All morning last Thursday, attendees of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce Fierce Urgency of Now festival were online, listening to panelists and asking questions by video from their homes or offices.
By lunchtime, though, it was time for a little more in-person interaction — for those who wanted it — and ice cream, at a real, live, networking event at Boston Public Market, as part of the festival, which aimed to connect young professionals of color in Boston. And people came.
“Those connections are being craved,” said Celia Richa, senior vice president of programs for the chamber. “There are perks to working remotely, but I think that human interaction is being missed. And I think people want to do this on their own terms.”
It has been a tough 18 months for networking events — the breakfasts and lunches and after-work mingles that have long filled the calendars of busy professionals in Boston. They’re the sort of thing that can be crucial to build careers, and meet potential clients, and they’re especially difficult to re-create remotely, Richa said.
So the Boston chamber’s staff has been running smaller events, creating virtual discussion groups, and spending more time connecting people individually instead of hoping they happen to connect over a cheese plate, like they would in the pre-COVID days.
“Online, any social interaction is more structured,” Richa said. “You can do it, but you really have to be intentional and set it up. So we haven’t solved for that yet, and I don’t think anyone has.”
Of course, memories of the Biogen leadership conference in late February 2020 at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel — the gathering that, unbeknownst to attendees at the time, would lead to an estimated 205,000 to 300,000 COVID-19 cases around the world — are still fresh. Ever shifting policies, government mandates, and concerns about unvaccinated children and immune-compromised people are still front of mind.
So increasingly, business leaders and event planners are choosing the cautious route. Events that were planned as in-person or hybrid before the Delta variant began spreading in Massachusetts are going entirely online.
“The solid ice we thought we were on is cracking,” said Dusty Rhodes, president of Conventures Inc., a Boston event planning company.
A few months ago, when case counts were lower and hopes higher, Rhodes said she would tell clients to expect 70 percent of their usual attendance at in-person events, as people were still hesitant to attend gatherings. Now she tells them to expect less than 50 percent, and some are hesitant to hold events at all.
There are, of course, ways to mitigate risk for in-person gatherings. Not all of them are currently feasible.
“Clients can’t move the events outside,” Rhodes said. “There’s not a tent to be found in New England.”
Canceling or postponing often means paying the venue a cancellation fee. Virtual events come with their own costs. But once case counts started rising again, and business leaders started seeing their peers canceling or going virtual, parties of the first in-person social season in a year and a half started to fall like dominoes.
“And a lot of the thinking is the word perception: What will my constituency think if I go boldly ahead and have this?” Rhodes said. “I’m an optimist — I mean, I’m a real optimist. But I will say, it’s kind of disappointing out there right now.”
Some in-person events are still happening, albeit with precautions.
Tamara Small, chief executive of commercial real estate trade group NAIOP Massachusetts, compared seeing development projects to seeing the Eiffel Tower in person for the first time: Photos or videos just don’t compare.
“When you go into a project, you see the amenities, you see the finishes, you capture the views,” she said. “You can kind of get a sense of it through video, and we will continue to use video in the future. But there’s something different about seeing it in person.”
Small’s organization is hosting a walking tour Wednesday at Bulfinch Crossing, a complex of residential and office towers rising on the site of the Government Center Garage. People will have to keep their masks on during the tour, but can remove them if they’d like once they go out onto the 32nd floor roof deck of The Sudbury apartment and condo tower.
“We are hearing loud and clear that people miss people, and really want to be together,” Small said.
Nonprofits, too, have had to find more ways to connect with donors. Castle Group cofounder Wendy Spivak pointed to the Joe Andruzzi Foundation, whose annual gala usually hosts 600 to 700 donors for hobnobbing near Gillette Stadium and fund-raising for cancer patients and their families.
This year’s gala, on Oct. 21, was initially planned as a hybrid event. It will now be entirely online, but along with the auctions and streamed programming, attendees will still have opportunities to interact virtually in smaller groups, she said.
“I think the events industry, especially in the city, people have really pulled together,” Spivak said. “We’re putting it back together day by day . . . Everybody that does what we do is trying so hard to give our clients the opportunities to make their event work for them.”
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 617-929-2043.