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Navigating the ‘Messy Middle’

As the pandemic enters what some are calling “the messy middle,” life and work will continue to change, hopefully for the better, as effective vaccines make it safer to have more in-person meetings and conventions. Here are five things to keep in mind about navigating the middle of the worldwide health crisis.


Virtual won’t vanish when the virus does.

You might be tired of Zoom, but it’s become clear that it and other virtual meeting platforms won’t vanish with the virus. “The digital model is here to stay,” said Sadie Lincoln, whose company, Barre 3, has moved all its fitness classes online.

Like engineers who design cars and kitchens, software makers are souping up these virtual platforms. Some of the new, smart features they are developing will make virtual more valuable to users like meeting professionals.

For example, Zoom is working on a way, using AI, to make Zoom meetings that include an in-office staff and those dialing in from home offices feel more equal. This new feature would capture the images of everyone seated in the office at the boardroom table and put each face in its own little square, just like those who are joining from home. Meanwhile Cisco is honing gesture recognition, where AI would be used to identify signals like thumbs up and raised hands and so crowd reaction could be gauged. Other new developments include a virtual “nag” feature that sends reminders of tasks assigned to meeting participants.

Even with Zoom’s popularity, some businesses are trying to use it more sparingly, opting for phone conferences when possible. They recognize that virtual meetings are partly “performance,” which makes them more draining.

The workweek will look different.

Maybe you’ll be headed back to an office soon, if you aren’t there already. But it’s likely your office hours won’t be the standard 9-to-5 Monday through Friday. Businesses are adopting “split” schedules like those many schools are following to reduce class size and allow social distancing. Perhaps you’ll work from home on Mondays and Wednesdays and come into the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Maybe Friday will be a collaboration day, when meetings are scheduled. That day could be balanced by “No Meeting Mondays,” when everyone focuses on their projects without interruption. The physical layouts of offices might also change as companies create areas where smaller groups or teams can work together, with their own storage spaces, flexible work areas, coffee stations and comfortable seating clusters. Look for more flexibility in the workplace: job sharing, flex schedules, home offices and four-day workweeks.

Hotels are in flux.

Many hotels face financial uncertainty after a year of upheaval. Industry forecasters believe that an uptick in business is in sight but say it will be several years, maybe even three, before hotels get back to the levels of business they enjoyed in 2019. In the meantime, some will close, others will be acquired, and some new properties will get off the drawing board and break ground. As Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson told investors, “We still have a long road ahead, but this crisis will come to an end, and I believe travel will rebound quickly.”

Some notable hotels in New York and Chicago have recently closed for good, and it’s estimated that as many as 25% of properties could face foreclosure. Even at that, some see opportunity. In Greenville, South Carolina, a vibrant area called Uptown is anticipating as many as four new hotels, including a plan to turn an old brick tobacco warehouse into a hotel. Some of the hotels hope to open by fall 2022.

Travelers will gradually get back on board.

Planes are flying, but not everyone is willing to fasten their seatbelts and take off. Lin Humphrey, a professor at Florida International University, has said it will be at least a couple of years, maybe longer for international travel, before numbers return to 2019 levels. When National Geographic and Morning Consult polled travelers back in October, only 13% said they’d be willing to fly before the end of 2020 and another 24% said they’d fly sometime in 2021. As might be expected, younger travelers were less averse to air travel.

Depending on the demographics of your meeting attendees, it might be wise for meetings planned later this year to stick with a hybrid-style meeting and perhaps break larger conventions into smaller regional meetings.

Convention centers are playing new roles.

Idled convention centers have been put to new uses across the country during the past year. They’ve been used as COVID-19 testing centers, temporary homeless shelters, field hospitals, polling places and, most recently, mass vaccination centers. Venues like the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford and the Atlantic City Convention Center work well for mass vaccinations because they have plenty of room to physically distance, easy accessibility and ample parking.

During the quiet of the last year, other centers have plunged into improvements. Indianapolis is thinking about the future as it invests in a $500 million convention center expansion to attract larger conventions, including a dental convention five years from now. A new convention center is rising from the rubble of the old in Lexington, Kentucky.

In Wilmington, North Carolina, no meetings scheduled for June and beyond have been canceled so far, and the convention center is seeing new bookings, like military balls and annual dinners, for late in the year. In the meantime, city government meetings are being held there regularly because participants can spread out.

“Groups are still cautious,” Fredia Brady, the convention center’s general manager, told local media. “Between now and June 2021, we have maybe 30 to 40 events planned, and if they hold up, well, that remains to be seen. Now, it’s all about small events that allow for social distancing.”