Those of us who are regular travelers on the educational conference circuit will probably always think of SECO 2020 when we reflect on the COVID pandemic lockdown. That was the last big meeting to happen before the profession, and pretty much the entire world, retreated from society for a year or so.
This magazine hosts a big reception at SECO each year, where over 100 people gather to talk and eat and laugh together, elbow-to-elbow, for three hours. You couldn’t ask for a more convivial atmosphere. Less than two weeks after last year’s event, I was literally wearing surgical gloves and a mask in the grocery store. Quite a 180 from SECO!
So, like many others, I was encouraged to see SECO’s 2021 meeting happen live in-person. Kudos to them for putting in the tremendous additional effort it took to pull it off (on top of the already heavy lift of running a large, complex meeting). Organizers heeded all the necessary protocols to ensure a safe event. Attendees dutifully wore masks and abided by the social distancing requirements. It all looked very functional—but, without the personal connection, more somber this year. The evident desire to be back together ran smack into the reality that the pandemic circumstances, while much improved, are not yet resolved.
Our editorial staff produced the daily newspaper for SECO 2021, as we have for many years. Like the conference itself, we used a hybrid approach. Our publisher and sales team were in Atlanta; the editors were working from home, viewing video feeds of the presentations and reporting remotely.
I have to admit that streaming the lectures to my living room was awfully convenient, but it wasn’t always engrossing. In fact, it felt a lot like watching TV: comfortable, passive and prone to distraction. Emails and texts, social media feeds and a boisterous five-year-old son who knows no work/home boundaries all competed with SECO for my attention. The content was as great as always; my couch potato experience, not so much.
TV binge-watching exploded during the pandemic as people found themselves with few options for their leisure time. Turn on the TV or flip open your laptop and hundreds of choices are instantly at your fingertips. But so are all the others if your attention drifts.
The day SECO ended, the ARVO conference began—all virtual this year. Just another TV show to watch.
Contrast TV with the experience of seeing a movie—critically, in a theater. That’s an immersive, compelling experience that you actively must create for yourself by traveling to the location and making other logistical arrangements. A night out at the movies used to sometimes feel like a chore. (Childcare hassles! Overpriced popcorn!) And yet, that’s what people seem to really crave after 14 months of isolation.
All year, it’s been an open question of whether or not in-person meetings will rebound once safety concerns abate. Streaming CE’s convenience, some say, demands inclusion regardless. Maybe so. It got us by when we needed it. But in-person shows feel like the movie-going experience now, and I think many post-pandemic events will be blockbusters. As Siskel and Ebert used to sign off: I’ll see you at the movies.