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Crushed by pandemic, conventions mount a cautious return

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Crushed by pandemic, conventions mount a cautious return

In pre-COVID times, business events _ from small academic conferences to giant trade shows like CES _ routinely attracted more than 1 billion participants each year. The pandemic brought those global gatherings to a sudden halt, emptying convention centers and shuttering hotels.

More than a year later, in-person meetings are on the rebound. In late August, 30,000 masked attendees gathered in Las Vegas for ASD Market Week, a retail trade show. In Chicago, the Black Women’s Expo recently held the largest event in its history, with 432 vendors and thousands of masked attendees.

“People are cautious, but they’re glad to be able to get out and network with other people,” said Dr. Barbara Hall, whose company, JBlendz Communications, was among the exhibitors at the expo.

Still, it could be several years _ if ever _ before conferences attract the crowds they did before the pandemic. Many countries and businesses are still restricting travel, pinching attendance at big events like the Canton Trade Fair in China, which required 26,000 vendors to pitch their wares virtually in April.

Health concerns also remain. The industry is keen to avoid another black eye like the Biogen leadership conference, a February 2020 event in Boston that was eventually linked to 300,000 COVID cases.

The New York Auto Show, which regularly attracts more than 1 million people, was canceled two weeks before its August start date because of concerns about the delta variant. A construction machinery trade show in Beijing, which normally attracts 150,000 visitors, has been delayed for two months until November.

Experts say one of the big lessons of 2020 is that much of what happens at conferences and trade shows can happen virtually, lessening the need for big in-person events.

Jaiprit Virdi, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware, said moving events online made them more accessible to the disabled and those who can’t afford to travel. Virdi, who is deaf, said she’s relieved that in-person conferences are requiring masks for safety. But masks create serious barriers for her, since she relies on lip-reading.

“We don’t need to go back to the way things were pre-COVID, but rather embrace the lessons from the past year-and-a-half to improve how we conduct these spaces for everyone,” Virdi said in an email.

Paddy Cosgrave, the CEO of the Web Summit, a tech conference aimed at startups, said last year’s virtual-only event was less expensive _ people paid just $100 to attend, versus $700 previously _ and drew in more participants from developing countries. But attendees also felt something was lacking.

“In-person meetings provide a quality of interaction that no amount of technology as of yet can replicate,” Cosgrave said.

This year, the Web Summit expects 40,000 attendees when it convenes in Lisbon, Portugal, in November. Vaccines or a negative COVID-19 test will be required to attend, but masks are optional.

The Render-Atlanta software engineering conference, scheduled for mid-September, is also requiring vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter. To make attendees feel even safer, the conference cut a deal with a sponsor to provide daily testing for its 400 attendees. Masks, which can be personalized at a decorating station will be required. Attendees can also wear black-and-white bracelets showing their level of comfort with social interaction. Dots mean they’re okay with it, stripes mean “stay away.”

Justin Samuels, Render-Atlanta’ chief experience officer, said it’s worth the extra hoops to gather in person. Render-Atlanta is the only Black-owned software engineering conference, with an emphasis on culture that doesn’t translate to a Zoom screen, Samuels said.

“The actual art of human interaction has to happen in person,” Samuels said.

A lot is riding on the revival of in-person meetings. Prior to the pandemic, conferences and trade shows generated more than $1 trillion in direct spending and attracted 1.5 billion attendees annually around the world, according to the Events Industry Council, a trade group.

The group hasn’t yet calculated the impact of the virus globally. But the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, which studies the economic impact of U.S. business-to-business trade shows, said those events alone were expected to generate $105 billion in direct and indirect spending in 2020. Instead, that plunged to $24 billion. CEIR doesn’t expect a return to growth for the industry until 2023.

Chicago’s McCormick Place, the largest convention center in the U.S., laid off 90% of its 2,800 workers last year after 234 events were canceled, said Larita Clark, the CEO of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority. One of the complex’s two hotels, the Marriott Marquis Chicago, was temporarily closed; the other, the Hyatt Regency Chicago, saw occupancy drop as low as 10%.

The economic losses extend far beyond exhibition complexes. Fern, a 112-year-old Cincinnati company, builds exhibits and other infrastructure for 1,400 events in a normal year. But for most of last year and the beginning of this year, its revenue dropped well over 90%, said Aaron Bludworth, Fern’s president and CEO.

“This was much more brutal than anything I have experienced in my career,” Bludworth said.

Bludworth doesn’t expect his business to fully recover until 2023. But he has been surprised by the demand he’s seeing for fall, when his company will be mounting several hundred shows. He’s had some requests for help with virtual presentations, he said, but demand for in-person events is stronger.

“Maybe you can do education virtually, but when a buyer and seller connect and go out and have dinner, that cannot happen virtually,” he said. “Our community realizes we’ve got to get together and sell products and make this commerce happen.”

Steve Hill, CEO and president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said 2022 is shaping up to be a good year for the industry. But he acknowledges a lot will depend on the situation around COVID-19 and whether international travel restrictions are lifted. Foreigners can account for 20% to 30% of attendees at he city’s major events, he said.

Hill thinks virtual convention elements are here to stay. They give shows another revenue stream and help them develop followers, he said. But Hill thinks enough people will continue to visit in person that hybrid events won’t hurt hotels and restaurants in convention cities.

“The shows will get back to 100% attendance. People need the in-person aspect of a show,” he said.

But Sherrif Karamat, the president and CEO of the Professional Convention Management Association, is not so sure, particularly as more convention attendees question the environmental impact of travel. Karamat is excited about the prospect of virtual conferencing bringing the world closer.

“Learning should not be limited to any one channel. Business networking should not be limited to any one channel,” he said.

Karamat says the pandemic is already reshaping the convention industry. Organizers are thinking more deeply about why their conferences matter and the outcomes they want to achieve, he said, which will lead to more meaningful gatherings.

“I’m very bullish,” he said. “I feel we’re going to take this much more seriously.”

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Remote work is becoming the new norm, should tech industries be worried?

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Remote work

Back in 1822, Charles Lamb, British poet and essayist wrote in a letter to poet William Worsworth “You don’t know how wearisome it is to breathe the air of four pent walls without relief, day after day,” describing the agony he faces while working in the East India Company’s office located in the heart of London’s Leadenhall Street. 

It’s safe to say Lamb would’ve enjoyed the COVID-19 pandemic that pushed workers into a work-from-home routine, liberated from what he coined as “official confinement.” Yet, this may not be the case any longer. 

A new survey of 2,000 UK tech workers and employers by Hackajob’s marketplace researchers resulted in shocking findings.  

Half of the employers who participated in the survey noted that it is extremely difficult to grow and enhance a strong team while working remotely, and 54 percent of the participants said having a distributed workforce caused a negative toil on the office culture. 

However, tech professionals have a different perspective on the matter. Hackajob’s researchers found that only 22 percent of tech workers agreed that remote working has a negative impact, while 44 percent noted that there isn’t much of a difference.  

The different findings mean one thing: businesses are increasingly facing challenges when trying to please their workers and ensure a productive workforce with the shift in job expectations. 

Hackajob noted that 72 percent of the tech workers surveyed cited remote working as the main element they look for during a job hunt, while 67 percent said that they’re looking for different opportunities that don’t require remote work. 

Co-founder and CEO of Hackajob, Mark Chaffey, made it clear that the increase in demand for tech workers might force businesses to reformulate their work culture, even though expectations of employers and employees “are not aligned at the moment.” 

“Tech workers are in demand and our data shows it is a buyer’s market now, so employees seem to be in the driver’s seat,” Chaffey added. 

For example, Microsoft recently warned that remote work can possibly have a harmful impact on workplace communication and productivity as it turns out that the tech giant’s own U.S. workforce was struggling with communicating back in March of last year when employees were forced to work remotely for the first time. 

Yet, other tech giants are maneuvering their way around remote work in a different manner. Google has given its U.S. staff the option to work remotely at the expense of salary deductions. 

In Hackajob’s survey, 53 percent of tech workers stated that they wouldn’t consider cutting their salaries to work remotely, in comparison to only 27 percent of participants who were okay with having potential salary adjustments. 

“It will be interesting to see what shifts first and what shifts furthest, workers’ expectations about remote working or employers’ demands about being in the office,” Chaffey said. 

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Your favorite retail giant is pushing for weed legalization in the U.S.

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Cannabis

Back in June, Amazon announced that it will not screen employees for cannabis use. Fast forward to the present moment, and the retail giant is kicking it up a notch by calling on the U.S. government to fully legalize marijuana.

In a post on the company’s blog, Beth Galetti, Amazon’s Senior Vice President of Human Resources, wrote: “We strongly believe the time has come to reform the nation’s cannabis policy, and we are committed to helping lead the effort.”

“Today’s status quo is unfair and untenable,” added Galetti, who explained that it’s extremely difficult for firms to work around cannabis rules due to the blurriness between federal law and local measures.

Amazon’s move comes after a number of states began expanding weed legalization, with “36 states allowing some level of public access to cannabis and 18 states plus Washington, DC, legalizing recreational adult use,” according to Gizmodo.

The news might work for Amazon’s favor, as the majority of Americans approve of a similar policy in their state, as seen by a CBS News poll conducted earlier this year.

More specifically, the retail giant is lobbying for the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2021, a house bill that aims to halt any kind of federal ban on the use of marijuana. The e-commerce firm has also publicized its support for the recently created Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, a homogenous bill put forward by the Senate.
“Pre-employment marijuana testing disproportionately impacts people of color and acts as a barrier to employment,” Galetti wrote. “We’ve found that eliminating pre-employment testing for cannabis allows us to expand our applicant pool.”

Over 250 warehouses, packaging stores, hubs and delivery centers in the U.S have been opened by Amazon so far this year, with more than 100 buildings expected to open by the end of September, according to the company. The e-commerce gorilla has welcomed over 450,000 people in the U.S. to work for them since COVID-19 began taking over. Currently, 750,000 Amazon employees are working on an hourly basis across the U.S.

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Australia’s tech industry is falling behind, report finds

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Australia

As the world’s top technologically driven nations continue to transform innovative concepts into a reality, Australia risks falling behind without an interest to invest in digital technology-based research, IT professionals, and workers.

That is according to a new report published by the Australian Academy of Science in collaboration with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, which acted as a much-needed wake up call to the federal government to take a stand when it comes to ensuring digital technologies and innovation are a priority to the country.

The non-profit organization warned the government that Australia’s tech industry is edging closer to lagging behind global countries, noting that countries like Canada, France, the UK, and the U.S. have invested hefty resources into placing digital technologies as their main priority, a strategy that increased competitiveness and innovation.

“Australia’s digital innovation earnings relative to its GDP was almost four percentage points lower than the OECD average of 11.2 percent,” the organization explained.

To target the issue, the organization recommended a number of measures to be taken that can help elevate Australia’s tech industry in order to stay up to date with other nations.

For starters, the tech sector must be recognized by the Australian government as an independent growth sector, according to the report.

The organization also highlights how research and innovation in new digital technologies should be part of the federal government’s 2021 National Research Infrastructure Roadmap.

Utilizing artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, and 5G are just some of the innovations the report dives into, suggesting examples of how these new tech innovations can benefit the country as seen by other nations who have prioritized research in the tech field.

Shazia Sadiq, Chair of the Australian Academy of Science’s national committee for information and communication told InnovationAus in an interview that while the Australian Government’s investment in digital tech – such as building a digital economy and creating advanced manufacturing strategies – was a good step to take, much more needs to be implemented.

“Our key message is that we need to be more than ‘smart users’ of emerging technologies,” Sadiq told InnovationAus.

Yet, what does that entail?

“It means that we need to have the scientific expertise, our sovereign capability, through which we can help and create and foster those opportunities that come from these emerging digital technologies, but also help with the vulnerabilities and limitations and dangers and do it at a national level,” she added.

Sadiq explained that the country needs to be able to ensure that the scientific experts in the science and engineering field should work in collaboration with technology professionals.

“The thinking is that these digital technologies have a very wide footprint that impacts almost all sectors,” Sadiq said.

Chris Connell, the managing director of the UK-based Kaspersky APAC, the world’s largest privately held vendor of endpoint protection solutions, is pushing forward security awareness and digital education as a method to help the Australian government achieve tech savviness among its public.

“We’re facing security challenges that put a strain on cybersecurity resources. Investing in cyber talent and promoting security awareness and digital education are the keys to success in building cyber resilient digital societies and economies,” Connell said.

“We need to move from the ‘needs’ to actually delivering on this, if we don’t, and the way the world is changing, there will be more and more risk moving forward.”

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