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The future of in-person conferences: for some, not all

As the omicron wave of the pandemic fades, people are going back to ‘normal life‘: eating out, going to concerts and other gatherings, and yes, returning to work ‘in person’.  Many of us are vaccinated, boosted, or double-boosted. Masks are seen less, and markers of pandemic life such as social distancing and barriers are becoming much less common. Even as the pandemic regains strength in some areas such as Hong Kong, it is waning in much of North America and Europe.

One sign of the change? In-person industry conferences are coming back.

Historically, the job board and recruitment marketing industry has had three main recurring conferences. TAtech (formerly IAEWS) put on several events each year, with one major one focused on employment sites and related suppliers. This year it will occur in Austin, from May 31st to June 2nd. UK-based Jobg8 put on two job board conferences each year – one in the UK and one in the US. The company recently announced that it was ending those conferences, which had been spearheaded by Louise Grant. Finally, the AIM Group held its annual RecBuzz conference in various locations, usually in Europe. This year’s event will be in Amsterdam, September 13-14.

Two out of three ain’t bad, right?

So are you going? Conferences like these can be great for networking with other companies, seeing what competitors are doing, and learning more about specific subjects such as AI or programmatic. Conferences inevitably involve talking – a lot. And they can sometimes be where you form a lasting relationship with industry peers.

But for some of us, COVID has changed the ‘conference equation‘. The old way the conference equation worked was: you looked at the out of pocket expense (fee, travel, hotel, food, etc.); the time away from work; and the convenience or inconvenience of the conference location. Then you made your ‘go-no go’ decision. For some, attending every conference was a no-brainer; for others, once every couple or three years was plenty. Some never went at all.

But COVID added a wrinkle to my personal conference equation. In addition to the factors listed above, I have to take into account that my wife is immunocompromised (as am I). If she catches COVID, her survival is not at all assured. Yes, of course she is triple-vaccinated and masks daily and takes plenty of precautions. But if her husband (i.e., me) brings home any strain of COVID from a conference – be it new or old – he might just kill her. COVID, as you know, makes us all risk assessors. Is it worth seeing a movie on opening night with a full house – or would it be better on a Sunday afternoon with 2 other viewers? Is it worth eating a 2 hour dinner in a restaurant in winter, with minimal airflow and with no knowledge of the vaccination status of fellow diners? And so on. Of course you can never be perfectly safe – but in a nation where a substantial minority refuses to be vaccinated, and will even lie about their status, it’s not worth it for some of us.

Thus, I’ve become one of the folks who won’t be going to conferences for a long time – if ever. Think about it – hours in the confined and usually packed environment of a plane. Hours inside a conference center, being exposed to people of unknown vaccination or exposure status. Lots of aerosol dispersal in the form of laughing and yelling. Nope, it just isn’t worth the potential consequence.

So the conferences will go on, but just for some – not all – of us. I will miss them.

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