It’s been a long year. Now, as we walk, cautiously, back into the “real world” it feels like maybe the pandemic might finally be coming to an end — at least in the United States.

Of course, if the last year has taught us anything, it’s that COVID-19, and life in general, is impossible to predict. However, all signs point to dawn.

According to New York Times data for May 11, cases are down to 38,135 per day on average over the last two weeks. While that’s still higher than the spring 2020 peak of about 32,000 cases in one day, it’s understandable that people feel a sense of relief about that statistic after the massive winter surge in the U.S., when cases reached a peak of about 300,000 in one day.

Another stat that’s possibly even more exciting, highlights how far the country has come with vaccinations. More than 58 percent of adults in the U.S. have received at least one shot of the vaccine — and that’s reason enough to hope.

Of course, for the confectionery industry, the biggest sign that things are moving forward is the re-introduction of in-person events.

As we walk into the future, let’s resist the urge to completely, “go back” to normal. We have learned so much in the last year. Let’s use that knowledge to go forward — into a new, better normal. .

– Crystal Lindell, Editor of Candy Industry.

In a little over a month, the National Confectioners Association is slated to hold the Sweets and Snacks Expo in-person June 23-25 in Indianapolis. A few weeks after that, Retail Confectioners International is slated to hold its annual conference in-person July 19-23 in Columbus, Ohio. And I suspect, after both of those, the calendar will quickly fill up as other events follow suit.

I’m thrilled, if not also a bit cautiously optimistic, about the possibility of moving past the pandemic. But as we do that, I do have one last COVID request: Please don’t abandon virtual event access.

To be clear, I’m not asking that we hold events with only virtual options — I’m just asking that we don’t hold any with only in-person options.

I started on Candy Industry in 2010, and over the last decade I have come to truly love how incredible so many of the confectionery industry’s events are. I’ve personally had so many incredible experiences at many of them. And I know countless others have as well.

I’m also well aware of the burning desire to do simple things, like see other humans again. The in-person networking, the possibility of getting away from the (probably home) office for a few days, and the chance to escape the mental weight of the last year, if only for a week, all sounds enticing.

I also understand the magical intangibles in-person events provide — the little moments that only occur because two people happen to be in the same building at the same time.

But there are so many reasons people might not be able to travel to conferences in person, and the last year has proven that they don’t need to be excluded.

The most obvious reason to continue offering virtual options is that COVID-19 is still ravaging other countries, many of which continue to enforce travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines. On May 11, the New York Times reported 737,306 global cases and 14,147 deaths caused by the pandemic.

By eliminating virtual options, events are effectively eliminating participation from many of those living abroad.

Beyond that, separate from the pandemic, there are still plenty of reasons to offer virtual event participation options.

First and foremost, travel is expensive. Many companies simply can’t afford to pay for all of the costs related to work trips. It’s a factor that’s especially prohibitive for small and mid-size candy companies — the exact companies industry events should be supporting as we work to increase diversity.

Even if a company can afford to send one or two people to an event, there are still advantages to virtual offerings. In fact, one of the most amazing things about virtual events is that more people have the opportunity to share in the experience. Rather than sending one person from sales or the head buyer, everyone from the factory floor to the C-suite can login, watch sessions, and even chat with other attendees.

It’s not just attendees, though —  it’s also participants. Offering speakers the chance to present virtually allows conferences to offer more enticing sessions, while easing the burden often placed on presenters.

There are also the more personal reasons for offering virtual options. They allow for participation from people with family obligations, like childcare or even aging parents. And they open up access for those with disabilities, which can make travel difficult or even impossible. 

So you see, there are also magical intangibles that happen when an event offers virtual access.

People who may not have been able to participate are inspired while watching a session. Others find new business contacts in the chat boxes to the right of the speaker presentations. While still others have the chance to share their knowledge as part of presentations they never would have been able to give without virtual options.

I don’t expect virtual offerings to ever completely clone the experience of attending events in-person. In fact, that shouldn’t even be the goal. However, they can widen the experience to so many more people, inviting collaboration and opportunities that wouldn’t happen without livestreams and group chats.

What does this look like in practice? Live stream the educational sessions. Allow companies to share brand news on the event website. Consider arranging video meetings for attendees and participants. Create online social groups so everyone involved can network online.

In the year 2021, there are too many virtual options to completely ignore them.

As we walk into the future, let’s resist the urge to completely, “go back” to normal. We have learned so much in the last year. Let’s use that knowledge to go forward — into a new, better normal.