In-person conferences are making a comeback

Editor’s Notes: In-person conferences are making a comeback

DSEI 2021

Photo DSEI

LONDON – What a pleasure to browse the half-mile long exhibition hall at the ExCel Center in London, while learning about the latest defense technology.

I never thought I would miss it so much.

For journalists and many in the industry – especially those in business development, senior executives and media relations – the times were marked by major defense industry conferences: Spring meant Space Symposium in Colorado Springs and the Navy League Sea-Air-Space just outside Washington. , DC; summer kicked off with the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, followed by the major air shows – Paris and Farnborough – and in the fall, the major Air Force Association show near DC, with the Association of the United States Army confab a few weeks later. The year ended with the National Training and Simulation Association’s I / ITSEC fair in Orlando.

Between the two, dozens of specialized conferences are aimed at specialists: robotics, geospatial intelligence; cybersecurity, etc.
And then it all ended with the COVID-19 lockdowns.

The National Defense Industrial Association was the pioneer of virtual trade fairs, organizing the SOFIC 2020 trade fair entirely online. Other associations and organizers followed suit.

Not that there weren’t any perks of sitting in the cave to cover a trade show while wearing shorts and a shabby 10 year old Washington Nationals t-shirt, my wife repeatedly insisted for it to be thrown away.

Virtual conferences were necessary and a good stopgap. There are certainly some homebody who might prefer them. But I suspect they are in the minority.

The first indication that face-to-face meetings were sorely missed was the NTSA Training and Simulation Symposium in June.

It was one of the first industry conferences to go “hybrid”. Participants could travel to Orlando in person or watch online. Needless to say, the association was eager to see how this would turn out. Would anyone bother to travel in person when they could stay home and watch it from their computer?

The answer was clear at the end of the fair: the previous TSIS in person in 2019 had gathered some 500 participants. The one that took place this summer had 800 in-person attendees.

Humans generally seek the company of other humans.

However, these were the “golden” three months – back when everyone who wanted a vaccine had received it and no one had heard of COVID-19 variant D. The masks were off and the two shots of the vaccine looked like armor.

For journalists, these conferences are vital in gathering information for readers. Senior Department of Defense officials – who are normally difficult to reach – are there, often holding media availability, and can sometimes be found after a speech for an exclusive citation.

Conferences provide an opportunity for members of the industry to interact with government officials in an ethical manner. Conferences are an opportunity for public servants to clearly communicate their needs and requirements to industry – and the media – which can provide them with an even wider audience.

Confabs with exhibits are a bonus: this is where we can step in and stumble upon something unexpected – an innovative new product perhaps deserves more attention.

But as the summer wore on, news poured in on Variant D and uncertainty reigned.

The Space Symposium – a conference that National Defense still attends – had been postponed until August. It was by no means a guarantee. Many face-to-face conferences had been postponed until later in the year, to be canceled or to remain virtual.

But it went according to plan, and our editor who covered it reported large crowds.

However, the next big question was Defense and Security Equipment International, better known as DSEI, in London.

Traveling abroad during the COVID era is a whole different ball game. The organizers of DSEI were in some ways lucky. This is a biennial conference, which means they didn’t have to cancel a 2020 show. But whether or not they were going to continue with the September conference, it was the topic of several conversations in the office. . It is one of the largest defense trade shows in the world and one that we haven’t missed for at least a decade.

Finally, I decided to give the green light.

But things have changed.

In the eyes of the international community, the United States is an “amber code” country, which means that it has failed to bring the pandemic under reasonable control. That meant a negative COVID test before leaving the United States and one for the return trip, and an eight-hour flight with a mask on.

The conference at the gigantic ExCel Center in London required everyone to present either a vaccination card or a recent negative test to enter.

Once inside, the majority of participants did not wear masks.

It was evident that DSEI did not have the attendance numbers as in the past, and parts of the once full showroom were closed with curtains. But the show continued.

Interestingly, an exhibitor based in Europe who had to ship his stand and equipment to London said COVID protocols were not the problem, but rather the bureaucracy brought on by Brexit.

There was little time to recover from the jet lag when the AFA conference kicked off the following Monday in National Harbor, Maryland. There, vaccination cards were compulsory and wearing a mask was taken seriously.

No, things are not back to normal. Wearing a mask all day is painful – like all other hoops to jump through when traveling – but the chance to interact with humans again and bring back information to our readers is well worth it.

The subjects: Department of Defense, Defense Markets, Defense Innovation

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