What it’s like to attend an in-person industry conference again (mask optional)

what its like to attend an in person industry conference again mask optional

In-person events are just starting to come back in the marketing industry, beginning with the Association of National Advertisers. And the early results suggest they work pretty well.

Though most people are still staying away, a substantial plurality are ready to shake hands, exchange arcane industry banter, and hang out in lobby bars again.

The ANA Media Conference at the J.W. Marriott Turnberry Resort in Aventura, Florida, was, per unscientific survey, the first time most of the 150 attendees had done any business travel in 15 to 18 months. If you’re wondering why the ANA held this conference in Florida in June or has the Advertising Financial Management Conference set for even-hotter Phoenix later this month—blame contracts that could be delayed but not denied.

An email from ANA Group Exec VP Bill Duggan two days before the conference noted a survey showing 17% of in-person attendees still wanted mandatory masking, 26% felt a need to “social distance,” and 5% still weren’t vaccinated. Why folks with lingering concerns wouldn’t just opt for virtual, or why unvaccinated people would breathe all over an indoor conference, is an open question.

Red, yellow, green

The ANA navigated the vax wars with optional masking, contactless registration (just pick up your badge and go) and color-coded lanyards. They were green for folks with no reservations about hugs and handshakes, yellow for folks who wanted some distance, and red for folks who wanted “extreme social distance and the highest precautions.” Welcome packs had only pens, KN95 masks and Purell.

Ultimately, almost all attendees chose the green lanyards. Almost none wore masks. Handshakes abounded. Not so many hugs, but plenty of conference-typical close talking, reception surfing and bar hopping. If you wanted to eat, you pretty much had to mingle, since the J.W. Marriott offered no room service. Buffets were served by staff behind Plexiglas.

More than half the presenters were there in person, including from L’Oreal, Burger King and Hershey, while Procter & Gamble Co., Anheuser-Busch InBev and Dentsu were among those presenting virtually. But the virtual attendance was far bigger—more than 1,000, according to Duggan.

The ability to draw a total audience much bigger than the conventional version of the conference ever did has the ANA considering making the hybrid option permanent.

But being there in person was a reminder that there’s nothing like being there in person, that the value of conferences largely is not presenters’ often self-promoting shows and tells, but rather the casual conversations and selling opportunities.

“I think this is a conference that all of us who came here in person will never forget—in a very positive way,” Duggan said from the stage toward the end.

Less is more

Less was more for in-person attendance. A smaller crowd meant running into the same people more often, but also deeper, serial conversations. Though the conference had no physical booths, one sponsor said it was more effective than more crowded events with booths in the past, leading to several promising contacts and a closed deal with a major client.

For an industry where racial equity in media buying is a growing issue, having industry people in one place helped demonstrate part of the problem: The crowd wasn’t very ethnically diverse, as Duggan noted from the stage.

Yet an in-person-only town hall he led on supplier diversity provoked meaningful debate and insights, thanks largely to diverse participants within that group. That included insights from marketing procurement specialist John Hardy of GEP on how Black-owned programmatic buying firm Reset Digital has found it easy to have “conversations” with venture capital firms but hard to close deals.

He also relayed an anecdote from his Procter & Gamble Co. career in the 1990s, when the company once lent a Black-owned adhesive manufacturer $1 million so it could fill an order – an idea that points to a possible path to future development of Black-owned media.