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2021 Industry In-Person Conferences – Are They Worth It?

Two weeks ago I attended the 2021 E Source Forum in Denver, Colorado, and last week I will be attending the Watersmart Innovations conference in Las Vegas, NV.

It’s been two years since I’ve been at either conference, and over a year and a half since I had seen any clients or colleagues in person.

Earlier in the summer, I signed up for Exhibit Hall booths at both conferences, hoping that the trends pointing downward would continue into the Fall. But – as almost all of you know and hopefully acknowledge – case counts rose (see the graph from USA Today below, based on data from Johns Hopkins, also cited by Fox News in their COVID map).

As a result, many utilities reinstated travel prohibitions for their staff, so planned in-person attendance levels dropped. E Source, with a virtual option, had a minority of attendees in person.

I will admit that I was feeling unsettled about attending a conference in person. It wasn’t due to a personal fear of my own breakthrough case (though my youngest child is unvaccinated due to her age, and my getting sick would impose a logistical burden on the whole family). But two years of life – very challenging years for everyone – had transpired. Even though I’d been in touch with people via e-mail and web calls, it still felt like I was going to see a bunch of strangers. It was very weird.

The Reception – Resuming Old Habits

Most conferences start with a reception the first evening after the Exhibitor Booth has been set up. E Source and the Sheraton, for their parts, were actively managing risk. Staff were wearing masks, communications about wearing masks and being vaccinated were sent prior to the conference, and signage told attendees in no uncertain terms that people should be wearing masks at the event.

That’s not exactly how things went the first evening. True, I would estimate that 75% of the attendees arrived at the reception wearing their masks. But the masks came off to eat hors d'oeuvres or drink wine or beer, and once that happened, only a few had the discipline that evening to put the masks back on. People stood or sat at tables throughout the hall in groups of four or five or more, getting caught up and being glad to be in the same place together. It seemed like people were looking at one another for their behavior cues, and didn’t want to be the ones to resume wearing their masks that evening.

Conference Gets Underway – And People Get Serious

Things changed the next day. There were still a few attendees – exhibitors, mostly – who figured they were in a large, well-ventilated area and didn’t need to be wearing masks. E Source staff started making the rounds and enforcing the rules. Folks took off their masks to eat breakfast or lunch and put them back on again. It was as if, after that first evening, everyone remembered that yes, we were still in the middle of a pandemic in 2021. The hybrid conference sessions were well-attended, mixing an effective combination of video feeds for both panelists (if remote) and virtual attendees.

Mouth Visibility – Things that Make You Go Hmm

I did get frustrated with the usual challenge of understanding the people I was talking to. I saw people pull down their masks when they had trouble being heard, or pulling them away from their mouths to minimize “muffling.” But while sitting at our booth I decided to try an experiment by closing my eyes, getting rid of my expectation to see someone’s lips moving while they were talking. And my understanding of everyone’s speech improved enormously. I ran a few experiments with groups and they confirmed it. And, as it turns out, research shows that the lack of “mouth visibility” is a major factor in the challenges of understanding one another when we have masks on. According to Dr. Valerie Fridland of the University of Nevada, Reno,

When face to face we instead integrate multi-sensory cues, including both auditory (hearing) and visual information. Visual cues are part of what we call the ‘speech chain,’ the connection between how a speaker produces speech and how a listener receives it. When available, such information assists a listener in processing what a speaker says. In addition to cutting off visual cues, masks also render us less able to move our mouths normally and involve layers of fabric which dampen the acoustics frequencies of a sound.

Watersmart Innovations

The Watersmart Innovations conference at South Point Casino was somewhat different from E Source. The Nevada Declaration of Emergency in September 2021 mandated masks throughout the casino, including the conference. The "maskless" that I had seen at E Source were nowhere to be found at WSI, and attendees made a point of emphasizing the importance of public health. This may be because the water sector is and has always been focused on public health, in contrast to the energy sector. The water sector also has a higher percentage of publicly owned utilities (as opposed to privately- or investor-owned). In any case, I personally experienced less self-awareness of wearing a mask - it's just what we did.

Don’t Get Me Started About the Travel

While on balance I found the conference itself valuable (see below), the travel to and from the conference was truly awful. The relatively small size of attendees at E Source made the conference, as a first “return” to in person mingling, manageable. I can’t say the same for air travel. As part of the “Great Resignation,” the Transportation Security Administration was short-staffed, and the security line at DEN was longer than any other time I have experienced it. The airport was wall-to-wall people, and everywhere was a long line to get anything. Gate attendance and flight crew announcements were aggressively managing the risk of unruly passenger behavior, and you could tell that the airport and airline staff have had enough of that nonsense. Suddenly the prospect of yet another really long car ride for vacation travel seemed perfectly fine.

LAS was marginally better but had many of the same challenges. There were only two security lines in operation, one of which went down due to a scanner malfunction, leaving those of us in that queue standing for 20 minutes until I pointed out that we could all be woven into a single line. (Yeah, I'm that guy.) Waiting areas were similarly crowded.

Seeing this many people pressed together, and remembering that this is commonplace, made me realize that the surprise of COVID isn’t that it happened, but rather that it took so long to happen.

Would I Do This Again?

Aside from the fact that I am going on yet another trip this week, the answer is a definite “yes.” It was very good to see colleagues, and even though many utility clients remained remote, E Source provided a good opportunity to explore partnerships and Watersmart Innovations still had 500 attendees (with no hybrid option offered). Other companies at E Source were also not busy talking to prospective clients, and so it gave all of us a bit more time to get to know one another. The “three-dimensional” experience is far superior to the two-dimensional – you focus on the person you are talking to (you’re not keeping track of inbound e-mail), and the conversation evolves more organically than on a scheduled webinar or webcamera call. I would say that I found myself more tired at the end of this week than in prior years because the continual wearing of masks served a constant reminder that we are dealing with a national – no, global – health crisis.

On balance, I am proud of E Source, Watersmart Innovations and conference attendees for their responsible efforts and discipline at the conference. We can do this.


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