Our First Conference and In-Person Client Meeting During COVID-19

First conference during covid-19 ncuca 2020 with cu 2.0

In case you missed it—and you probably did—last week wrapped up the first in-person conference in the country for credit unions during the time of COVID-19. There were many restrictions in place, but at times, a lot of it felt surprisingly normal.

It wasn’t great, but that realization gave me some insight: Even as the old normal returns—it still sucks!

I’d like to share what I learned from my first COVID-19 conference and in-person client meeting. Plus, I have a couple of quick tips for how to improve your virtual meetings.


The New Normal vs the Old Normal

I’m not sure why, but it took me a long time to realize I am a raging extrovert. I gain energy the more people I meet, the more meetings I’m in, and the more I speak on stage. I love every minute of it.

To be honest, it drives my family nuts. Stumbling out of the house for an early flight and coming home amped up and overly excited has caused some big problems. So, the past six months of the COVID-19 era have been very different. I’ve been home as dad and have been better able to support my kids and my wife with quality time. This has been part of my “new normal.”

But although it’s been rewarding, it’s also been challenging—especially to realize some of the damage I’ve caused by sneaking out 4 a.m. on a Monday only to magically reappear later in the week, overly excited and like a bull in a china shop. It’s super disruptive and unfair to all of them. In many ways, the “old normal” wasn’t very healthy.

But how do these two “normals” intersect today?

Last week, I had my first in person sales pitch and I spoke at my first conference since the beginning of COVID-19. The NCUCA and their President, Art Sookazian, partnered with MGM to hold its first live, in-person event in Las Vegas.

I’ll admit—I was rusty and nervous. So was everyone else. About 200 people showed up, and the whole thing was frankly a bit weird. My conclusion—the new normal isn’t normal, and we will have a slow crawl back to some semblance of the old normal. It will probably take a couple of years.

But there may be more time for our families now…


In-Person Pitches Are Dead

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said “he doesn’t see fundamental changes to demand, and business travel drying up long-term—he even sees Zoom meetings, which he thinks are awful, adding to business travel demand rather than detracting from it.”

I disagree, and here’s why:

Current business travel is complicated and inconvenient, and the difficulties don’t stop at travel. Here’s how I and Chris Otey, CRO of CU 2.0, handled our first in-person meeting since this all started.

We pulled into the parking lot of the credit union. We approached the front desk and scared the poor receptionist. She hadn’t seen anyone in months. It took her a while to remember how to sign someone in, assign badges, and call the organizer.

Eventually, she tracked down the half dozen meeting participants and we met up in the conference room. It took about 10 minutes to get the meeting going—all the dry erase markers were dead, and it was clear that nobody had met this way in a long time. One poor attendee joined late and apologized, thinking it was a virtual meeting. She had brought her lunch (nobody objects anymore to someone eating during your meeting). She also forgot her pants… just kidding. Everyone wore masks and nobody shook hands. It was really weird.

Finally, the meeting started. Immediately, I noticed two major problems that will prevent in-person from being dominant anytime soon.

First, wearing my mask threw off my pitch. The voice feedback loop messed with my head and I could tell the attendees had a hard time hearing me and reading my subtle queues.

Second, looking at a sea of masks made it impossible to read the room. I’m pretty good at reading body language, and I communicate as much with smiles and other facial expressions as I do with words. But it was difficult to connect while covered up. That competitive edge was simply gone.

Frankly, until we can have in-person meetings without masks (which will probably require herd immunity/immunization), complicated air travel and masking up isn’t going to cut it.


Two Quick Ideas to Improve Your Virtual Meetings

Over the past three months, I’ve been improving my live zoom selling and coaching. Here are two strategies that help significantly:

  1. Learn how to draw live in Zoom calls to make it engaging. Ditch the PowerPoint for a sketch pad.
  2. Elevate your computer, get a wireless microphone, and create a 3-dimensional “set” for the audience. Don’t just be a talking head into the computer. Fancy backgrounds don’t cut it.


Takeaways from Live Stage Speaking at the Conference

Convincing my wife that it was even remotely a good idea for me to go to Vegas in the middle of COVID-19 was a challenge. Ultimately though, the NCUCA and Art Sookazian from Los Angeles Federal Credit Union made it happen.

Here are the positives:

  1. Everyone got tested every day.
  2. We had our own private bubble at the MGM.
  3. The MGM and the Bellagio really enforced masks across the property.
  4. At the event, everyone wore masks.
  5. There was more hand sanitizer than attendee slots. Plus, the odds were better.
  6. The buffet line was behind plexiglass and someone served you.
  7. Every possible meal was outside.
  8. It was amazing to hang around and interact with real humans again.
  9. Entertaining clients/prospects was incredibly fun and awesome.
  10. Lobby check-in and check-out was totally dead. Hotels are fully transforming, and that change may continue.
  11. We’re all going to save a lot of money on cheap giveaways and conference swag that just gets thrown away… hopefully it never comes back, and everyone just uses their phones.

Here are the negatives:

  1. As a speaker, you must get over the fact that fewer people are allowed to see it. Speaking in large conference halls to crowds at 10% of normal capacity makes it hard to sustain energy. Picture a room for 1,000 people, but there’s only 100 allowed in there, and they’re all spread out…
  2. Reading the audience is challenging with masks on the attendees.
  3. Event guests were tested daily, and they got special wristbands. Non-event guests made us really nervous, and we avoided them when we could.
  4. Walking around the exhibit hall was really weird—stopping at booths and talking to people was a huge change from the six months of being a hermit.
  5. Daily rapid testing provided 30 nerve-wracking minutes of discomfort, and I definitely prefer waking up with coffee.

My conclusion:

There will be live events. They will be few and far between and sparsely attended. For those who do attend, the events will be highly personal, impactful, and very intimate. For those who don’t… I totally get it.

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