What have we learned from pandemic times?

July 23, 2021
Time to assess the contribution of handshakes and non-verbal communication to the bottom line.

Germans love to shake hands, and as a German, I do too. Although other cultures may be more hesitant to such a physical contact, it expresses respect, open-heartedness, and the will to talk to each other.

This simple situation stands for something important that we had to omit during pandemic times: nonverbal communication. This is a bit contradictive to the brave new world of online communication. We did zoom calls. A Zoom call is much cheaper than a face-to-face meeting. It is easy to present a technical issue; it is common ground to conduct a team meeting online. But can you stroll an exhibition hall and stop by to talk to someone who just looks open-minded at a booth? Or, more importantly, can you build trust among business partners without nonverbal communication?

Honestly, this was not so clear to me clearly until my friend Thomas Laurent, General Manager & Head of Sales DACH (Germany) of Scottish M Squared told me the following: "I did statistics and found that I sold 2.5 times as much in a face-to-face contact as in online-only contacts. Even talking in a parking lot can do more than seeing a customer on the screen." This story made me think that there is a link between nonverbal communication and revenue or profit. Once I was aware of it I found it in several online situations.

What can we learn from that? First, there is a new valuation of personal or on-site meetings. They cost time and money, and this effort is justified for business development. Second, we know now what we miss in online meetings. It is an impression far beyond of what a laptop screen can transmit.

Quite surprisingly, advanced optical technologies for a better nonverbal communication did not emerge in the lockdown. 3D or holographic communication has been pictured in the old Star Wars movies and in “The Kingsman” we even saw a fully fledged 3D meeting room. During the last 20 months I could not spot a single online meeting tool using 3D technology. Virtual reality goggles could help, but we have yet to see them for the home office. But I think the technology on the sensor side (such as lidar sensor in my smartphone) is there, and a 3D display or decent VR goggles, too. It just needs a big vendor to push it.

The post-pandemic event business

Live event and trade show organizers who made onsite meetings a big business were hit hard by the pandemic. When we all met at Photonics West 2020 we had hope that this pandemic problem could be contained. We were wrong, and that event remained the last big photonics onsite meeting (outside Asia) for a long time.

Everything turned online. For scientific conferences, this appeared as a reasonable solution. For trade shows, there were many attempts but to my knowledge none has reached the success of onsite meetings. Lead numbers were just disappointing. I have not seen any analysis of it, but I assume that the effect of missing nonverbal communication turned out to be significant.

To find out more I talked to some people from the trade show and conference business. Kevin Probasco, Manager, Community and Technology Communications at SPIE, told me the following: “SPIE made all 2020 online conferences and digital forums free for all presenters/authors and attendees, unlike other conference organizers. This led to greater participation with scientists and engineers around the world when the community needed to share results without traveling. The combined total of recorded oral presentations in the SPIE Digital Library is now near 36,000.” So far, so good. “However, we’ve also learned that recorded talks and Zoom do not adequately replace face-to-face gatherings. People want human connection and to create new professional friendships at SPIE events, often serendipitously.” After going hybrid for SPIE Optics + Photonics 2021, they want to return to onsite business at Photonics West 2022.

I asked Ryan Strowger, OSA Chief Events and Industry Officer, if its true that they increased the number of attendees 5 times for online events compared to onsite events. “Generally speaking, it is correct, that our virtual participation increased by multiple factors once they were converted to online-only. The OSA Board of Directors decided early in 2020 that what was most important to help our global community during this challenging time was to continue to provide a forum for scientific research and applications in an inclusive environment. Additionally, the decision was made to offer all of that content free of charge to registrants. As a result, the number of attendees for OSA virtual conferences in 2020 increased by a factor of 3-7 times.”

As with SPIE, the online translation of scientific meetings has probably been a great opportunity for communities previously underserved. I did not want to discuss cost issues, but I wanted to know which events OSA will retain online. Ryan Strowger responded “As of now, our plans are to continue to keep OSA conferences online in some format, even when in-person events resume. Vaccination rates worldwide are not consistent, and these hybrid events (in-person or remote participation) will allow attendees to engage in whatever means suits them best. While many share the opinion that in-person events are more convenient for networking, we may be facing some travel restrictions for a period, so allowing the remote option provides that flexibility needed by our community.”

So we will have online conferences plus onsite events as soon as possible. Restarting from zero will certainly put challenges on the event business. An additional problem here in Germany is the bi-annual schedule of many photonics events. Munich based LASER World of Photonics has postponed the trade show for this year, it will return in April 2022, for the first time in an even year. SPIE conducts its Photonics Europe event earlier in April. AKL, the community meeting in Aachen is scheduled for May. LASYS, the trade show for industrial laser technology in Stuttgart comes in June 2022. Altogether, there are almost twice as many events as in a regular year. This will be challenging for the marketing budgets, and hence, revenues for trade show organizers may trail behind 2019 numbers in a way, that could be critical for some organizers.

This way, the pandemic will have impact even in 2022. And this assumes that we have beaten the virus by then. If we do not, then the situation becomes critical for some people in the event business. Messe München, for example, as the organizer of the biggest single event on photonics, had to lay off 25% of its workforce this year. The LASER fair is not their biggest asset, and as a state-owned enterprise Messe Munich has good chances to survive. Smaller events from smaller organizers will vanish.

After all, I hope that we see onsite events returning. There is no replacement for direct meetings yet. Maybe people will adopt advanced communication technology, but that did not happen in the last 20 months. Presentation-based events, such as webinars will flourish, as this gives people access to knowledge at a low price. For networking, or business development, a direct contact will be a solution we value more than ever before. And that is a finding that will reach further then the trade show business, and influence regular businesses as well.

Background: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Videotelephony

The Kingsman https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Yz5e1fyWO4

About the Author

Andreas Thoss | Contributing Editor, Germany

Andreas Thoss is the Managing Director of THOSS Media (Berlin) and has many years of experience in photonics-related research, publishing, marketing, and public relations. He worked with John Wiley & Sons until 2010, when he founded THOSS Media. In 2012, he founded the scientific journal Advanced Optical Technologies. His university research focused on ultrashort and ultra-intense laser pulses, and he holds several patents.

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