We all recognize that the conference industry changed dramatically in 2020. Virtually every conference went virtual from mid-March onward with many larger conferences outright canceled even as early as February. The COVID-19 global pandemic changed daily life in 2020 for nearly everyone worldwide. And, beyond healthcare interactions, the biggest change for most people was the inability to attend any public gathering.
From the beginning, Bradley Metrock has insisted that it’s important for industry professionals to gather together in-person. Though he operated several virtual events throughout 2020, next week Metrock’s Score Publishing will kick off in-person events again for the voice industry.
A New Kind of Industry Event in the COVID-19 Era
It runs counter to conventional wisdom to host meetings right now, and in some places, they are outright prohibited. However, Metrock is looking at how the industry will readjust as the COVID-19 vaccine is distributed and the risk of public gatherings declines. His strategy begins with a 35-city tour of small outdoor venues hosting no more than 20 participants with strictly enforced social distancing and mask requirements.
The first stop is San Jose on January 11th, followed by San Francisco on the 12, Los Angeles on the 13th, and Phoenix on the 14th. Cerence has joined as event sponsor and its CEO, Sanjay Dhawan, is expected to attend the San Jose gathering. Those events are followed by venues in Florida, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and several other states in the mid-west and south. The event series will culminate with the annual Project Voice event in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 12th.
Will You Attend?
It would be wrong to say the events are controversial at this point. However, some Voicebot readers expressed concerns privately to our staff about the advisability of hosting any gatherings in this environment and specifically referred to these events. It seems logical we should view the small gatherings of Coast to Coast differently from larger events such as Project Voice. People are still allowed to go to restaurants in most places even as larger-venue concerts are prohibited. And, the situation is not static. We have seen how it has changed month-to-month over the past year and differs from state-to-state and even within states.
Voicebot reached out to Metrock to better understand his thoughts about how 2020 changed practices and expectations for industry events and to learn more about how Project Voice Coast to Coast will operate within the safety requirements imposed by each community. Registration for the regional events is $10. The San Jose event is currently listed as sold out, but the other sites still have availability.
Take a few moments to read more about our interview with Metrock and let us know what you think on Twitter. We cover topics in the interview ranging from changes in event attendee expectations for public health, what will happen when attendees show up and are obviously ill, how the vaccine rollout is influencing Metrock’s approach and more. We look forward to hearing whether you plan to attend.
Interview with Bradley Metrock About Conferences in 2021
1) Voicebot: You ran several conferences in 2020. Project Voice was held in-person in January and then due to COVID-19 restrictions, most of the other events moved online. How did you organize the online events for attendees and sponsors to get the most out of them despite the change in format?
Bradley Metrock: Looking back, we were fortunate Project Voice was able to take place because for many people there, that was the last physical event they attended before things started shutting down. We were scheduled to do The Voice of the Car Summit in San Jose in early April and we held out hope it could happen, but obviously, it became impossible. This began a process of moving the entire event online and creating our first virtual event, which allowed us to triple attendance but took a hammer to how much people were willing to pay to attend. We supported sponsors and partners by becoming more flexible with our attendee lists (which we pre-COVID never made available) and facilitating more relationship-building with them that would help their businesses. What we learned from doing all of that guided us through the rest of the year, from an event standpoint.
2) What did that experience teach you about online conferences and how is that influencing your thinking about physical world events in general and for 2021 in particular?
The appetite for online conferences evolved over 2020 from high interest back in April/May to low-interest today. Nobody is jumping up and down right now and yelling about how they can’t wait to attend yet another virtual event.
The problem has nothing to do with virtual events themselves, which are full of innovation and wide open for growth in the future. Rather, the problem is in a world out of balance. If all you ever give me is virtual events, I’ll eventually grow tired of them and stop attending, no matter how compelling they are. But once they are mixed together alongside in-person events, as I believe 2021 will bring as the year goes along, and you have both happening side-by-side, virtual events will regain excitement and enthusiasm.
3) Tell us about your plans for Project Voice Coast to Coast. What is the format and how did you come up with the concept?
In each of 35 cities across the United States, from January through April (leading up to Project Voice 2021), I’ll be visiting with a small group (max 20 people) in an outdoor restaurant with outdoor heaters, sharing a 10-15 voice/AI briefing, and then the rest of the hour-long event will be for socializing and light networking.
Information is easy to come by, and people are inundated with it being on the computer 24/7. So this is light on information, with a short briefing, and heavy on those things everyone’s been without for so long: talking to other human beings in person.
The idea came from speaking to company after company after company hearing about they couldn’t travel in 2020 and weren’t sure when those restrictions might be lifted. And even those unencumbered by big corporate guidance like that didn’t want to travel either. So as we got into the second half of 2020, and had a better understanding that outdoor environments would accommodate small groups in a safe way, we started to run the idea by people. And all we heard was enthusiasm. So we put the tour and the itinerary together.
4) Will each event in the smaller venues be the same format or will they vary in terms of topic, content, and or schedule?
Each of the events will be the same breakdown of time – 10-15 minute briefing, 45 minutes networking/socializing – but what I may speak about during the briefing as well as special guests joining me along the way will vary by city. The first date, January 11 in San Jose, will be kicked off alongside Sanjay Dhawan, CEO of Cerence, which I’m thrilled to get to meet him in person and thankful for Cerence’s sponsorship of the tour itself.
5) You have been very consistent in saying that people in the industry want and need to gather physically for events and that this can be done safely. What steps are you taking on the Coast to Coast Tour and for the main conference in April to reduce the risk of COVID spread during the gathering?
For Project Voice: Coast to Coast, the entire thing being outdoors, with distancing and masks enforced along with these being small groups, we feel each of these can be executed safely for everyone involved.
For Project Voice 2021, we’re also requiring masks and distancing, while carrying over what we learned worked from virtual events which is making everything simpler. The entire conference is single-track in one 65,000 square foot conference hall, where exhibit tables will be set up as well. Masks will be enforced, distancing will be enabled through our new squares system, no food will be served, and the Chattanooga Convention Center’s unique ability to pipe fresh air throughout the facility constantly (a product of initially being constructed to accommodate livestock shows) is a great fit to help keep people safe.
6) How will these public health plans differ in the smaller, regional events compared to the main conference in Chattanooga in April?
The events we do around specific verticals, such as The Voice of Healthcare Summit at Harvard Medical School or The Voice of Money in NYC, will all be evaluated individually and will need a customized plan for each venue in order to keep people safe and for them to feel safe. As we ramp more physical events up in the second half of 2021, some existing events and some brand new ones, we’ll announce those plans for each of those events.
7) How do you plan to handle a situation where an attendee shows up and has symptoms of sickness?
Anyone showing up with signs of sickness or is running a temperature when checked is going to be asked to leave for the day. If they can come back the next day (for multiple-day events) without those signs, then they’re welcome to do that. If someone has to leave and is unable to ever return, we’ll credit them toward another event down the road or the same event the following year.
Conference attendees are likely to assume everyone around them is sick, for a while, and keep their distance in ways we’ve grown accustomed to in 2020. It will take time for that to change.
8) We are at the beginning of a national roll-out of a COVID vaccine in the U.S. How does that factor into your thinking about hosting events in the first half of 2021?
The vaccine is a great thing to see not just for the scientific accomplishment involved in creating it, but how it is already working to lift the beaten-up collective psyche heading into 2021. There’s optimism and enthusiasm about what this new year may be and bring.
We anticipate by April that those who want the vaccine will mostly be able to get it (within the United States) and certainly by the second half of 2021, those who are going to take it will have taken it. We expect this to lead to immediate lifts on corporate travel restrictions and an expectation that people will get out and travel and start to return to that balance I mentioned earlier.
The existence of the vaccine won’t immediately change how we’ll handle health, hygiene, and safety at in-person events. People have grown accustomed to masks and distancing being things that make them more comfortable and feel safer, so we won’t be ditching those for a while, even if every single person were vaccinated.
The other thing to note here is the shift in attitude about working from home. When I started my career in 2005, I have a story I often tell about how I couldn’t work in the office right away due to the office being renovated, but some people in the office thinking that I had asked to work from home to start my new job with this particular company. I was chastised for this and the idea that I would work from home and not be around new peers in the office was damaging right out of the gate with this new gig. It’s fascinating to see how the mindset has completely flipped on this, to where working from home is embraced in a way I don’t think anyone would’ve ever imagined.
Working from home raises the importance of in-person conferences dramatically. Not only do in-person conferences hedge your own personal risk of termination or leaving your current job, because you’re out in the community and being seen as an important player, and should you ever need a new job, it will be easier to get. But for corporate teams and divisions, and entire younger companies and startups, you may not ever gather wholly in the office again, so conferences will be seen as opportunities to gather teams and meet face-to-face for perhaps the only time over a 6 to 12 month period. So conferences are not just about to return in person, they’re about to return in dramatic fashion.
9) We have all been at conferences in the past where some attendees were clearly ill. They may have had a cold, the flu, or something else. COVID is clearly different so we don’t want to necessarily make a direct comparison. However, do you expect attitudes to change for attendees about conferences and the admission of other participants who are sick based on the events of 2020, or will we as humans revert to our previous viewpoints on this topic?
Yes, I think the mindset on this has completely changed with what 2020 has brought us. I used to travel all the time, giving talks or having meetings, and it would almost be expected at certain events that I would come back sick with something.
That’s unacceptable now and will no longer be seen as a cost of doing business by attending conferences. Conferences will be expected to act decisively and responsibly to protect attendee health and maintain safe and hygienic standards. And ones that don’t do this, or are incapable of doing this, will cease to exist. It will be interesting to see how mega-conferences – events of 50,000 people or more – attempt to take place given that many will view their existence as inherently incompatible with these new standards of gathering.
10) This seems like an interesting way to engage the voice community by bringing the community to them. It reminds me of the old whistle-stop tours that politicians would make in the 1800s U.S. meeting with voters at each stop along a train route. Today, politicians still do this with bus tours around states. In tech, Meetups have become popular in the tech community and Coast to Coast seems to have a similar vibe in some ways. Do you expect this to be a format just for 2021 or will it become a common fixture in your annual calendar?
It’s a great question. I’ve become trained not to think too much further down the road, after a 2020 full of ups and downs and constant change. For now, Project Voice: Coast to Coast is just what the doctor ordered, and for whether it becomes a permanent mainstay after that, we’ll have to see.