Last week I took SCI-Dem to Birmingham NEC for a talk at the Dementia, Care and Nursing Home Expo. This marked a significant moment of sorts, as it was the first big in-person event I have attended as a researcher – or, actually, in any capacity – since early 2020. This event was one of many that were supposed to take place in 2020, but world events obviously necessitated a re-think or re-plan. While many conferences around the same time decided to go ahead on some kind of virtual platform, the Expo waited it out and opted to be among the first in the sector to return to doing a full physical event.
For those of you who don’t know Birmingham NEC, it’s not simply an arena, but a huge complex of multiple exhibition halls, opened in 1976 as a central event-staging space for the whole of the UK (NEC stands for National Exhibition Centre). I remember attending the British International Motor Show there as a child, and the last time I was there was likely at a music industry trade show in a former life when I worked in music retail in my early 20s (that’s about 20 years ago!) The site itself has developed considerably since, surrounded by other venues and attractions (including the Bear Grylls Adventure, so if my talk had gone terribly I could have popped in for a spot of shark diving to let off steam).
Not everything was open, but a lot was, and there were multiple other shows and exhibitions on at the NEC. It wasn’t heaving, by any means – I suspect it was operating on reduced capacity not because of COVID restrictions (which have been significantly loosened here in the UK now), but simply because many who had planned to go pre-pandemic were no longer able or willing to – but it was still buzzing with activity, a sight completely familiar and unremarkable until you paused to consider how just a few months ago, it would have been impossible. Anyone attending was asked to provide evidence of a negative test (PCR or lateral flow) or proof of immunity (i.e. that you have had COVID in the past 180 days), but once inside, it was masks off for most, aside from centre staff, which all added to the feeling of returned normality, though for some I know this made them nervous of the risks (especially knowing lateral flow tests are only 70% reliable). That said the halls are huge and well ventilated, so by no means a confined space, and there were no crammed crowds on the second day of the Expo, when I was there.
My talk was but one of many, a half-hour slot in one of the series of small partitioned-off theatre areas. My main worry was that no one would turn up, as the Expo is not really aimed at academics, but those in practice or the business of providing care – though the point of me going was reach a non-academic audience, I was aware many might not see a talk on university research as “their thing”, plus a substantial proportion of attendees would be specifically form the care home sector, while SCI-Dem was to do with what is on offer for people living at home in the community. Nevertheless, there can be a tendency for us researchers to just end up talking to each other rather than a wider audience, and if we only talk to other academics then we’re really not helping our chances for our research to have a real, practical impact in the “real” world, as it were; so the fact that this was a care sector expo, not an academic conference, was a plus.
I needn’t have worried, however – I had a decent number of viewers – a small audience perhaps, but an engaged one, and a good few enquiries and connections made afterwards, which meant it was well worth going. Because of the general hubbub in the hall, you talk into a microphone and everyone wears headphones, which is ingenious but can be a little disorientating and, as one speaker before me observed, not very dementia-friendly for people living with dementia who might have liked to attend. However, it should be said, the whole expo was very slickly run, with plenty of support and technical staff on hand at all times. The talk went without a hitch and I felt there was a good degree of interest in the conclusions and recommendations of SCI-Dem, and the booklets outlining them.
There are plusses and minuses to virtual and in-person events. I attended and spoke at a few virtual conferences in 2020 and was very impressed with how much technology has come along to make it feel like you are at an actual event. The big plus of a virtual conference is how much you can get to see – I found myself catching a lot more talks simply because they were all archived as videos which I could view in my own time with no clashes and, if the virtual platform is good, everything is easy to navigate, laid out as it is as a “menu” for you to browse all at the click of a mouse.
The big downside of a virtual conference that I found, however, is personal connection. While there is, in theory, plenty of capacity for networking virtually, my experience is that people do less of it – maybe because, being at a distance and not there in person, there is no urgency or stimulus to do so immediately. There is no “bumping into” people with shared interests and goals, no having an unplanned, fascinating conversation in the buffet queue or spotting someone across a room that you meant to talk to. There was simply nowhere near the same networking interaction and interest/follow-up enquiries from the virtual events I attended last year – they were wonderful in the sense of being able to learn a lot about a lot of different things, but it all felt somehow more passive, despite the best efforts of organisers.
In person everything is a little more, well, personal, and connections are often made though informal conversations and chance meetings, as much when hanging/wandering around in your “down time” as anything. At the Expo this certainly happened – I got that chance to wander about, learn about things and speak to people that I possibly would not have planned to if logging on to a virtual event – and that was enriching, fascinating and welcome return.