Conferences Plot a Comeback Even Before Vaccines Are Widely Distributed

It could take a while before the handshake comes back, if it ever does. Business conferences, however, are set to restart in the U.S. the moment health code allows. And despite uncertainty around when exactly that will be, convention organizers are holding out hope—and event space—for a possible return in the coming weeks.

One of those optimists is Peter Diamandis. He convened some of his employees at their office in Culver City, California, last Wednesday for a low-key, in-person holiday gathering. There, Diamandis said his flagship annual conference, Abundance 360, was still on for late January in Malibu, California, according to a person familiar with the situation who asked not to be identified. It will feature seminars on technology and entrepreneurialism, as well as a video address from Salesforce.com Inc.’s Marc Benioff.

Conferences Plot a Comeback Even Before Vaccines Are Widely Distributed

Diamandis said last week that the company was taking precautions to hold the event safely. Anyone attending in person would have to take a nose-swab test 72 hours before arrival and each day during the conference itself. He was closely tracking infection rates and regulatory guidance, he said. “Many of our members definitely want to get together in person (if possible),” he wrote in an email to Bloomberg.

One day later, though, Diamandis changed his mind. The company canceled the in-person program for most people scheduled to attend Abundance 360, according to a message to staff reviewed by Bloomberg. The summit will be limited to about 16 people who paid $30,000 for special events and coaching, internal documents show. (Although that, too, could be cancelled depending on the health situation, Diamandis wrote in an email to Bloomberg.) Everyone else will get access to online programs.

Of the many important things lost this year, conferences are pretty far down the list. But for the organizations that put on the events, the coronavirus pandemic has severely altered their operations. Cancellations in the U.S. this year will cost as much as $22 billion, according to estimates from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, a trade group.

Most conferences are sticking to online-only through early next year, including CES, the largest technology industry conference typically held in January, or are postponing until the second half of the year, said Heather Keenan, president of Key Events, a meeting and events-planning firm. Some are exploring hybrid events with the choice of online or in person starting in May, she said.

Conferences Plot a Comeback Even Before Vaccines Are Widely Distributed

There are exceptions. A surf expo is scheduled to start Jan. 6 in Orlando. A cheerleading competition in Los Angeles is set to begin Jan. 30. The Conservative Political Action Conference moved to the Hyatt Regency Orlando from Washington and is slated for late February. The World Economic Forum, a favorite of world leaders, was rescheduled to May from January and relocated to Singapore from Davos, Switzerland. Last week, Marriott International Inc. said it will offer on-site, pre-event Covid tests to help bring back its meeting business.

It’s tempting to imagine the end of the pandemic is just around the corner after several countries began distributing vaccines this month. However, the timeline for herd immunity is unknown and perhaps months away even in developed nations. In the U.S., U.K. and elsewhere, a new wave is cresting. The Los Angeles area has been hit particularly hard. 

Event organizers are most concerned about legal and moral liability if they open too soon. “They are not willing to take the chance that their conference becomes a superspreader event,” said Key, who has worked with Google and Twitter Inc. Event planners are trying to game out when professionals will start traveling and congregating again. “The hardest part is none of us know when that will happen and what it looks like when it does,” Keenan said. If it doesn’t happen soon, though, many events businesses won’t survive.

Diamandis knows more about viruses than a typical event planner. He holds a degree from Harvard Medical School and co-founded a business called Covaxx that’s developing a Covid-19 vaccine. (Covaxx is a unit of privately held United Biomedical Inc. and unaffiliated with the World Health Organization’s Covax initiative.) Another Diamandis startup, X Prize Foundation, has said it will give $7.5 million to projects designing a better Covid-19 test, face mask and software to predict infection rates.

Abundance 360 began as an independent company. Diamandis eventually sold the business to one of his other companies, the troubled Singularity University. Singularity cut staff and parted ways with its longtime CEO about a year ago.

In a typical year, the Abundance 360 conference takes place at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California. For the 2021 event, Diamandis turned to his friend and associate Garrett Gerson, who oversees Calamigos Ranch, a resort in nearby Malibu. Gerson agreed to host the seminar, with accommodations at a nearby Four Seasons. The cost to attend in person was $15,000. By mid-December, 127 people signed up, and nearly 100 others paid $12,500 to join online, according to company records seen by Bloomberg.

Last week, as Singularity continued to sell tickets to the event, Diamandis acknowledged that the conference could still be derailed. “There is a significant chance that we may need to shift to an ‘all virtual’ event,” he wrote in an email to Bloomberg on Wednesday and said all attendees were aware of that possibility. That night, he mentioned at the holiday gathering for staff of PHD Ventures Inc., a holding company for Diamandis’s ventures, that he had been contacted by a reporter and that he would stick to plans of holding Abundance 360 in person, according to the person familiar with the matter.

On Thursday morning, Diamandis took part in a Singularity board meeting over Zoom, a person familiar with the meeting said. A representative from Cooley LLP, a prominent Silicon Valley law firm, was among those in attendance, the person said. That afternoon, Will Weisman, the executive director of Abundance 360, told staff the January conference would be all virtual, except for those who paid $30,000. Weisman referred questions to Diamandis, who said he changed his mind due to increasing infection numbers.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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