I write this post from my Lower East Side apartment in New York City where I’ve been sheltering-in-place for the last 3 1/2 weeks. A city that was so full of life a month ago is eerily quiet. I look out my window to an uninhabited street, which is normally bustling with people. The soundtrack of this once vibrant city has changed. What used to be a compilation of the sounds of life — from taxi’s honking, people laughing, and brakes squeaking, to music blasting and dogs barking — has now turned into stillness with only the sound of ambulance sirens blaring by my window more and more often. I’m genuinely afraid.
I first learned about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) at the end of January while I was listening to an episode of The Daily, “A Virus’s Journey Across China” on my morning walk, and I vividly remember trying to convey to my roommate the severity of what was spreading throughout China. It felt like this distant thing happening in a far away place that wouldn’t reach us. We were greatly mistaken.
My team and I started to feel the effects of the COVID-19 on our conferences around that time. I’ve been producing events for HashiCorp for 5 years now and we use past data to predict where our ticket sales should be each week leading up to an event. We were really struggling to get people to register for our APAC conference, HashiDays Sydney. It had never been that challenging for us to fill an event.
I sent my manager a Slack message in mid February asking if we should cancel our APAC event in light of the growing fear around the virus, and after some discussion we decided to keep pushing forward full-steam ahead. We couldn’t have predicted what was to come.
At the end of February, my team and I finished producing HashiCorp’s annual employee summit where we flew 900 of our colleagues to Atlanta, GA for 4 days to kick-off the year. It was such a beautiful event celebrating our employees for what we’ve collectively accomplished as a company and uniting on a shared vision on where we need to go. The day after we all flew back home Amanda Perino sent a note to our team letting us know that the first 2 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in the Netherlands, where we would host our second community conference of the year, HashiConf EU in June. That was Friday, February 28, 2020. By Monday, the reports coming out were awful. Italy and Germany were reporting that the virus had exploded. They were predicting the Netherlands would be the next country with a big outbreak. That evening, HashiCorp issued an official travel restriction on all international and domestic travel for the month of March. Within a week, the Netherlands had reported over 100 cases. Things started to escalate really quickly.
Our team immediately drafted contingency plans for our conferences with specific triggers that would determine when we would scale down, postpone, cancel, or transform an event into a digital conference. (I published our contingency plans and the triggers we used here. I hope you find them helpful.) Both conferences quickly hit Level 2 and Level 3 triggers, which meant we had to postpone HashiDays Sydney and turn HashiConf EU into a digital conference.
Within 2 weeks, our entire events program for the year had come to an abrupt halt. Over a year of work vanished. HashiConf EU is probably my favorite event to produce. We had just announced our first set of speakers for the conference. We had over 500 people registered, sponsors confirmed, most of the vendor contracts were about to be signed, floor plans and designs finalized. This event was in the final planning stages. We use over 30 vendors for our European conference, some who we’ve been working with since 2016 and many of them are small businesses. How was I supposed to go and tell them all we were canceling the conference, yet another client canceling their contract? Many of them have since filed for bankruptcy. How was I supposed to help my team, agencies, and contractors navigate through this? I felt immense pressure to help steer this ship I was responsible for, to continue to prove my team’s worth to the company, and to quickly launch a digital event to replace our in-person conference. This all weighed so heavily on me that I sunk into a deep depression. I feel almost guilty admitting that because I know there are people that have it A LOT worse than me, but last month was the longest month of my life and nothing will ever be the same again.
As the fog slowly started to lift and the new reality set in, I am now trying to see rays of light in all of this. My team and I are one of the lucky ones because we still have jobs unlike so many other folks we know. The events industry will never be the same, but that’s not a bad thing. My team is now focused on learning how to take our knowledge of creating experiential in-person events and apply that skillset to digital events. I am going to document our journey and the ideas we are exploring about how to create immersive, engaging, community-building digital conferences.
A digital event can never fully replace the impact of an in-person event, but moving forward I believe all events will need to have more integrated and built-out digital components. As I start to adjust our conference plans for 2021 and beyond (we have venue contracts signed until 2024), we will now have multiple contingency plans and budgets per conference. We have no idea when they will be able to develop a cure for COVID-19. We don’t know if this will end up being a seasonal flu that impacts travel multiple times a year. We now have to be prepared for the unknown.
I do want to take a moment to say thank you to all of the people that are on the front line — healthcare workers, cooks, delivery people, grocery store employees, Amazon warehouse workers, Instacart delivery employees, and anyone else I missed. Please donate to your local charities if you have the means or find other ways to contribute.