The marketers at Minnesota’s media companies came up with clever State Fair T-shirts this year after all, like Minnesota Public Radio’s “The Great Minnesota Stay Apart” and the Star Tribune’s “I know … I miss it too.”
Last Thursday would have been the start of our State Fair, and yes, I miss it too.
Last year’s record opening day attendance topped 133,000. The sign over the gate has been promoting the 2021 fair for weeks already, yet we really don’t know how this COVID-19 pandemic ends.
We don’t know if anywhere near 133,000 people will show up on the first day come next August even if the public health crisis has eased. People might decide to stay home again, remembering well the most important lesson of the pandemic — that close contact with others should be avoided.
One of the remarkable things in this year of social distancing is how invitations to events keep flowing anyway, with only some organizers now bothering to put “virtual” into the subject line. Ticketing firm Eventbrite said it processed more than 27 million free and paid tickets to online events in its second quarter, up from 850,000 last year.
Virtual meetings are a triumph of improvisation and perseverance, yet there’s evidence lately that people are wearying of getting together through videoconferencing applications like Zoom, said Susan Brauer, principal of Brauer Consulting Group, a Minneapolis corporate-events manager and consultant.
What we’re going through right now, she said, “is only a new normal until we can safely get back together again.”
In a conversation last week she put her finger on one big challenge, and that is what’s “safe” isn’t clear-cut. She said there are people ready to meet, if only in small groups, for a short time and with good COVID-19 safe practices in place.
Yet many won’t even check what’s permitted by public health authorities, whether it’s 250 allowed to gather indoors or 25, because they are simply not going to attend.
This fundamental change in behavior is a risk to parts of our economy highlighted by George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen in a recent Bloomberg essay. He wrote that the unwillingness to leave home might linger well after infections slow down and therapies for those who get sick with COVID-19 become more effective.
And any outbreaks that do pop up will potentially deal another blow to the reputations of places that just announced one.
We are witnessing a version of that right now, in the judgmental tone of news coverage of universities struggling to open in-person classes with the virus still spreading. Just try googling the University of Iowa, bars and COVID-19.
We are now half a year into the pandemic in the U.S., long enough for new habits to have formed. And no one in my group of friends has lately expressed any interest in going inside a restaurant or taking in a movie.
On the list of things to also avoid if you can is crowding into a big aluminum tube to fly someplace.
“It was assumed that by Sept. 30, the virus would be under control and demand for air travel would have returned. That is obviously not the case,” wrote the top executives of American Airlines Group to their employees last week, setting the stage for roughly 19,000 more American Airlines employees to lose their jobs this fall.
An airline-industry recovery now looks likely to be years long rather than months. And as the pandemic has continued it has become easier to find people moving past just making do, to new ways of working or serving their customers that won’t soon be abandoned. That certainly fits the description of Twin Cities technology conference founder Casey Allen.
Last week he said he may not ever host another in-person conference, and not because he’s a virus pessimist. He’s planning for his virtual Enterprise Rising technology conference in October to provide a great experience.
His own habits have changed, Allen said, and videoconferencing is now just fine when meeting somebody for the first time rather than grabbing a coffee together, and he can’t imagine that easily switching back. What’s more, technology is springing up that’s already better than the videoconferencing apps, like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, that many of us tried for the first time in March.
Allen pointed to software his conference will use from a California company called Remo.co. He described it as a little like the venerable game called the Sims, where players can create houses or whole cities and move their characters around in a simulated world.
Enterprise Rising attendees will be presented with a layout of a virtual conference space. One room will have banquet tables with eight chairs, each table labeled with a topic. Clicking on an empty seat joins the conversation, only on video of course, with the others already “seated” around the table.
Another spot to try meeting people is the lobby, with virtual couches and chairs. There’s even going to be representatives of the conference sponsors outside at the sponsor’s virtual fire pits surrounded by virtual Adirondack chairs.
Allen said he doesn’t know how this is all going to work out. He is sure, though, that the pandemic opened a window for thoughtful experiments with an audience inclined to be forgiving if it doesn’t work perfectly.
This form of virtual event could be more than a poor substitute for an in-person conference especially for people who never really did love rooms full of strangers. They might have great ideas or have founded promising businesses but are simply too shy to easily move through a happy hour reception.
“If this makes it even 10% easier than being in a crowded venue, that changes lives,” Allen said.
Pulling this virtual event together has been challenging, he said, but on the other hand he has exchanged this big headache for the headaches he used to have — negotiating for a conference hall and blocks of hotel rooms, hiring caterers, audio/visual service providers, photographers and so on.