It seems pretty clear that most of us are itching to get back out into the world. And that includes not just having fun but doing business. June 2021 was on track to be the first month since March 2020 – the start of the Before Times – when in-person events were expected to drive more than $1 billion in demand. That’s for a single month.
That figure includes not just concerts and sports events but also conferences and expos. In public safety, personal connections, including those made at events like these, are a huge part of how business gets done. As you consider registering for the slate of conferences on deck for late summer and fall 2021 and beyond, here’s some advice on navigating the new landscape and how to make the most of any events you do decide to attend.
Don’t assume you’ll see the same faces.
Many public safety conferences will be running at lower capacity, either because of the restrictions of the facility or because there’s still a wait-and-see attitude about how many of us in EMS, fire, law enforcement, 911 and related industries are actually ready to return to in-person events. This includes both attendees and exhibitors. While overall attendance may be lower, it’s also likely that there will be a higher percentage of key opinion leaders, decision-makers and VIPs.
The downside is that you’ll have to do some extra planning ahead of the event to figure out who’s going to be there and ensure you meet and network with the people you need to. In the old days, you’d simply show up and work the room, meeting contacts for lunch and dinner. This year, that may not be the case. So take time to do some outreach via email and schedule meetings and meals before you arrive. (Keep in mind that government employees typically are precluded from accepting anything that could be perceived as a gift, including meals.)
Sponsorships and marketing opportunities have changed, too.
If you’re a sponsor, expect that there might also be limitations on some events because the overall number of attendees is expected to be lower. That may curtail your options for sponsoring a keynote or a workshop, and conference organizers may be reluctant to promise special meetings or focus groups if they’re not sure they can deliver the people you need. That said, this also may be a time to revisit sponsorships; just make sure the pricing is commensurate with the value you’ll be receiving this year. Event organizers are typically eager to make sure sponsors feel good about their return on investment.
As an exhibitor or sponsor, you may be concerned that after many months of not seeing one another, attendees will be so eager to catch up with colleagues and friends that they’ll disappear instead of visiting your booth or attending your seminar. And that could happen, so expect that traffic may be a little lighter. On the other hand, you may well find that your company stands out on the event program or in the exhibit hall amid less competition. And remember that conferences, trade shows and expos are also a great opportunity to capture customer stories and testimonials you can use in blog posts and case studies and on social media.
Board and committee meetings may not happen this year.
We know some organizations that have opted not to hold these meetings at their conference, as they usually would. So if you’re headed to an event specifically to connect with a special committee of an organization, check to be sure they’ll be there.
You can be a big(ger) fish in a small(er) pond.
Perhaps the biggest potential upside of attending a conference this year will be that, with fewer people expected you’ll have a better chance of making some important connections. Those thought leaders and VIPs who’d typically be nearly impossible to meet with could be a lot more approachable now. Again, plan ahead to ensure you get time with your key prospects, even if it’s just a quick cup of coffee or a hallway chat. In public safety, you’ll find that most business gets done in the hallways, in fact.
By spending a little time with the conference program you can see who’s giving the keynote addresses and which workshops you want to attend. Take a few minutes to talk to the speaker before or after their presentation, participate in the Q&A and introduce yourself to those sitting next to you. (We know… we’re learning how to be social again, too!) You’ll have more success with this approach than standing endlessly in an exhibit booth and hoping the people you want to meet will stop by.
In short, find a way to stand out in a good way. One technology company leader we know encourages his staff to sit in the front row of any session they’re attending; employees wear a company shirt with the logo clearly visible to the speaker.
Remember that the pandemic is still with us.
By this I mean that everyone’s feelings about the past year-and-a-half or so aren’t the same. Some people at your next conference may want to shake hands or even hug if you’re reconnecting with someone you know. Others may prefer a fist bump, elbow bump or head nod. Some may be wearing a mask, especially if the event is indoors, many people are expected and/or the location of the event requires indoor masks, as Los Angeles County recently reinstated.
So don’t be surprised if you see someone whose approach to health and safety is different from yours (and maybe don’t ask which vaccine they got). Also, know that some people will choose not to attend for safety reasons. Don’t question or belabor it, just send a note saying you’re eager to catch up via Zoom or phone soon.
Prepare your staff for conferences.
Does your organization have best practices to make the most of events? Or maybe you have new employees just getting up to speed on your organization and not sure where to focus their energy and time. One great resource: the conference organizer. We’ve found that they’re invariably willing to give advice and guidance to first-time attendees—after all, they want you to have a great experience and come back next year.
Virtual is more important than ever.
One of the lasting legacies of the pandemic will be realizing how much work we can (and did) do virtually when we need to. Many of public safety’s events, if not most, will be hybrid, meaning you’ll have the option to attend parts of the conference online.
So even while the tradition in public safety is that a lot of business gets done in person – and there will always be cases where showing your face and rubbing elbows is the most impactful approach – virtual clearly has many advantages. Especially for professional education.
We expect to see most organizations dialing back somewhat on travel and embracing a mix of in-person events and online, carefully choosing those they attend and supplementing with webinars and virtual demos.