences.  When a community has had a shared and consistent experience of slowing the spread of COVID-19 such that hospitalizations are kept within the capacity of hospitals to handle them (SE Asia, San Francisco, Germany), then an easing of the physical distancing restrictions can move forward more quickly.  When you can trust that those around you have followed the same precautions you have, it is easier to participate in a shared in-person experience.  And don’t get us wrong, there will be HUGE pent up demand from people to get to just BE together again in person.

However, would you trust that same event if you know that someone from a known hot-spot was going to be in attendance?  Here is where rapid testing can help us immensely, but only if we are able to fully invest in the infrastructure required to make sure testing is uniformly applied.

  1. Virtual Interactions

How might you think more creatively about designing interactions in the new normal?  Before we can do in-person events again anywhere, our communities will have adapted to the virtual environment, and a whole new category of hybrid in-person and virtual experience will be unleashed that would have never been possible before COVID-19. 

Given the current constraints of physical distancing, conveners have an opportunity to leverage those constraints to activate our creativity to craft new and more powerful ways to achieve the incredibly positive impact that convening has in our world. There are ways to make virtual convening compelling, engaging, interactive, and impactful. When forced to cancel your convening, please, don’t just host a webinar.   

  1. Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

This argument is not to imply that technology will be a panacea to solve all of our problems and unlock a new golden age of convening free of inequity and injustice.  In many ways, the current inequalities created by lack of access to technology and high-speed internet will only be exacerbated over the next two years. 

For philanthropists looking to create a positive systemic impact, efforts to provide laptops, tablets, and other purpose-built presence technologies, like FB Portals and internet access, appear to be a fundamental requirement and not just a luxury to ensure we are not leaving behind hundreds of millions (if not more than a billion people). 

In addition, we predict that timezones will emerge as an equity issue in the age of virtual convening (something we’re already encountering planning the global Katapult Cloud event this May) and encourage our community to consider carefully who is asked to accommodate when events are scheduled. As Ida Faldbakken from the Katapult team shared,

Katapult has always represented a global community. As we turned to Katapult Cloud online we wanted to make sure that the experience could be accessible to our community and so we built it as a full 24-hour experience.  We know bandwidth and access to technology may be a barrier for some and are hoping that the recorded content we provide will enable people to navigate what interests them on their own schedule.”

          4. Convening Technology

When we think about the primary positive impacts created by convenings, participant agency is a crucial ingredient.  Conveners sometimes think that their incredible speakers, panels, and mainstage content is the heart of convening. However, participants agree it is the relationships you form, the meetings you have with other participants, the serendipitous connections that lead to new partnerships, clients, employees, board members, and other network connections that make convening worth the investment of time and resources.  If we are looking at virtual convening as a long-term investment, then we have to invest in platforms that recreate those interactions.  Conveners need containers – software systems – that enable people to access the authentic connection, collaboration, and serendipity that make convening so powerful — especially in the purpose-first convening ecosystem where our progress on addressing the challenges identified in the Sustainable Development Goals will be permanently stunted unless we can figure out how to convene effectively in a virtual world.

This leads to another potential path to success – VR and AR integration.  Imagine “holodeck” like rooms at a conference or expo, where you can be with others in your city, put on a headset at your event, and then connect with other participants from linked convenings around the world.  However, there has yet to be a compelling social experience in VR and many complex technical and user experience questions remain before this technology can deliver on a high-quality convening experience.

Now What?

As conveners work to assess what comes next, we’d caution against planning to return to hosting your in-person event too soon.  Many conveners with events slated for fall 2020 have yet to postpone or cancel, and you are in a position to avoid the locked-in costs of those convenings if you make a decision now.  We don’t know what the curves of this pandemic will look like. We don’t know whether there will be a resurgence that will force cancellations in the Fall or next Spring. What we do know is that we as purpose-first conveners are standing at a crucial crossroads. As Kate Byrne of Intentional Media put it; 

“We are viewing this moment as an opportunity to reimagine the Impact landscape and our engagement with our community across our brands.  We’re leveraging the digital necessity posed by COVID19 as the opportunity to increase access to the conversation that many have historically been left out of.” 

We each have a similar opportunity to view this as a strategic moment to think about who we reach and how, to re-examine and re-align our purpose for convening, and to re-focus on why we do what we do.  

 

  • If you had a Spring 2020 event and postponed to Fall 2020 – please consider partnering with another convener or assessing whether convening is still the right tool to achieve your impact objectives.

 

  • If you have a Fall 2020 event coming up, shift now to virtual convening, and reduce the impact on your community in terms of investments in travel or other preparations for your event.

 

 

Personally, I have never hoped to be wrong so fervently as I do with this prediction.  As someone who has attended 30+ convenings a year, and produced a number of them, I so wish that we could be in a world where this Fall, everything is as it was. I wish we could be in community with one another again, working to build a better world.  Perhaps a miracle cure will be found, or a powerful new treatment, or mass rapid testing and contact tracing apps will become ubiquitous globally.  While I hope for those scenarios, it feels prudent and more responsible to plan for what seems realistic and to think about courses of action that will cause the least harm and pose the least risk to the communities we serve.  

We are being invited to craft a NEW modality of convening where we foster connection, authentically collaborate, and continue to be in ‘community’ with one another at a distance.  Where we can bridge the chasm created by physical distancing and unleash the full power of virtual convening.  We at Conveners.org pledge to explore and unleash that power and invest in supporting our communities to engage in this new format for the long term and invite you to join us on this journey with hope and confidence that we can create solutions together we can’t achieve alone. Please consider our Virtual Convening Certification program as a way to prepare you and your organization for the new paradigm of convening.  We invite you to join us on this journey with hope and confidence that we can create solutions together we can’t achieve alone.