Things almost felt normal one evening last week: A sold-out panel discussion about Assembly Row, perched on an empty floor of an office building high above the megadevelopment in Somerville. The sun started to set on Boston’s skyline in the distance, beyond the big glass windows.
This was the first time real estate trade group NAIOP Massachusetts had held an indoor, in-person event since the pandemic began. The unfinished 12th floor of the brand-new Puma building hummed with handshakes, smiles, and business cards, as people gathered after an hour-long walking tour. Few, if any, audience members wore masks.
Just like old times, right?
Well, not exactly. The chips and salsa were dished out in individual plastic containers. Name tags were throwaway stickers, not the usual recyclable kind. Capacity was limited to 75 people — a small crowd for this cavernous space. There were chairs for everyone, but roughly half of the attendees stood off to the side or in the back, semi-staggered. Whether this makeshift social distancing was intentional, coincidence, or at this point a subconscious habit wasn’t quite clear.
Whether they might gather inside again any time soon — after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated mask guidance on Tuesday amid the worrisome surge in COVID-19’s more-contagious Delta variant — is unclear as well.
As Boston’s economy lurches toward some semblance of normalcy, nearly everything has returned: bars, bus tours, Red Sox games, weddings, birthday parties, funerals. Even the city’s first true business convention in more than 15 months is bringing about 4,000 attendees to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center this week, courtesy of the Heart Rhythm Society — with 1,000-plus people checking in remotely. And the Sheraton Boston Hotel, the city’s largest hotel, welcomes guests back for the first time since March 2020 on Sunday, according to hotel consulting firm Pinnacle Advisory Group.
But Boston’s business groups aren’t quite ready to dive back in to big gatherings.
That informal networking circuit of breakfasts, lunches, and dinner events that filled calendars during the “before times” is still essentially on the sidelines. Yes, CEOs and political leaders make the rounds — by Zoom or on similar video platforms. These virtual events can be informative. But they’re no substitute for the real thing, particularly all the chit-chat and catching up before and after the main event.
The commercial real estate sector tends to attract extroverts who prefer to shape their big-ticket deals in person. So perhaps it’s no surprise NAIOP would be among the first to take the plunge.
Chief executive Tamara Small says she was encouraged by the high demand, with requests flooding in from members asking to get on the waiting list for the Assembly Row event after it filled up. She mentions this as a counterpoint to the Baker administration’s recent McKinsey & Co. report about the future of work, which predicted many employers will cut back on office space and many workers will stay at home, even long after the pandemic is over.
NAIOP isn’t the only one testing these waters, although outdoor venues remain preferable to indoor ones at this point.
For example, the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber held its first networking event, outdoors at The Street shopping center in Chestnut Hill on July 8, and next Monday it is holding a golf tournament with an outdoor/indoor reception at the Wellesley Country Club. The Quincy Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, has held two outdoor events — a golf outing and then its annual meeting, on a day in June when it rained so hard that chief executive Tim Cahill says it sure felt like indoors under the tent with 250-plus attendees.
Maybe there’s more of a willingness to gather together the farther you get from Boston.
The Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce started hosting live events in May, including a meeting indoors at the AC Hotel in June where former governor Jane Swift spoke to about 150 people. The economic development agency MassEcon will team up with the Worcester chamber for two events at Polar Park next Wednesday; executive director Peter Abair says they will take place in an open-air lounge at the newly opened ballfield.
These sorts of meetings will inevitably return to Boston, too. But when? That remains an open question, especially with the Delta variant shaking up the summer.
It’s something Jim Brett, chief executive of the New England Council, gets asked all the time. The council has hosted 30-ish Zooms with various dignitaries during the pandemic. But you can’t really mingle on Zoom. While Governor Charlie Baker is lined up to address the council on Sept. 14, Brett still isn’t ready to commit to making it a live event. He’s taking it day-to-day. Who knows what dour news Anthony Fauci might deliver tomorrow?
The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce is still considering locations to host its first in-person event, a government affairs forum on Sept. 30 with Suffolk district attorney Rachael Rollins — an event that may see heightened interest now that President Joe Biden has nominated Rollins to be US Attorney in Massachusetts. Some chamber members are itching to get back to networking in person, while others are not quite ready, said Celia Richa, the chamber’s senior vice president of programs. The group plans to wait until the end of August to make a decision on the Rollins event, and will keep an eye on the course COVID-19 takes during the next few weeks.
Boston College’s Chief Executives Club also has a big date on its calendar: Oct. 4. That’s when Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel is scheduled to headline its first CEOs lunch since before the pandemic. The group did hold one “fireside chat” in May, between executive director Warren K. Zola and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly Budd, but attendance was limited to 40 people; everyone else tuned in via Zoom. The rest of the club’s CEO sessions during the pandemic were held without a live audience.
Is the business community ready to come together indoors, in large numbers, once again?
At the Puma building, Tamara Small promised the crowd more in-person events in the coming months, including an outdoor food truck festival at Cambridge Crossing on Aug. 11. This pledge was greeted with a few scattered cheers, not exactly raucous applause; it was a muted response, but one that spoke volumes.