True Colors

07/13/2021

Okay, so we’re doing things again, and that feels good. So good that sometimes it’s easy to forget that there’s still a pandemic going on, but there is.

As the disease runs its course, it is becoming evident that it will not be eradicated any time soon, perhaps not for years. Perhaps not ever.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it will always have a big effect on how we live our lives or run our businesses. There are a lot of awful diseases kicking around on the planet, no longer afflicting large numbers of people but never completely going away either.

You probably don’t spend much time worrying about diphtheria, tuberculosis, polio, leprosy or the bubonic plague, even though all of them still exist somewhere. They are kept in check through vaccination and other means of suppression, which may well become the case with COVID. It could become one of the childhood shots that everybody gets, with maybe a booster later in life.

For right now, though, it is very much a pandemic, infecting thousands of Americans every day and killing several hundred. Everything being relative that seems rather mild, but it remains a dangerous situation. There are more than 100 million Americans who are unvaccinated, and many of them plan to stay that way. The virus is still raging in parts of the world, and new variants are evolving at an alarming rate.

Nonetheless, I am all in favor of opening up full bore. Given the overwhelming success of the vaccines in general, I am fully confident that we can resume doing business face to face, in all the ways we did before.

One of those ways is through tradeshows. As a publisher of trade magazines, those events are very important to my company, and nothing changed more dramatically in the bizarre business world of 2020 than the whole tradeshow equation.

We normally attend at least six shows, or two for each of the three trade journals that we publish. In 2020, the first two conventions had just gaveled to a close when COVID hit the fan.

The remaining four shows made a valiant effort to preserve some sort of in-person event for 2020, and the first two were initially pretty confident that they could stick to their schedules for 2021. In hindsight we can see how farfetched such ideas were, because nothing, save perhaps a cruise ship, was so contrary to pandemic protocols as a tradeshow was.

First off, most attendees at national shows arrive at the host city via commercial airlines, and nobody wanted to get on an airplane last year. Some of us weren’t enamored with air travel to begin with, but a year ago the idea of putting 200 people in a sealed metal cylinder for several hours seemed irrational.

Checking into a hotel was equally scary. Back then, we were so obsessed with surfaces that some cities were hosing down their streets with disinfectants. How could you possibly sanitize a hotel room, let alone an entire hotel? In fact, a hotel struck a lot of people as being awfully similar to a cruise ship that wasn’t going anywhere.

Then there was the convention itself. If you take away everything that happens at a trade show during which people are within 6 feet of each other, you don’t have much left.

In short, trade shows were simply off the table from March of 2020 through right about now. There’s still a pandemic, but just about every facet of it has been altered dramatically from last year.

As far as air travel goes, I’ve done it and it wasn’t much worse than it was pre-COVID. About the only real issue is that you have to wear a mask at all times, in airports as well as in planes, and I did find that a little tedious.

In one way I even liked flying better, because they weren’t offering beverage service during flights, and I have always found that whole drink cart thing to be seriously annoying. If you’re someone who needs a drink on the plane, you’ll have to remember to buy one in the terminal.

Once we realized that the COVID virus was essentially an airborne pathogen, hotels became a lot less intimidating. I would have no particular problem staying at a hotel at this point, although I might pass on their indoor restaurants. Since trade shows are generally held in warm months or warm climates, it should be possible to find outdoor food venues in most cases.

The biggest question right now might be about the exhibit hall, plus the conference rooms and ballrooms where seminars and social events are held. Is it still necessary to take precautions?

Personally, I would say no, because I’ve been vaccinated and I assume that most business travelers have been as well, but not everyone agrees. Event coordinators are busily trying to find ways to address their concerns, and have come up with some interesting ideas.

According to a June 7 article in The Wall Street Journal, one of those ideas in particular is gaining traction among the trade association executives who are planning the imminent return of live events. It basically allows attendees to classify themselves according to three color-coded categories.

The show would provide bracelets (or stickers or badges or whatever) in red, yellow or green. People who wish to maintain a social distance from everyone else wear red. Those who are okay with more “normal” distancing but prefer no physical contact, such as a handshake, wear yellow. Wearing green indicates that a person is okay with pre-COVID norms regarding physical contact.

I’m okay with the last group, but how do I get across to my fellow conventioneers that I wasn’t really a hugger to begin with? Apparently some people are trying to answer that question by wearing more than one bracelet. A combination of green and yellow, for example, might say, “You can touch me, just don’t get carried away.” Some people are wearing all three colors together, which I guess means that they have different standards for different situations, or perhaps they just want to keep their options open. You might also wear two or three of the same color, to make your preference more emphatic.

The companies that are making the bracelets report that business has been brisk. In case you’re wondering, early indications are that the green bands are moving the quickest.

I have a feeling that trade shows are going to benefit from a great deal of pent-up demand. It’s time to take the plunge.

 

You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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