By Christine Clapp

In December 2021, I attended my first in-person conferences since the pandemic changed life almost two years ago. One conference was IMPACT 2021 put on by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It was a hybrid conference with robust offerings for online and in-person participants. My team and I were there to coach presenters, especially the TED-style speakers that were a main stage event. The other conference was the Professional Development Institute (PDI). It was an in-person conference without an option for virtual attendance. I was there as an attendee and breakout-session speaker.

I had a fantastic time at these conferences. When people say, “the energy in the room was palpable,” they are describing what I experienced at both events. If you are planning to attend in-person conferences in 2022, here are a few reflections on the challenges of return to in-person conferences, communication challenges presented, and ways you might address them:

Varying levels of comfort 

At the time of these conferences, I had received two vaccines and had recently recovered from a breakthrough case of COVID. Members of my household were healthy and had received the vaccine too. Both conferences required proof of vaccination and asked about COVID symptoms (but didn’t have a negative test requirement). I felt pretty comfortable at these events, which took place the same week that Omicron variant was first detected in the United States, but recognize that others with compromised immune systems, or household members with higher levels of risk or vaccine ineligible children, likely did not.

At these conferences, some in-person attendees were wearing double masks, social distancing, and eating only in their rooms or outdoors. And, at IMPACT, about half of all attendees participated virtually. As you approach in-person conferences, remember that other attendees may have more COVID risk factors and may be less comfortable than you are with in-person attendance. So, be flexible when you are trying to make plans with other attendees to connect during in-person conferences, especially if you had drinks or meals in mind.

Still risk 

Even with strong protocols in place, we all know there is still risk when attending in-person events. One of the conferences I attended ended up having several attendees test positive for COVID, but I was not considered a close contact.

I am glad that the conferences both required vaccination, a health screening, and face masks (when not eating). I wish more events had outdoor dining to further reduce risks and had requirements for a booster shot as well as rapid testing or even their own machines for on-site PCR testing. When you do attend in-person conferences, consider enabling the local health department app on your phone; such apps are another helpful tool in the fight to contain the spread of COVID . . . if people use them.

Awkward greetings

Let’s be honest: COVID has made greetings awkward. First, it’s harder to recognize people. I don’t know about you, but I have a difficult time recognizing people wearing masks. At these conferences, I reunited with people in masks, many of whom I haven’t seen in almost two years, making the process of recognizing acquaintances tricky.

When attending an in-person conference, try to wear your nametag high (as close to your face as your clothing allows) so people can read it without looking at your navel (as is the case when your nametag is on a lanyard). And, consider updating your headshot for LinkedIn and the conference app so attendees have a sense of your current look. You might also make specific meet-up plans with attendees you’d like to connect with so you are sure to find them among the sea of masked faces.

The second way that COVID has made greetings awkward is the handshake. Are they still acceptable? I have never been a huge fan of shaking hands at large events (even with hand sanitizer stations everywhere), so I was relieved that very few people at these conferences extended their hand to me when we met. A few longtime friends did engage in a hug, but it’s important to take the lead from the other person on that front if you are comfortable with embracing. (And if you aren’t comfortable hugging, now’s a great time to establish clear boundaries.) There were many head nods and smizing (smiling with the eyes). I prefer the “namaste” greeting – a slight bow of the head and hands together in the prayer position – because it seems to strike a nice balance between friendly, respectful, and germ-free. 

Third, the transition between speakers on a stage is more awkward. As someone who participated in Toastmasters for years before the pandemic, I was trained to shake hands with the person at the lectern before me and to shake hands with the speaker after me to show the transition in control of the event. With fewer of handshakes, we need to think through on-stage transitions more carefully.

At IMPACT, the unmasked emcee of the TED-style Talk plenary introduced each speaker and started applause for them. Each unmasked speaker came to the middle of the stage after their introduction without coming near the emcee and the emcee left the stage as applause was winding down. At PDI, the other three panelists I was presenting with sat next to each other on the stage at a skirted table. Though we agreed we were all comfortable sitting at the table without masks on, we each took turns speaking from the lectern microphone and did not shake hands between our separate speaking roles.

I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to handle these types of on-stage transitions: the important thing is to address the issue beforehand and implement a plan that is comfortable for the most risk-averse person on the stage. The worst case would be to skip the discussion and to have an awkward moment onstage before a live audience.

Hard to read audiences

When you are speaking in person, it’s great to feed off the energy in the room. And there definitely was energy in the room. This was particularly the case at IMPACT because with a remote attendance option, the people who were in person really wanted to be there and were excited.

Even with palpable energy, speakers at in-person conferences should be aware that the experience of looking into the audience will be markedly different than it was pre-pandemic. First, people are wearing masks, which makes it hard to read their expressions. In addition, attendees were more diffuse – they were not tightly packed at tables or in rows. Conference organizers now allow fewer people in a space and encourage social distancing. In a ballroom setting, there might only be 2 or 3 people at a table designed 6 or 8. The change to a more diffuse and masked crowd can be a bit of a shock when you first look out from your perch on a stage. But, knowing in advance will hopefully make the change less of a surprise. 

Technology

Remember how overwhelming the technology felt the first time you presented on a videoconference platform early in the pandemic? Almost two years later, we’ve become comfortable with computer-mediated communication and are fluent with our organization’s preferred videoconference platform and maybe several others too.

Going back to in-person conferences highlighted how rusty I had become with in-person event technology – even technologies that I used multiple times a week before the pandemic. I had to double-check that I had my computer power cord and HDMI adapter in my bag. I had to reacquaint myself with a microphone, slide advancer / clicker, and changing the computer settings to allow for sound through the hotel AV system. I also had to figure out the differences in using Mentimeter, a great audience interaction and polling tool that works from a smartphone, from a stage rather than on a computer right in front of me during a virtual presentation.

During PDI, there was an amazing plenary session where one speaker was on a stage and the other speaker joined by Zoom and ran slides and Mentimeter remotely. It was flawless and an excellent example of how technology can be used in new ways to include people who can’t or don’t feel comfortable attending in person. 

As we reacquaint ourselves with old technologies and find new ways to use technology at in-person conferences, plan significant time to test technology. Consider doing IT and AV checks far in advance as well as the day before your presentation, so you have time to make changes, troubleshoot glitches, and acquire any equipment that you overlooked or might have left at home. Now is a great time for presenters to experiment with new technology. The pandemic forced everyone to embrace it and audience members are now more capable and generally more willing to try new platforms and experiences. 

Flexibility

At one of the conferences I attended, there was a speaker who got sick with COVID right before the event and had to find a replacement presenter with only a few days notice. It’s an example of how attendees may find unexpected opportunities to fill speaking roles – and should jump at them especially if they have support systems in place (like a coach or a communications team) and the ability to clear their calendar for intense preparation. It’s also a reminder that conference and session organizers must have backup plans, must be flexible, and must be willing to make arrangements, such as hybrid co-presenters, work.

I’m glad I was able to participate in person at the IMPACT and PDI conferences in early December 2021. They weren’t without risks, but both were done well and rewarding experiences for a vaccinated extrovert. It’s hard to know the impact Omicron and other variants will have on in-person conferences going forward, but hopefully, there will be more opportunities to attend and speak at in-person conferences in 2022!