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Banking Industry Conferences: Too Soon for In-Person Attendance?

As vaccination numbers rise and the COVID-19 pandemic begins to wind down, the question of whether, when and how to return to in-person conferences becomes more pressing. Some of us can’t wait to watch a movie in a theater, catch a concert, or visit our favorite restaurants again (assuming they survived). Others aren’t ready to take that step yet and will continue to be cautious about being anywhere groups of people gather, even in a professional setting.

The same debate is going on within the banking industry. Some can’t wait for in-person events to resume, while others are delighted with virtual conferences. Deciding whether to participate on-site or virtually as an institution and whether to permit (or require!) your staff to attend in person is something that requires meaningful discussion.

In-Person, Virtual and Hybrid: Banking Industry Conferences in 2021

If that very debate is taking place within your bank or credit union right now, you’re not alone. The calendar is filled with opportunities to meet face-to-face with peers and industry partners in a normal year, but 2021 (like 2020) is anything but a normal year. 

A look at the schedule of upcoming events shows a mixture of virtual functions, in-person conferences, and hybrids of the two:   

  • NAFCU’s 2021 events are virtual-only through August, but beginning with its Congressional Caucus in September, there will be an in-person option. 
  • The 2021 Financial Brand Forum, ordinarily held in-person, will be streaming-only. The 2022 Forum is expected to be in-person. 
  • American Banker’s Digital Banking event will be held virtually across three dates. 
  • The Filene Research Institute’s big.bright.minds event will be held in person, with a virtual option for those who want or need it. 
  • For those on the investment side of the industry, Schwab’s IMPACT 2021 event will be “predominantly virtual,” and the Morningstar Investment Conference will be a hybrid event with limited attendance. 
  • The World Credit Union Conference, more vulnerable to travel constraints than all-domestic events, is virtual-only for 2021. 

The organizers, venues, and participants in each of these events have had to calculate the pros and cons of delivering an in-person event and decide whether it would be appropriate in their specific circumstances. 

The Pros and Cons of In-Person Events

Staging or attending an in-person event in the late-COVID landscape is significantly more complicated than it would have been before the pandemic. This puts a greater emphasis on balancing the pros and cons of placing people together in the same physical space. Everyone’s list of positives and negatives will be slightly different, but a few of the pros and cons will be near-universal: 

The Pros

  • The scheduling is easier to manage. Time zones and scheduling can make national and international conferences problematic when everyone’s joining in virtually from home. At an in-person event, this isn’t an issue. 
  • Technical issues are an inconvenience, not a show-stopper. Most venues and organizers are well-practiced at identifying and fixing the commonplace, transient technical issues that can bedevil in-house A/V systems. With virtual events, the range of things that can go wrong is much greater (for example, at SAP’s flagship annual event, Sapphire Now, the stream went down just as the CEO’s keynote was to begin). 
  • Communication works better in person. Instant messaging, group chat and videoconferenced breakout discussions are all helpful stopgaps but can’t really replicate the feeling of in-person interaction. In-person communication is simply richer with nuances of tone, expression and body language.
  • Meeting in person makes for better, more effective networking. Often the connections you make at banking industry conferences (or credit union conferences, as the case may be) are the most valuable part of the exercise. It’s a fertile ground for exchanging ideas, gauging potential targets for recruitment, and generally making room for serendipity to happen. It’s especially useful when you’re testing the waters for potential hirings, mergers, and acquisitions, where communicating in writing or on an open video channel is problematic. 
  • In-person events are an economic driver. This will always be secondary to the health and safety of participants, speakers and event staff, but in-person events have a role to play in the post-COVID economic recovery. They generate locally meaningful activity in the hospitality and travel sectors, secondary benefits to the many businesses that support those industries, and create off-hours tourism opportunities for the host communities. 

The Cons 

  • The virus is still out there. Yes, the infection numbers are down and vaccination numbers are up, but it’s entirely possible that a “variant of concern” could torpedo your conference.
  • The potential for legal, liability and insurance issues. The risk of cancellation is higher than usual right now, though that can be managed through a combination of refunds and a switch to virtual presentations. A more pressing issue is the potential for liability should the worst happen, and potentially even criminal charges if negligence is proven against the venue or the organizers. Insurance for the event might be more challenging to arrange, or the insurer might want to explicitly exclude disease from its coverage. 
  • Protective measures are polarizing. The past year has shown that distancing and mask usage measures are divisive and can generate a lot of friction between advocates and opponents. In-person attendance creates the possibility that conflict between attendees could distract from, or even overshadow, your actual agenda.  
  • The numbers just might not work. Retail banking profits took a hit during the pandemic, which means attendees might not have the budget to attend (or send attendees) in person. For organizers, reduced venue capacities and the need to know and meet rapidly-changing requirements for in-person gatherings likely mean increased costs and reduced revenues. 

The Evolving Consensus

No one’s more invested in the return of in-person meetings than the meetings industry itself, which was hard-hit by the pandemic and its associated restrictions. Research conducted early in 2021 found the industry in a state of cautious optimism, with all-virtual events gradually giving way to hybrid and in-person meetings as the year progresses. 

The banking industry appears to be following a similar pattern. It can be seen clearly, for example, in a list of 2021 credit union conferences compiled by the Credit Union Times. There’s an innate logic to this: the later in the year an event takes place, the more normal circumstances are likely to be. Psychology plays a role, as well. Deferring in-person meetings to later in the year leaves more time and opportunity for everyone to re-establish a degree of comfort with being in public. 

The Financial Brand gave a detailed explanation of the decision to push its next in-person Forum to November of 2022, neatly encapsulating many of the factors other organizers must consider. First and foremost was the avoidance of any risk to participants and attendees. Practical considerations, including travel bans and capacity restrictions for venues, also played a part. The delay also allows the airlines to get up to speed and potential participants to catch up on their deferred personal lives before re-prioritizing work. 

Risk and Reward of In-Person Events

Pragmatism says that hybrid events are the safest for organizers in the short term, providing an opportunity for the confidence to attend in person and the prudent (or budget-conscious) to participate virtually. If an outbreak or other issue should disrupt the in-person portion of the event, it’s relatively straightforward to scale up the virtual component to compensate. Even physical-first events will likely continue to offer a virtual option for some time to come, purely on those grounds. 

Each institution, and each participant, will have a different degree of risk tolerance. It’s something that needs to be discussed: if your team members feel coerced or lack confidence in the measures that have been (or will be) taken for their safety, it’s bad for morale, retention and corporate culture as a whole. It could also play out the other way, with your team keen to reconnect with their peers while management would prefer a go-slow approach. Either way, you’ll need to talk it out and come to a resolution. There’s no single right answer, only what’s best for everyone’s unique personal and institutional goals. 


National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions: Calendar

The Financial Brand: The Financial Brand Forum is Back! (and More!)

American Banker: Digital Banking, AI & Automation: About

Financial Advisor: In-Person Events Will Have to Wait as More Advisor Conferences Go Virtual

World Council of Credit Unions: World Credit Union Conference

The American Society of Association Executives (ASAE): Five Legal Questions About Resuming In-Person Events as COVID-19 Continues

MeetingsNet: Large-Firm Planners Predict When In-Person Events Will Return

Northstar Meetings Group: PULSE Survey Finds Uptick in Optimism, New Meetings Business

Credit Union Times: Credit Union Conference Update: What’s In-Person, Virtual & Hybrid