When vaccinations became widely available in the United States and COVID-19 case numbers started to decrease in the early summer, offices, schools and community orgs all started to consider whether it was finally time to bring virtual events back to reality.
Events centered on networking — a skill that emphasizes a kind of personal connection that can be difficult to replicate online — particularly looked at the promise of once again bringing people together physically to make new connections.
Jenn Apicella, president of popular local tech and networking community Build412 Tech, looked for feedback from her members on what to do. The organization, best known for its monthly happy hours, has hosted events online since the beginning of the pandemic 18 months ago. But as vaccination numbers increased, “we noticed that the virtual events were starting to be less attended,” and polls among attendees increasingly showed that they would be comfortable having an event in person.
“There was an overwhelming response that not only did people want to return to in person, but they were asking for it quite excitedly,” Apicella told Technical.ly. That interest led her and her team to organize Build412 Tech’s first IRL event in July, outdoors at The Highline on the South Side. Where the organization’s virtual events had been attracting around 150 attendees, the July edition brought in over 200 — a number that Apicella said was within range of pre-pandemic attendance.
Ian Blyth, the director of marketing at local cybersecurity software company NextLink Labs, was glad to see networking happy hours like Build412 Tech’s step outside of the Zoom room. But he had also grown fond of some of the unexpected virtual benefits.
“I think there were some benefits that we didn’t all realize, with the virtual stuff, that we began to understand,” he said of the online community events he attended. “I would sit here, after one of the virtual events and think, ‘Man, I really connected with people differently than I would have if I, you know, had a drink in my hand and had the calamity of the event going on around me.'”
😀 It was great to see 200+ of you at our return to in-person tech happy hours!
— Build412 Tech (@build412) August 3, 2021
Still, Blyth found the July happy hour invigorating.
“When I walked into the real in-person event, I was like, ‘Wow, this is really weird,’ because I’m seeing the people that I’ve only seen online. But it was cool, too,” he said, emphasizing that being physically face-to-face forced attendees to be more present in conversation than they had to be online, where cameras are optional and logging off in the middle of the event is easy.
Sophia Berman Ogiso, an innovation engineering manager at Sheetz and board member for women in tech organization GetWITit Pittsburgh, prefers the in-person events that have returned, though she also made time for virtual ones earlier in the year. She sees the benefits of being able to easily send LinkedIn profiles over chat or the ease of an organizer assigning people to breakout rooms for small conversations. But she enjoys the serendipity that can come from having a networking event IRL.
“[Breakout rooms] are nice, because you’re randomly assigned to other people to talk to you, but that’s as random as it would get,” Berman Ogiso said of virtual events. “And then if you wanted to meet other people, it would be very hard to do that, and to stumble upon different kinds of conversations.”
As for the social awkwardness of those face-to-face conversations after over a year spent not talking to anyone? Berman Ogiso thinks continued in-person events will help people push through it, and refresh old skills that got dusty online.
“I find it super weird to be around a big group of people nowadays, because my work was all virtual during the pandemic,” she said. Talking to people at these recent events made her realize how her vocabulary had changed and how hard it can be to walk up to someone and start an entirely new conversation without knowing them. “It’s weird, but I like being able to do that, because I’ve gotta get that back,” Berman Ogiso said. “I need to be better at talking to people I don’t know.”
For all of the success of July’s event for Build412 Tech, Apicella acknowledged that attendance decreased for the organization’s August happy hour. Despite a high number of registrations, only 150 people showed up to the event, a pattern that Apicella attributes to the dramatic spike in Delta variant cases that grew worse at the end of July. As those trends persist, she remains unsure of what numbers will look like for the September event, also currently planned for another outdoor venue.
Once again, Apicella said she will look to her members as the main way to determine what the best option is. But, interestingly, where those members became more vocal last spring about transition back to in-person events, Apicella hasn’t noticed a similar push for vaccine or mask mandates — a question that could become more concerning once the weather turns and outdoor gatherings are no longer possible.
Though issuing those mandates has grown popular in recent weeks with Pittsburgh tech companies, Apicella will wait for more feedback from her community before deciding how to proceed for late fall and winter events, and encourages other community organizers to do the same.
“I think every organization needs to do their due diligence — find out what their community members want, hear those voices,” she said. “And then hopefully take that back, and come up with a way to allow people to still have access to these valuable opportunities to build relationships and make connections and discover new information, but safely and in a fairly controlled, health-conscious environment.”
Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments. -30-