The Future of Face-to-Face is Cloudy

I am getting a little overwhelmed by the many predictions that so-called experts are sharing about the future of face-to-face meetings. The range of opinions–from wild optimism to frightening pessimism–is exhausting to wade through. The news cycle of 24/7 pandemic coverage, conversation and debate has obscured the fact that travel and meeting attendance are not always decisions made by companies but by people. People are feeling cooped up and restrained and most crave a return to normalcy. But I am not convinced that translates to them attending meetings.

I believe the future health of face-to-face meetings depends largely on individual, family and company decisions about health and safety. And how people feel regardless of the facts or expert opinions will determine their likelihood to attend meetings of any size. This is not about kids going to a pool party or people flocking to beaches, it’s about the very real concerns people have about safety and the potential impact on their loved ones.

I have read articles that predict “revenge attendance” will be huge, and others that forecast smaller and local meetings will take root in the fall. Some organizations are planning on holding their in-person events and large conventions while developing hybrid or all-virtual meeting scenarios. Others are just throwing in the towel and hoping that venues, hotels and other partners will continue to waive attrition or cancellation penalties as they get closer to the meeting date. Hope is not a strategy. A rebound in domestic leisure travel does not translate into meeting attendance, as past recessions have shown.

The bottom line is, if you don’t understand the motivations and concerns of members and suppliers, your predictions are meaningless. Our customer’s customers are people: association members, exhibitors and employees of companies. Their motivations are disparate yet valid as we look at the future of face-to-face. I just received an email from a major hotel company announcing reopening plans with an emphasis on cleanliness, distancing and other appropriate measures. Applause for saying all the right things, but you can’t convince me the risk is worth it in a marketing email. I wish there was certainty to the Field of Dreams quote, “if you build it they will come.” But there is no crystal ball or any expert (even if armed with reams of data) that can tell me with conviction if that can or should happen.

I am by nature a glass-half-full kind of girl. But nothing has prepared us for the disruption we are currently in and nothing will bring back those we have lost or the challenges faced by those on the front lines of this virus. I have hope, but to be honest, if my four-year-old niece told me she was really scared about me getting on a plane, I am not sure I’d travel.

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  1. Julius Solaris says:

    Hey Lisa,

    I guess that by calling out revenge attendance, you are calling me out, since I am the only one that wrote about it.

    A couple of things:

    – calling out so called experts doesn’t make you an expert. Always good to name names, unless you are not sure of what you are saying. It would be good to link to the articles you mentioned and start a conversation instead of shooting in the dark and hiding behind words.

    – I too believe that demand will decide what happens but neither you or I have a crystal ball, as you correctly say. That may be our truth but not the truth. Once again in this case, saying that you’ve read many things that sound crap and offering an opinion, equally disputable, is mother worthless exercise. Why not trying to offer some data, research or science as this blog does so well to support your argument? Maybe, as you say data, won’t convince you but at least we are talking about facts instead of voicing frustration.

    1. Lisa Block says:

      Julius, you are right. I should have acknowledged you as a source. I’m not saying that you were wrong, As I thought you raised some good points. This is my opinion as I state very clearly and I stand by it as such. I’d encourage people to read your thought provoking article. There are volumes of opinions and perspectives being circulated. I’m sorry if you feel called out but truly appreciate the dialogue.

  2. Hale Rasmussen says:

    I think Julius response to your blog post was uncalled for and pretty rude actually. He does make a good point that having some articles linking out and starting a conversation about them is spot on but that’s awfully egotistical to think that it was calling him out specifically as there are dozens and dozens of articles I’ve read recently using that very same wording. Apparently he took it personally being called out (which you didn’t anywhere that I could find) as a “so called expert” which smacks of some insecurity lurking there. Just an observation…………. And I’ve read his article in question, making a predication about something unproven doesn’t make anyone an expert on something that hasn’t happened yet, you may as well ask a crystal ball for your lotto numbers. Again, just an observation…..

    1. Julius Solaris says:

      Hi Hale,

      I amsure I have a few limitations and insecurities. Though I am the only one writing about Revenge Attending, specifically mentioned here. I wish I could have been directly called in the conversation.

    2. Julius Solaris says:

      Thanks Lisa,

      This blog has nothing but my respect and I always welcome negative feedback if that can make me better. Sometimes writing for an industry in distress is a very difficult task and I get many things wrong.

      I appreciate wehn people tell it to me how it is. Specially if they know what they do. Which is the case for all of you at Velvet Chainsaw.

  3. Jim Kelley says:

    Lisa thanks for putting this out in the universe…I think in some ways we may be overthinking this.

    1) events that know their stakeholders and offer value will do great (they always have)
    2) the market will prevail
    3) all choices are personal…people will do what they believe is right for them, their business and their families. all we can do is provide truthful and transparent facts to help them make a decision

    Be safe, wash your hands, and make good choices.

  4. Glenn Morel says:

    Call the building managers, the stage hands, the planners and the rest. When this is over the walls of convention centers will bend and groan from the multitudes. We are social movers and shakers and we will return larger with even more reasons to convene.

  5. Michael Greto says:


    Well written and I agree with you on so many points, as well as all who have commented.

    For me, I find myself getting so frustrated because all everyone is doing is trying to “hurry up” the process of meeting F2F again.

    3rd party agencies are working to hold onto their clients by working solutions in digital where there are barely any margins and not focusing on their core competency – operational execution.

    Planners are spinning on hamster wheels dealing with FM clauses, cancelling and re cancelling meetings and events and just exhausted daily by all the spinning. They have no time to innovate and most aren’t getting anywhere.

    Our industry associations have to stay afloat so they are working towards bridging solutions and monetizing what they can until a vaccine can be found. While many may not admit this, I believe there will be consolidation in this sector. Some just won’t make it. Maybe they will. None of us know what’s coming.

    Hotels are putting out 50 page documents on sanitation guidelines, distancing plans and altering / canceling service that people WANT when staying in a hotel. I don’t know about you, but I go to a hotel for experience and SERVICE. If I can’t get it, then why am I going? Thanks, I’ll wait.

    It is my opinion, as I’m not an expert, that if we have to go to these great lengths to protect ourselves, then maybe we shouldn’t be meeting. And even if we do, I can assure you that you and I both know 100 people or more who will say fuck it to the social distancing guidelines and hug others once on site, get in your space and well, act like nothing has happened.

    No one wants us to get back to business more than myself because, I too, am one of those millions out of work. But, I’m doing everything I can to monetize my intelligence to help companies solve their current business challenges with the multiple projects / collaborations I’m involved in.

    I’m thankful for my 25 + years in this business on the corporate planning side but now it’s time to erase it all and start fresh with a new whiteboard. Because honestly, now is the time you can do this. If you miss this window and don’t change anything – you’ve lost.

    So, taking all my anger and frustration about how everyone is dealing with this pandemic in our industry, I have started a Future Design Collaboration group to talk about what people aren’t: how do we innovate an industry that hasn’t changed since the dawn of time?

    Yes, this will knock people out of their chair.
    What do you mean change the industry?? You should hear some of the people I’ve spoken to this about.

    My reaction: they are terrified of change.

    So many people out there are catastrophsizing everything about our industry and life and when you do that, it’s impossible to put yourself in a clear headspace to think about innovation and move forward.

    None of us are experts in pandemics and not a single corporation/association who shared their “vision 2020” strategy for the past 10 years had anywhere in it about dealing with a possible pandemic. Funny, isn’t it? Well, other than Bill Gates…

    1. Lisa Block says:

      As always, Mike, you get it. I’d love to participate in your group! Time to rethink some paradigms!

    2. Mary Katherine Graetz says:

      Great example of how to have a really professional, civil exchange – something all too rare in public life today.

  6. Jerry Bernacchi says:

    Well said Lisa.

  7. Jason Moody says:

    For what it’s worth, humans are social creatures, once the pandemic fades away, we will crave actual contact with each other. I have participated in a number of zoom meetings since lockdown, but they all felt ‘clinical’ somehow, the usual relaxed way we would meet at a local venue, making it into an excuse to enjoy a drink just wasn’t there.

    Memories of these strange times will fade, and F2F will come back.

    Opinions are only mine for what its worth and I claim no more insight into the future than anyone else.

  8. Jide D.A says:

    Great read, Lisa! It has become a no-brainer that organizations and institutions embrace digital transformation as leverage for success in the 2020s. I believe the coronavirus has absolutely shifted our mindset to what is actually obtainable. But as awesome as remote work and virtual meetings sound, human interaction has an immense role to play in society.

    Ironically, we are caught in the dilemma of technological advancement and dwindling social interaction.

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