by Janet Ramey
What’s it like to attend a conference in person in for the first time since COVID hit in 2020? Read on for my thoughts and observations from attending SSON’s 25th North American Shared Services & Outsourcing conference September 20-23rd in Orlando, FL. It may be that COVID has changed industry conference-going for the better.
Before Attending: Weighing the Risks
For weeks prior to the conference, colleagues and family asked if I was really planning to travel and attend the event. Given that in mid to late August, Florida remained the nation’s hotspot for COVID cases and hospitalizations, it was a fair question. My business partner Deborah Kops and I took a wait-and-see approach. Since re-launching Sourcing Change in 2020, we have been entirely virtual and connecting with clients and collaborators through web conferencing. This event represented a key opportunity to meet with peers and clients alike to expand our view of the market and build relationships. As August became September, the Florida COVID case counts dropped significantly and the conference organizers announced enhanced mask and hygiene protocols. Ultimately, we committed to mask wearing and attending the even.
During the Conference: Masks Don’t Diminish the Thrill of Meeting Face to Face
Travel to Florida was seamless and mask adherence in the airports was reassuringly high. When we arrived at the conference hotel and venue, we found that patrons were mostly unmasked while hotel staff was consistently masked. The Orange County mayor had issued a local face covering executive order that is still in effect, but enforcement was lax. Having been fairly isolated and wearing masks for over a year, it was initially rather confronting.
At the conference, however, more colleagues were wearing masks and maintaining good social distance. The organizers had provided plenty of space between attendees and aimed to hold as many sessions outdoors as feasible. With attendance lighter than prior conferences, it was easy to maintain distance while still attending and presenting sessions and engaging in conversation.
The organizers were clever in using technology to mitigate contact. No only was conference check in touchless, but the conference app allowed for Q&A without the passing of microphones in the venue. It worked seamlessly, with an added benefit of the audience being able to read the questions entered and avoid duplicating questions already asked.
Being able to meet with colleagues and make new connections made attending worthwhile. It was a distinct pleasure to meet a number of colleagues in real life whom I had met with and gotten to know virtually during the pandemic. In one serendipitous moment, I found myself seated next to a woman whom I had worked closely with but never met. It was such a pleasure to not only put a name with a face, but to find out that she’d moved to the same city and now is practically a neighbor. That conversation, and others like it, reinforced the affinity built online and added another layer of depth to our future work and collaborations.
Lastly, being able to facilitate a Masterclass on GBS and Shared Services Career Development in person, as opposed to online via webinar, was both freeing and fulfilling. Dialog with and among workshop participants flowed more freely and overall interaction and engagement was markedly higher than online, and the connection and ability to read queues, add to the discussion also increased. I found it more fulfilling, engaging and — dare I say — human to connect in person.
Afterthoughts: It Was Worth It
Travel home was smooth and uneventful, and I found myself glad to be home and sleeping in my own bed again. I’m energized, connecting and following up on the contacts and discussions from last week. And I’m almost recovered from 4 days of wearing heels for the first time in 2 years. Honestly, I’m not sure how i used to do this regularly 🙂
All in all, it was a rewarding experience to connect in real life and in person. With masking and precautions, for me the benefits outweighed the inherent risks of traveling during COVID. And I took away learnings for how to make in person gatherings safer and more effective in realizing the value of face to face interaction.