Out of Practice: Getting Back on the Event Bicycle

A person writing a checklist in a planner

“You might want to include a quick bulleted list of the most common things people might forget.”

I wasn’t in the car five minutes before I realized the first thing I’d forgotten: my sunglasses. It was cold as I headed to the airport, but also brilliantly sunny–pretty typical for late fall in Minnesota. I thought about asking the driver to turn back, but it didn’t seem worth it. It meant there were probably other things I’d forgotten, but hey, I was going to be in Phoenix, not some backwater. If I needed something bad enough, I’d be able to get it. I was pretty sure I was going to regret the sunglasses, but I wasn’t going to the conference to lounge around the pool.

It was my first real conference since Covid restrictions had started. The Financial and Insurance Conference Professionals (FICP) were kind enough to invite me to speak at their annual conference, and who could pass up Phoenix in November, just as winter started rolling in at home? Plus, I got to share the stage with my good friend Will Curran of Endless Events, also for the first time in almost two years. We’d connected several times in the weeks leading up to the event to coordinate our session, and I was excited to be talking tech with an industry group again.

While I was ready for the session, I wasn’t ready for… basically everything else that goes along with a conference. It made me realize how much had changed over that time, how much was still the same, and how much I was out of practice in “eventing.” In talking to my event colleagues around the world, it sounds like a lot of us have been feeling that way, so it’s a safe bet that your vendors, executives and attendees are going to feel the same. What can we do to help them “shake off the rust” as we ease our way back into in-person experiences?

Checking it Twice

The sunglasses were only first in a long list of things I’d forgotten, including my toothbrush, which had needed to charge and was vigilantly standing guard on my sink at home. I hadn’t thought about how beautiful it was going to be in Phoenix, and brought nothing in the way of shorts or workout clothes so I could go for a morning run, or just a stroll around the property. Even at the height of my travel, I always ran down a checklist before leaving on a trip–why did I think after only three trips in 18 months I was ready to skip the checklist? I keep mine in Google Keep, but Apple reminders, Notes or any other list app works just fine. I like Keep because it’s easy to “Uncheck All” to be ready for the next trip, and any time I find I’ve forgotten something essential, I add it to the list.

If it’s the first time a lot of your attendees have traveled or attended an in-person event in a while, you might want to include a quick bulleted list of the most common things people might forget (Charging stations, for instance, become even more important as those bricks made their way out of travel bags and into people’s temporary home offices during lockdown), what the weather is going to be like, and clothing suggestions.

Getting Outdoorsy

As a way of increasing safety while easing distancing and masking requirements, a lot of planners are including outdoor activities and social hours as part of their events. The outdoor event that FICP put on was amazing, and it was a perfect southwestern evening. It wasn’t until I got back that I realized that my boots and jeans were completely covered in red desert dirt from the shindig, and were the same boots and jeans I intended to wear on the plane the next day. I remember a suggestion of “western wear” for the event, but I didn’t recall any heads up about the volume of dirt that was going to wind up in my hotel bathtub.

If you’re having outdoor daytime events, be sure to look out for any hazards that might not be obvious to anyone that hadn’t been there for the site visit and was coming in cold. For daytime outdoors, you might want to remind people to bring, you know… sunglasses. FICP’s lunches were on a beautiful lawn in perfect 70 degree weather, and I cursed myself for forgetting them, again.

Of course, not everybody will read those reminders, so you might want to double-check with venues that there will be adequate shade in the day, or heaters in the night, just in case.

Three’s a Crowd. No, Really.

When I’m on the road, I’m definitely a “one quick drink in the lobby bar before bed” kind of guy, but jam-packed hotel lobby bars on my last couple of trips had me rethinking my usual habit. While FICP had required all attendees to provide proof of vaccination, they hadn’t bought out the property and the bars were public areas. The previous event I’d worked as a Technical Producer was in Texas during a Delta surge, and yet attendees were not required to be vaccinated, and in the hotel spaces were not required to be masked. In both cases, I was extremely uncomfortable with the idea of being packed into a small space with no idea who was with the group and who wasn’t, and what their health status was. Even the restaurants were packed, and of course nobody wears a mask while they’re eating.

Read More: Meeting Safety Trends in 2022.

Now, I might be a little overly cautious, but I have family members with immune system issues, so even before all this I was pretty health conscious when it came to germs of all kinds. I suspect that I’m not alone at being a little hesitant when it comes to crowds, so you might want to consider alternatives for those who are ready to attend a conference, but might not be ready for buffets and bar lines. This could include download links to food delivery apps, discount ride-shares to local restaurants that might not be quite so busy, or pre-arranged discounts for room service (which unfortunately has also been drastically cut back in many hotels).

And What Do You Do?

I think the thing that surprised me the most was how out of practice I was at just dealing with people. I got to see my wonderful Smart Meetings editor JT Long, and of course Will, but even with them I found myself feeling a little awkward and not quite myself. It wasn’t until about a week later as I attended a family banquet for one of my kid’s sports teams that I realized what it was. I fumbled to have conversation with the other parents at the table, while my wife effortlessly navigated the “So what do you do for a living?” conversation. I was out of practice in the art of small talk, while she was already back to full strength because she’d been putting on multiple education events per month for several months.

I wanted to end with this one, because on the events side sometimes we get so caught up in all the hype around “engagement” and “networking” that we might forget that some people might not be ready for all that interaction. Encourage? Yes. Force? No. We’ve been dealing with each other through Zoom windows for 18 months, and being around people again can be tricky to navigate. Give people the ability to connect safely and within their own comfort zones.

Most of all, we need to continue to show a little grace when it comes to all of our event folks–attendees, vendors, venues and…ourselves. We’re all a little out of practice. Don’t worry, it’s like riding a bike, and we’ll be back in shape in no time.

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