1. Conferences and Events

Human vs. Event Resilience

The same day that the Consumer Electronics Show was canceled for 2021 (I mean, that CES pivoted to a virtual event), I had my first work-related meeting in 4.5 months.

I’m writing this after having a margarita with Greg Star, CEO of Carvertise. He’s a quasi-neighbor of mine who went to my high school (not at the same time) and is at least one of the select group of New York City denizens who knows that the best pizza in New York is in the suburb of Mamaroneck at Sal’s.

Humans are an adaptable species. Most of us appreciate what a social animal we are, but the more I read books about psychology, anthropology, sociology, and maybe cryptozoology, the more I appreciate how well we can find ways to stay connected with each other, share information, and bond.

Zoom calls may be exhausting as all hell if you have them stacked back-to-back, but it beats in-person gatherings where you spread the plague or avoiding all human contact. Living 70-100 years isn’t a lot on a geological scale, but for most of us, if we have a year out of whack and we can get back to a healthier spot, many of us can emerge stronger, healthier, or at least no worse from it.

I’m more skeptical about events. CES was one of the last big tentpole events to take place pre-Covid (from the US perspective), back in January. South by Southwest (SXSW) was the first major domino to fall; I canceled my plans just hours before the March 13-22 event was officially scrapped.

I love these events. I’ve been to about 25 CES and SXSW conferences combined, and those were all because I wanted to, not because I had to. I want to go back to others when they take place, likely with a much smaller footprint. But many people won’t.

I’d wager that most previous attendees will accept that they can get enough done without these events. They’ll resort to meeting with people in their own cities. They won’t learn as much from as varied a group of speakers. They’ll register for virtual sessions and then spend most of those catching up on email since there will be little thought put into bringing attendees together in creative ways.

As someone who’s been to many more conferences the past 10 years than live entertainment events, I miss sports and concerts more. The thought of watching fan-less baseball for a season with less than 40% of the games doesn’t excite me, but I’d love to get back to Citi Field, even to see a game that won’t matter for a team that’s out of contention.

Any in-person interaction is a relief right now. When I caught up with Greg today, I was getting so much more information in such a short period of time than I do from video chat, and I was much more focused. Then came a tequila flight, and I became a little less focused.

What most struck me was the non-linear conversation. Greg and I are both people who can do without an agenda while making sure there’s some action item at the end. That means the intent is to end at the middle. It’s a serial; it’s not a one-off. That’s so much easier to orchestrate face-to-face.

The best part of tentpole events is enjoying non-stop face-to-face conversation. If enough companies on the buy side cut their budgets for these though, the connectors have less of an excuse to show, and then the food chain falls apart. You lose the influencers. You lose the infrastructure. And then you lose the reason to get off Zoom and get to Vegas or Austin or New York.

I wonder where Amara’s Law, coined by Roy Amara, fits here. He’s the one who said, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

I like the law but think it’s the nature of human thinking, not technology. Or, maybe, the technology here is biological — it’s a virus.

The problem with applying the law to the virus is that the US keeps underestimating it. I sure did, right until March 15, and maybe a week or two after.

Long-term, I wonder how much time I’ll spend in an office again. I wonder if I’ll ever again have three to five in-person meetings a day. I wonder when’s the next time I’ll need to buy shoes. I wonder if SXSW 2019 was my last one. I wonder when I can co-host First Wednesday again (see the events; the virtual version is next week).

I think back to 2007 and 2008. Even when the economy recovered, buyers and hirers took fewer risks for some time after. Many never recovered from that. This is worse.

But on a micro-level, that’s where I’m confident. I still hear of people getting furloughed and laid off. I know a lot of people going through a lot of hardship. I can’t recall a time where so many people need steady work so badly but also so desperately need time off. But resilience is in our nature, and it is everywhere. As the character Ian Malcolm says in “Jurassic Park,” “Life finds a way.”


PS: Want the next best thing to meeting people face-to-face? The next SpeedUp 1:1 networking event is July 30 at 4pm EDT. Join us on Upstream and meet some of my favorite marketers. It now works on Android. And maybe you’ll get to see Greg.

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