Before the pandemic hit, industry conferences were among the best ways for commercial real estate professionals to connect with prospective investors, partners and tenants. They were an environment to share knowledge and foster new business relationships. They were a place to make deals. As far as networking goes, these events topped the list. But over the past year, most of these events had to switch to a virtual format as the COVID-19 pandemic raged across the globe.
Fast forward an unprecedented 16-18 months and face-to-face conferences are back on the menu. But national guidelines for large gatherings are vague at best. And questions remain as to how industry organizations are planning these meetings, not only with respect to safety protocols, but also in attracting their members to attend large-scale in-person events again.
Face-to-face, six feet of space
A quick scan of some upcoming conference agendas confirms that health and safety considerations are front and center. Attendance caps, social distancing recommendations, testing requirements and even proof of vaccination are among the new features of post-COVID-19 real estate conferences.
The National Multifamily Housing Council kicks off their Annual Meeting—one of the industry’s first face-to-face events of the season—on June 8th in San Diego. And according to NMHC’s Chief Operating Officer Kenny Emson, attendee comfort and safety is the top priority.
“We know that this Annual Meeting will be quite different from others in the past,” says Emson. “But we couldn’t be more thrilled to have an opportunity to engage with our members again in-person after more than 14 months of only seeing each other online.”
Attendees at the San Diego conference must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result obtained within 72 hours of the event’s first day. If a guest has been fully vaccinated, they will be able to skip the daily health checks by providing proof of vaccination in advance or on site. Emson adds that NMHC is partnering with Safe Expo to assist with the conference’s health screening process.
NMHC’s Annual Meeting has attracted upwards of 7,000 guests in the past, but this year’s installment has been at capped at 2,500.
Determining an event’s capacity is a dilemma facing event planners across the industry. For NMHC, it was a case of balancing state health and safety protocols with recommendations from the Manchester Grand Hyatt, the hotel hosting the conference.
Understandably, the approach appears to vary from conference to conference, as industry organizations continue to navigate the seemingly ever-changing state guidelines and CDC recommendations.
Another leading commercial real estate development organization, NAIOP, won’t be requiring proof of vaccination at their upcoming conferences in California and Florida. “It changes every week, so what we thought we were going to be doing a couple months ago is not what we’re doing now,” says Thomas Bisacquino, NAIOP’s president and CEO.
NAIOP already hosted one of the summer’s first events just the other week for its Forums members in Dallas.
The National Forums Symposium, which Bisacquino dubbed a “nice soft opening”, assumed a hybrid format that saw roughly one-third of forum members meet face-to-face, while the remaining members tuned in virtually.
Despite Texas lifting its mask mandate statewide, NAIOP defaulted the symposium’s mask-wearing practices to the hotel hosting the conference, a common trend for these early events. Members were asked to mask up at all times—regardless of vaccination status—except for during certain activities, including eating in restaurants or when gathered outdoors.
Bisacquino says the Dallas event was a successful start to the conference season, adding that consistent communication across NAIOP’s chapter leaders has been key to both the planning and execution of early conferences.
“We collect a lot of data. Since COVID started, we have a monthly call with all of our chapter executives and the questions we’re asking are: what are you hearing, what are you seeing, what’s the membership mood like, what’s the desire to come to an event, how concerned are they,” Bisacquino notes. “I think we’ve got some pretty good intel and I would say in the last 90 days you could clearly sense the comfort level going up with people attending events.”
NAIOP’s next event is slated for the end of August, an industrial real estate conference in Long Beach, Calif. that’s usually the largest gathering of industrial real estate professionals in the nation. Following I.CON, NAIOP will host its largest commercial real estate conference, CRE.Converge, at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach.
“I have to tell you, right now, our registrations are running ahead of where they normally would be. So, we’re very optimistic,” Bisacquino says.
And they’re not the only ones.
NMHC’s upcoming Annual Meeting closed registration last week with 2,400 attendees—100 guests shy of its maximum capacity. Emson says this is exactly where the organization expected to be.
While the official stance from the CDC is to keep avoiding large gatherings, as vaccination rates continue to rise and COVID-19 numbers in the U.S. dwindle accordingly, one has to imagine this won’t be the case for much longer.
With such promising registration numbers, the early signs point to an industry that is, once again, ready to mingle. ICSC, for example, has scheduled a face-to-face event, Here, We Go! live in Las Vegas, kicking off on Dec. 5. IREM will be holdings its Global Summit in Las Vegas in October. BOMA has had to postpone its 2021 International Conference & Expo to comply with Boston’s inside capacity limits, which will remain in effect through August, but will go ahead with the event in early October. The National Investment Center for Senior Housing and Care (NIC) plans to hold its 2021 fall conference in person in Houston at the beginning of November. In addition to requiring face masks and pre-event health screenings for attendees, NIC will be mailing personal protective equipment to early registrants along with their badges, in order to reduce conference check-in lines. The organization will also allow pre-registered guests to cancel without paying a cancellation fee up to 30 days prior to the event.
Other industry organizations that are planning to proceed with in-person events later in the year include PREA, AFIRE, CCIM, MBA and ULI.