RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Triangle-area tech and business organizations are rethinking their approach to hosting live, in-person events as the Delta variant prompts a new wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths across North Carolina.

Three months ago, WRAL TechWire published a twopart story on how local tech organizations were ready to get back to normal in the height of the vaccine rollout. Now, the same organizations are scaling back their re-entry to live events, facing the rise of more contagious variants and new mask mandates and capacity restrictions.

Raleigh-based business membership organization NC Chamber recently decided to move its Health Care Conference on Sept. 21 to a virtual-only format. Talisa Hite, NC Chamber’s director of events, says the organization is taking a “wait-and-see” approach regarding the other events it has scheduled for this fall, including its Ag Allies Conference on Oct. 15 and Women > A Force in Business on Nov. 16, both held in Raleigh.

Though Hite is seeing support for an interest in returning to in-person events through registrations, NC Chamber will continue to provide a virtual option for events for the foreseeable future and is monitoring local, state and federal policies to guide potential changes.

“Whether virtual, in-person, or both, we will work hard to ensure our guests have a positive event experience,” Hite added. “Once we do return to in-person events, we will work with venues to protect our attendees through social distancing and other health and safety procedures.”

What’s up at Chambers

Local chambers of commerce are taking a similar approach. Raleigh Chamber, which started resuming live events in July and early August, has since rolled back its planning in light of the Delta variant. Its annual meeting on Sept. 14 is one of the latest programs to transition to a virtual-only format from its former venue, the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh.

“‘Pivot’ has been everyone’s favorite word for the last 18 months, and thus we have evaluated every event individually and will be hosting some virtually and some in a hybrid model,” says Adrienne Cole, Raleigh Chamber’s president and CEO. She added that the organization is working closely with city and county leaders and business partners to make educated and responsible decisions about its activities in accordance with guidance from Wake County and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Durham Chamber, however, never fully reopened in-person events since the pandemic started. Earlier this year, the 897-member organization said it was considering offering hybrid events with a limited in-person option later in 2021. But now, most of its events are still virtual, except for some grand openings and ribbon-cutting ceremonies upon request.

Michelle Nelson, Durham Chamber’s director of marketing and communications, says the organization recently deployed a survey to gauge members’ preferences for in-person vs. virtual event participation. Though the survey won’t close until later this month, she says responses are already learning towards online-only programming.

“Early results suggest that most members prefer to remain virtual, so we will make that call once the survey officially closes,” Nelson stated.

Meanwhile, little has changed for Research Triangle Park’s Frontier and Boxyard venues, which have hosted a mix of hybrid and in-person events over the past few months per Durham County’s indoor mask guidance and other protocols. Its upcoming RTP180: Food Science event on Sept. 16 will be held in-person at the Frontier with a livestream for attendees who can’t make it in person.

Host Wade Minter previews September's RTP180 event focusing on food science. (Photo courtesy of Frontier RTP via Twitter)

Host Wade Minter previews September’s RTP180 event, focused on food science. (Photo courtesy of Frontier RTP via Twitter)

Amanda Frystock Ronan, RTP’s director of programs, says attendance at the Frontier’s in-person and virtual opportunities has been split down the middle for every event since June. And since Boxyard’s community space is 100% open-air, Ronan says in-person programming has been successful there over the past three months.

“Our team continues to play it safe and be selective with the types of programming we offer at both locations,” Ronan adds. “Our goal is to keep our community open and accessible to all folks, including those who want to interact with us from their homes.”

NC TECH sticks to plans

The North Carolina Technology Association (NC TECH), which has about 600 members spread across the state, returned to live events last month with its Golf Classic and NC TECH Leadership Summit in Pinehurst. With extra safety precautions and options for live or virtual registration, NC TECH Vice President of Strategy and Development Michelle Calton says the hybrid event “made the most sense to us based on corporate policies still in place and with the recent increase in COVID cases.”

For now, NC TECH is moving forward with an in-person format for its popular NC TECH Awards Gala, scheduled for Nov. 3 at the Raleigh Convention Center. However, Calton says organizers are making contingency plans if changes become necessary.

At the same time, NC TECH’s running series of workshops and educational events are all being held online. And its next signature event, the Summit for Women in Tech, will be presented virtually on the mornings of Sept. 23 and Sept. 24. Calton says NC TECH’s statewide scope makes it possible for its hundreds of members to participate without the barrier of travel and timing. She also emphasized the cost-effective element, enabling members to allow employees to participate remotely.

“Although some members seem eager for live in-person events, there are certainly many who prefer to continue with virtual offerings for the foreseeable future,” Calton added. “We will continue to offer virtual programming and hybrid opportunities when possible to allow members a chance to participate in a way in which they are most comfortable.”

RIoT moves big event to 2022

RIoT, a Raleigh-headquartered organization serving Internet of Things startups, revealed plans in June to conduct most of its programs in person with a virtual option. But now, RIoT Executive Director Tom Snyder cites the spread of the Delta variant and the strain on the local healthcare system as reasons to rethink that policy. The organization is now opting to transition some of its larger events back to online-only or postpone them to the first quarter of 2022 on a case-by-case basis.

RIoT recently decided to reschedule its RIoT LXIII Developer Day, originally planned for Oct. 1 at Wake Technical Community College’s RTP campus, to March 11 of next year. Snyder said the decision came after consulting with Wake Tech and the 20-plus organizations scheduled to offer free content, hardware kits and other materials at the event. Ultimately, he says, “The event benefits greatly from in-person instruction, with groups of people in relatively small rooms.”

Over the summer, the organization ran its eighth RIoT Accelerator Program cohort in a hybrid format, with vaccinated founders invited to participate in person and others retaining the option to connect remotely. Finding this approach effective, Snyder says the startup accelerator will continue the hybrid format for its next cohort this fall.

Startup founders in the summer 2021 cohort of the RIoT Accelerator Program join for a session on finance. (Photo courtesy of Tom Snyder)

Startup founders in the summer 2021 cohort of the RIoT Accelerator Program join for a session on finance. (Photo courtesy of Tom Snyder via Twitter)

Asked how RIoT’s audience feels about returning to in-person events, Snyder said there’s a range of opinions based on the polling data his team has collected, along with more qualitative observations. “Nearly everyone we speak to wants to be back in person,” he says. “But there is still a wide range of opinions on when to be back in person, with a fairly even split of ‘now,’ ‘later’ and ‘only if vaccinations are required.'”

Snyder added that trends show vaccination requirements may be the norm in the future. “Corporations are back to a peak pandemic mindset, restricting permission for their employees to speak at in-person events,” he says. “There is increasing acceptance of requiring vaccination for in-person gathering, and I think organizations that adopt that approach strike a good balance of serving their audience and protecting public health.”

RIoT is still planning to host some live events, though. For now, its IoT Demo Night on Oct. 18 will be held as an in-person, masked event at the Raleigh Convention Center in conjunction with the All Things Open 2021 conference, running from Oct. 17 to Oct. 19 in Raleigh.

All Things Open goes hybrid

All Things Open, regarded as one of the Triangle’s largest and longest-running tech conferences, decided to host a hybrid event based on the wishes of its audience, speakers and sponsors.

“We received many requests from a cross-section of our community members to host an in-person element, and although we knew not everyone would feel comfortable onsite, we wanted to do something for those that did/will,” says Todd Lewis, founder and chair of All Things Open. “Most everyone in the tech community has not attended an in-person event for 1.5 years, which is a long time for no in-person contact or networking.”

The in-person portion of the event will include stringent safety protocols, including an indoor face covering requirement, a health screening questionnaire and a wrist-based temperature check. Attendees will also need to submit proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID test within 48 hours of arriving.

Last year’s online-only All Things Open drew 7,483 registrations and over 2,500 companies and organizations participating, allowing the event to extend its reach beyond its previous capacity. A year earlier, All Things Open attracted 4,985 attendees and 1,123 companies and organizations in October 2019. For the 2021 program next month, organizers are expecting 2,500 attendees onsite in Raleigh and more than 2,500 people tuning in virtually.

Lewis says there are plenty of challenges with navigating a hybrid model, which requires twice the workload and logistical and technical considerations. He also cited safety concerns and the uncertainty of pandemic policies and expectations.

Still, Lewis emphasizes the rewards of meeting this challenge, namely through facilitating face-to-face connections—a clear selling-point for All Things Open over the last decade. Though the event won’t draw the same turnout as previous years, he hopes it will continue to be a channel for valuable introductions.

“We genuinely want to deliver value to our community and the tech community at large,” Lewis says. “By hosting a hybrid event, we’re making world-class programming available in a format that is accessible, regardless of what a person might prefer or feel most comfortable with. We sincerely hope others find value in that.”