See you in September — or maybe later?
That’s the current thinking of many local groups that organize in-person networking events, panel discussions, and conferences. While more than half of Massachusetts residents have been fully vaccinated, and many people are returning to restaurants, museums, and movie theaters, the schmoozing scene is still on hiatus. If you’re holding a cold beer at 5 p.m. and learning about social media marketing or how to raise money for your startup, chances are you’re staring into a screen.
Although most COVID-19 restrictions will end on Saturday, associations responsible for putting on business-related networking events don’t expect to rush into bringing people together in June.
“It’s fair to say we’re still debating” the right time to organize in-person gatherings, says Katja Wald, executive director of the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge, an entrepreneurship group that, prior to the pandemic, put on one or two in-person events every month.
The Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, the biggest technology trade group in the state, says it is surveying members to understand what sorts of gatherings they would be comfortable participating in — and when. The Massachusetts Biotechnology Council has already surveyed members and found that most are willing to participate in events starting around July.
“Anecdotally, we’ve also heard that our members really miss networking, and the serendipitous connections that come from our in-person events,” says Kendalle Burlin O’Connell, MassBio’s president.
The association opened a meeting center in Kendall Square last July, and O’Connell says the plan is to host events there in the second half of 2021, both its own and those organized by its member companies, “as long as public health guidance continues to allow.” But nothing is on the calendar yet.
Event organizer Bobbie Carlton, who runs a startup demo series and a speaker’s bureau called Innovation Women, writes via e-mail that she’s “not in a rush to be first, and I am uncomfortable with people who are in a rush. I don’t want to be famous as a super-spreader event, thank you very much.” She also says she’s not willing to ask employees or volunteers to help run events if there is any risk they might contract COVID-19. “Yes, we’re all getting vaccinated, but we don’t yet know enough about breakthrough cases, or how long the vaccines will be effective,” Carlton says. She’s not planning any in-person events before 2022.
Two events that are usually pillars of the fall calendar, HubSpot’s marketing-focused Inbound conference, and the MassChallenge awards ceremony for startups, will take place virtually this October. But HubSpot, a publicly traded software company, and MassChallenge, a nonprofit, say they’re considering hosting small get-togethers in Boston or other cities around the world so participants can connect face-to-face.
A few trade groups and startup incubators will be testing the waters this summer with small gatherings. The Massachusetts Medical Device Industry Council is planning a small after-work cocktail gathering in June, says president Brian Johnson. He will make sure all participants have been vaccinated, as it will be indoors. The group is planning its first larger event for September.
What’s spurring MassMEDIC to return to in-person conclaves? Johnson says his group has held more than 100 online programs over the past 14 months and has successfully sold sponsorships to many of them. Those digital events will be a “solid business for years to come,” Johnson says, but there’s some “virtual fatigue” as people start to reduce the number of online webinars and conferences they take part in. “There’s no substitute for in-person programs, from both a revenue perspective and a networking perspective,” he says.
Venture Café in Kendall Square, which once served free entrepreneurial programming (and beer) to 500-plus attendees almost every Thursday, is planning to test a return to in-person gatherings on June 17, according to director Shaheen Hakimi. Capacity will likely be limited to 50, and the staff will be experimenting with different safety protocols, including possibly asking attendees to bring proof of vaccination.
Greentown Labs, an incubator in Somerville for energy and sustainability-related startups, is planning to bring together investors and entrepreneurs in July or August, says Julia Travaglini, vice president of marketing, but no specific date has been chosen. And Greentown is in the process of adding new videoconferencing technology to the large space where it hosts events, so that they can be streamed to remote participants, Travaglini says.
Another startup incubator, MassRobotics, has held some small, masked, and socially distanced events in its conference space in Boston’s Seaport district, over the course of the past year. At those, resident robotics startups might present to five or six invited audience members, says executive director Tom Ryden, while the event is broadcast to a larger online audience.
The fledgling companies in the shared workspace are building things such as surgical robots and airborne drones to monitor vineyards. Their founders “would like to do more in-person events,” Ryden says. On Zoom meetings and at virtual conferences, he says, “it is harder, or takes longer, for them to build the relationships with investors, potential customers, and suppliers.” And he adds, “many of them want to show off the physical hardware, to better be able to convey what they are working on.”
Ryden says that MassRobotics hopes to host an indoor conference for about 100 people in September, and in October plans to produce one of its biggest events, the Robot Block Party technology festival. It’s open to the public and has typically taken place under tents.
The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce has put on 165 online events during the pandemic, says president Jim Rooney, attracting more than 30,000 participants. The chamber had been planning to resume in-person meetings of its boards and committees, which can include up to 80 people, this July, but then decided to push that past Labor Day.
“The safety and the protocols of going to an event are probably fine,” Rooney says, “but people are waiting and watching for what happens when people practice more social behavior. You see crowded beaches in South Boston, Red Sox games, restaurants opening back up.”
As for his own schmoozing plans over the coming weeks, Rooney says he has been having some one-on-one coffees and lunches recently, but that he doesn’t have anything bigger on the schedule. Still, he says, over the longer term, “People like to connect, and I think our human instincts will take over.”