- After last year’s hiatus due to COVID-19, in-person events are back.
- Live industry events are critical for the industry because distribution’s foundation — sales — is built on face-to-face interactions.
- The return of live gatherings is happening, in part, because of high vaccination rates among business travelers but mostly because of the industry’s desire to connect.
- Look for some masks and social distancing, but associations are trying to make their events feel as normal as possible.
After a hiatus in 2020, industry associations are moving forward with their annual conferences. Even MDM will be back with our first in-person Sales GPS conference since 2019.
A few events have been held in recent months, with many more happening this month and beyond. As the industry gathers for the first time since early 2020, questions remain about the size and vibe of events moving forward.
Will masks be required? What are the social distancing guidelines for an industry that thrives on handshakes and happy hours? And the most burning questions of all: Are distributor gatherings still necessary and will they ever be the same?
We checked in with some of the groups preparing to host their annual conferences for the first time since late 2019. Here’s what we learned.
The return to live
The return to live events is going to be different, of course. Events might be smaller than they were pre-pandemic. The Power Transmission Distributors Association, for example, is expecting around 300 members at its Industry Summit in Atlanta later this month. That’s around half its usual attendance, says PTDA’s executive director, Ann Arnott. Still, any Industry Summit is better than none, she notes.
“It’s been a long time since the power transmission industry has been able to gather,” Arnott tells MDM. “They’re excited to be able to have face-to-face conversations, even if the faces are obscured by masks. We had a few smaller meetings over the summer. The in-person interaction was far too valuable to let something like masks or a bit of distance between attendees get in the way.”
The mask requirement is an interesting one. The associations and buying groups that MDM spoke with for this report say they are leaning on the regulations enacted by local governments. PTDA’s Industry Summit, for example, is in Atlanta, which currently has a mask mandate. PTDA says it “may require masks pending circumstances at the time of our event.”
And while PTDA won’t require proof of COVID-19 vaccination, it will have other notable regulations, considering the current reality.
The facilities will have such protocols as “adequate spacing, hand sanitizer stations, etc. — all the protocols that are now considered standard.” One change from the typical distributor gathering: PTDA says that “during general sessions, seating will feature four people per round table to allow for three feet between individuals. Accommodations may change should circumstances necessitate so.”
Another association leader preparing for the return to live events is Talbot Gee, CEO, Heating, Air-conditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI), the Columbus, Ohio-based trade group representing the HVACR channel. HARDI, which will host its annual conference in Palm Desert, California, in December, is expecting a return to pre-pandemic levels, Gee says.
“We have consistently run ahead of 2019’s numbers for both reservations and sponsorships and our hotel are at over 90% capacity, so our expectation remains for record or near-record attendance,” he tells MDM.
Like PTDA in Atlanta, HARDI is relying on the regulations in place for Palm Desert when it comes to whether attendees will be required to wear face coverings or social distance. One advantage for any association event, Gee says, is that business travelers are more likely to be vaccinated.
“We will, of course, follow all local government and hotel policies and encourage following CDC guidelines and we have made accommodations at all of our live events to facilitate more distancing,” he says. “However, we will trust our attendees to choose the measures they feel are appropriate for them and their fellow attendees. There is now ample data showing in-person conferences and meetings are not significant sources of infections largely because business travelers are overwhelming responsible, conscientious attendees with extremely high vaccination rates.”
One caveat: General business travel remains stymied. Only 62% of business travelers say their company is planning air travel in the next 12 months, while 38% say their company either has no plans (20%) or has not specified plans (18%), according to a recent survey by OAG published in September. Learn more about business travel in MDM’s recent article, Sales Travel Will Continue to Be a Mixed Bag for Distributors in 2022.
The future of in-person events
The term “new normal” has been bandied about so much in the last six months that it’s become cliché. Nothing will go back to the way it was circa-2019, of course, but distribution is an industry that thrives on normalcy. In-person events are a critical component of the normal cycle for an industry built on that face-to-face connection.
That said, it will take a few events under our collective belts before industry summits and distributor sales meetings and buying group gatherings resemble what they once did.
“As an association executive, I’d love to say everything will be back to where it was by the time our members meet again in Tampa in March 2022 for our spring meetings,” Arnott says. “But, as the pandemic lingers, my practical side says it will take some time. I do think we’ll get back to live events closer to what we’ve had pre-pandemic — eventually.”
As Arnott notes, “in-person meetings offer so much: the added context that comes from body language, the focus on the conversation in the moment without the distraction of the dog barking in the background, the smoother conversations without the awkward talking over each other (or ‘you’re on mute’). But mostly, in-person meetings cement relationships. The conversation naturally flows from business to personal and back again, building a better understanding and trust among partners. We delayed our strategic planning — both for PTDA and for the PTDA Foundation — because we knew it would be a more effective process with a better outcome when we could hold those tough, strategic conversations in person.”
Gee echoes those comments, adding that HARDI has been holding and attending live events since late June, and “every one of them felt much closer to normal than not. Hopefully, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from all of this is that we can’t control everything. But if we’re smart and conscientious we can manage almost anything.”
HARDI isn’t alone with its return to various events. The buying group AD has held a couple of live events recently, including its Industrial & Safety North American Meeting last week. The North American Association of Floor Covering Distributors (NAFCD) and North American Building Material Distribution Association (NBMDA) will host a joint conference Nov. 2-4 in Dallas. The National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED) will host its Eastern Region Conference Nov. 8-10 in Austin. And National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (NAW) is hosting its first Executive Summit since early last year on Jan. 25-27, 2022, in Washington, D.C.
All have their own regulations, found on their respective websites. All also understand that the return to in-person meetings and events is essential for this industry. We thrive on seeing each other, shaking hands, breaking bread, clinking glasses and feeding off each other’s energy.
“Virtual has its limits in business and relationships, which is why demand for in-person events is so exceptionally strong now,” Gee says. “If anything, the effectiveness of virtual meetings has actually made in-person more effective and efficient because they are more focused on that which is best accomplished in a non-virtual environment, and that which can be accomplished virtually is completed in advance.”
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