Where to Meet
to find out which states are reopening for meetings and when.
Planners should expect a "tidal wave" of enthusiastic attendees for gatherings this calendar year, predicts Bradley Metrock, CEO of Nashville-based Score Publishing.
As executive producer of VoiceFirst Events, a series of meetings about voice technology and the growing use of artificial intelligence in designated fields, Metrock is forging ahead with plans for two face-to-face events in the coming months: the Voice of Healthcare Summit, set for Aug. 5 at the Boston Winery; and Digital Book World, taking place Sept. 14-15 at Arrington Vineyards, outside Nashville.
I checked in with Metrock this week to see how plans for the two meetings were unfolding. An excerpt from our conversation follows.
For starters, are you aware that Massachusetts is still limiting gatherings to 10 people and Tennessee’s limit is 50?
Yes, I believe so. It would be easy to be paranoid about that. We have a contingency plan in place if that remains the same, but we anticipate the continued march toward a scenario that would allow us to have the 100 to 150 people we want to have in Boston and 200 to 250 in Tennessee.
When we talked about the Voice of Healthcare Summit last month, you planned to require a COVID-19 test to gain entry and not to require masks once admitted. Has that changed at all?
That has changed a little bit. I'm sure you can appreciate the fluidity of the situation. The bottom line is we have to keep people safe. We need to do everything we can possibly do. There are a lot of things people don't agree on, but one thing that people are rapidly agreeing on — and the data is fairly unambiguous — is the use of masks. People want to make everything political, but in reality, there’s pretty widespread consensus that masks are going to be part of the equation. Masks will be 100 percent required; I can say that for sure. And I don't care if you don't like it. This is about being respectful to your fellow man, so we're going to do that.
As for COVID-19 tests, there are reliability issues and consistency issues — false positives, false negatives, all sorts of stuff. If you're gathering more than 100 people, statistically you might be affected by a false positive or false negative test. So, we have the tests lined up, we know where they will come from. The question is, how do we play that card? Will it be mandatory? We will see.
What about attendee temperature checks?
I see no purpose in doing that whatsoever. If we feel like we need to test everyone, it's going to be an actual test. The temperature test, if you want to be blunt about it, is just something to make the organizers feel good, while also possibly limiting their liability.
Have you been surveying your audience to gauge their comfort level with these measures?
No, not really. We’re having constant dialogue with speakers, sponsors and company partners of ours, so we're getting what's probably a significant enough sample size of feedback. But the real feedback is that people have started registering, and the pace of registration has picked up. To me, that is the ultimate feedback.
How many people are you expecting for Digital Book World in September?
It's going to be between somewhere between 250 and 300 people. It’s in Tennessee and importantly, it’s in Williamson County, a suburb south of Nashville. Downtown Nashville is a little bit more prickly about it, and there are some good reasons for that: They deal with Broadway, they deal with the honky tonks and with people just wholesale ignoring everything. It's a different environment there; but in Williamson, a lot of the restrictions are completely lifted and an event like this is fine.
Did you move Digital Book World to Williamson County in order to be somewhere more remote?
We did. We moved it from Vanderbilt University for the primary reason that Vanderbilt had not said what their plans were to reopen, and I didn’t trust them to make a decision quickly enough for us. That factor, in conjunction with the positive response to the idea of using an open-air venue, convinced us to move it.
Switching gears here: Were you surprised by the turnout for the President’s rally in Tulsa?
I am glad you asked me about that. I'm also surprised you asked me about it! But I will say yes — yes and no. This rally was a really important canary in the coal mine for event organizers. It would be absolute malpractice for an event organizer to not pay attention to what he's doing, just purely from that point of view.
There have been articles about how he kind of got played and all of these millennials bought tickets, which is sort of an interesting subplot. But the fact is, he managed to get between 5,000 and 10,000 people to show up for an event in-person in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I think the media has made a big mistake in trashing that outcome, when to me that is a remarkable outcome. There’s a really important lesson here for event organizers: Keep expectations low for the first time coming back and allow things to build from there.
How do you feel about the lack of health-safety precautions at the rally?
I think they gave out masks to people who wanted them, but they didn't require it. Interestingly, they had a waiver attached to the registration process. The bottom line has nothing to do with Trump or any of his politics. You’re watching things play out here from an event standpoint that can be very instructive for how events can come back.
You plan to have participants sign a waiver. Are you concerned that it won't be enforceable?
I am not concerned about that. I saw a picture of Trump's waiver. It was real bare bones. I saw a guy on CNN say he thought that waiver was going to be unenforceable. I didn't think he had great arguments against it, but I am not educated enough on what the waiver actually said to have an opinion on that.
This is really sort of a gray area. But the waiver we're doing is going to be significantly more robust than the couple of sentences Trump put in front of his registration button. I'm going to be standing there myself when people sign the waiver, and I will be explaining it because all of this is so new. I think you've got to take an extra step beyond just saying, "Hey, why don't you sign this now?" And the reason you're going to have a waiver is not to absolve yourself from the repercussions of your idiotic behavior, but to illustrate that we're all in this together.
Meaning that it’s a shared risk and you need to follow the rules, but you could still get COVID-19 — is that the gist?
That's right. And if blanket immunity for businesses is passed between now and then, we will not have a need for a waiver; but that's a real wild card. We can't bank on that.
It’s challenging for event planners to move ahead when there are still so many unknowns.
It’s tough. It’s a combination of things. I just saw data showing coronavirus deaths in the United States have decreased 73 percent over the last 60 days. They're continuing to decline, and that's very good news. You've got people who maintain that the number of cases is going up simply because we’re testing more. On the other hand, you've got people who say cases are going up because you are disrespecting the disease and disrespecting your fellow man. Either way, you get into a discussion that nobody really wants to get into. But the deaths are unambiguously going down, which is partly because treatments are improving, and our understanding of the disease is improving. That has correlated really strongly with increased registrations, increased sponsorships. Stuff is coming back online.
What would you advise event organizers as they prepare to hold in-person gatherings again?
Be ready for a tidal wave if you're having an in-person event in the second half of 2020. Chances are, a lot of your competition has decided they're not doing in-person events. The number of in-person events is at an all-time low. Meanwhile, all these people who are sitting at home have to make up for lost time. They've got to get out, they've got to pound the pavement, they've got to get those deals, make those new relationships and so on. People who can have an in-person event in 2020 will have some tailwind.