This is not quite the famous quote from the movie Apollo 13, one of my favorite movies. And, well we have a problem. But also an opportunity. I’ll get to the opportunity in a bit, but first, the problem.
My Event and Disappointment
The problem of course is COVID-19. As the end of the week in which I’m writing this, I was scheduled to help host the National Weeklong Cave Rescue training seminar for the NCRC. For years, I and others had been working on the planning of this event. It’s our seminal event and can attract 100 or more people from across the country and occasionally from other countries. Every year we have it in a different state in order to allow our students to train in different cave environments across the country (New York caves are different from Georgia caves which are different from Oregon caves and more) as well as to make it easier for attendees to attend a more local event.
Traditionally, the events held in NY (This would have been the fourth National Seminar) have attracted fewer people than our events in Alabama which is famous for its caves. But this year was different, with lots of marketing and finding a great base camp, we were on track for not only for the largest seminar yet in New York, but for one on par with our largest seminars anywhere.
Then, in February I started to get nervous. I had been following the news and seeing that unlike previous outbreaks of various flus and other diseases, COVID-19 looked like it would be something different. This wasn’t going to pass quite as quickly. This was going to have an impact. As a result, I started to make contingency plans with the rest of my planning staff. I consulted with our Medical Coordinator. I talked to the camp. By March I started to regain some optimism, but I still wasn’t 100% confident we could pull this off. And then, the questions from attendees started to come in. “Are we still having it?” “What are the plans?” etc. Another week or two later, “I need to cancel. My agency/school/etc won’t cover the cost this year.” Finally by the start of April, after talking to several of my planning staff and my fellow regional coordinators it became obvious, we could not, in good conscience host a seminar in June. Yes, here in upstate New York the incidence of COVID-19 is dropping quickly. We’re starting the re-opening process. Honestly, if folks came here, I would NOT be worried about them getting infected from a local source.
However, we would have nearly 100 people coming from across the country, including states where the infection rates are climbing. Many would be crammed into planes for hours, or making transfers at airports with other travelers. So, while locally we might be safe; if we held this event, where folks are in classrooms for 3-4 hours a day, then in cars to/from cave and cliff sites and then often in caves for hours, it’s likely we would have become ground zero for a spike in infections. That would not have been a wise nor ethical thing to do. So, we postponed until next year.
I mention all that because of what happened to me about three weeks ago and then the news from last week: 2020 PASS Summit is going Virtual. About three weeks ago I was asked to participate in a meeting with some of the folks who help to run PASS as well as other User Group leaders. The goal was to discuss how to make a Virtual Summit a great experience if it went virtual. This was one of several such meetings and I know a lot of ideas we brought up and discussed. NONE of us were looking forward to PASS 2020 being virtual, but we all agreed that it was better than nothing. And of course, as you’re well aware, last week PASS made the decision, I suspect due in large part for the very same reasons we postponed our cave rescue training event.
Sadness and Disappointment
Mostly I’ve heard, if not happy feedback, at least resigned feedback. People have accepted the reality that PASS will be virtual. I wrote above about my experience with having to postpone our cave rescue training (because it’s so hand’s on, it’s impossible to host it virtually). It was not an easy decision. I’ll admit I was frustrated, hurt, disappointed and more. I and others had put in a LOT of hard work only to have it all delayed. I know the organizers of Summit must be feeling the same way. And I know many of us attendees must feel the same. Sure, Houston is not Seattle and I’ve come to have a particular fondness for Seattle, in part because of an opportunity to see friends there, but I was looking forward to going to Houston this year (as was my wife) and checking out a new city.
One thing that has helped buoy my emotions in regards to our weeklong cave rescue class is that over 1/2 the attendees said, “roll my registration over to next year. I’m still planning on coming!” That was refreshing and unexpected. Honestly, I was hoping for maybe 1/4 of them at best to say so. This gave me hope and the warm fuzzies.
Let me start with stating the obvious: a virtual event will NOT be the same as in-person event. There will most definitely be things missing. Even with attempts that PASS will be making to try to recreate the so-called “Hallway track” of impromptu discussions and hosting other virtual events to mimic the real thing, it won’t be the same. You won’t get to check out the Redgate Booth in person, hang out on the sofa at Minionware, or get your free massage courtesy of VMWare.
And we’ll miss out on:
But, we’ll still have a LOT of great training and vendors will have virtual rooms and more.
So what’s the opportunity? Accessibility!
Here’s the thing, I LOVE PASS Summit. I think it’s a great training and learning opportunity. But let’s face it. It can get expensive, especially when you figure in travel costs, hotel costs and food costs. This year though, most of those costs disappear. This means that when you go to your boss, they have even less of an excuse to say, “sorry it’s not in the budget”. And honestly, if they DO say that, I would seriously suggest that you consider paying for it out of your own budget. Yes, I realize money might be tight, but after all the wonderful training you can then update your resume and start submitting it to companies that actually invest in training their employees.
I would also add, from my understanding, while convention centers by law ADA accessible, this doesn’t necessarily mean everyone with a disability can attend. There can be non-physical barriers that interfere. Hosting virtually gives more people the ability to “attend” in a way that works for them. It might be in a quiet, darkened room if they’re sensitive to noise and lights. It might be replaying sessions over and over again if they need to hear things in that fashion. It very well could be taking advantage of recorded sessions and the like in ways that I, an able-bodied person isn’t even aware of. So that’s a second way in which it’s accessible.
Now, I know folks are questioning “well if its virtual, why should we pay anything, especially if vendors are still paying a sponsorship fee?” There’s several answers to that and none of them by themselves are complete, but I’ll list some. For one, I haven’t confirmed, but I’m fairly confident that vendors are paying a lot less for sponsorship, because they won’t get the same face to face contact. For another, PASS takes money to run. While we often think of it as a single big weeklong event, there’s planning and effort that goes on throughout the year. This is done by an outside organization that specializes in running organizations like PASS. (Note the PASS Board is still responsible for the decision making that goes on and the direction of PASS as a whole, but day to day operations are generally outsourced. This is far from uncommon. Those costs don’t disappear. There’s other costs that don’t automatically disappear because the event is no longer physical. And of course there are costs that a virtual event has that the physical event doesn’t. Now EVERY single session will be available as a live-stream (as well as recorded for later download) and this requires enough bandwidth and tools to manage them. And it requires people to help coordinate. Making an event virtual doesn’t automatically make it free to run.
Now, I know right now I’m on track for hosting the NCRC Weeklong Cave Rescue training event next year at the location we planned on for this year. Our hope of course is that by then COVID-19 will be a manageable problem. But in the meantime, I’ll keep practicing my skills and sharing my knowledge and when and where I can, caving safely. And as always willing to take new folks caving. If you’re interested, just ask!
I don’t know what PASS 2021 Summit will bring or even where it will be. But I know this year we can make the most of the current situation and turn this into an opportunity to turn PASS into something new and more affordable. Yes, it will be different. But we can deal with that. So, register today and let’s have a great PASS 2020 Summit in the meantime! I look forward to seeing you there. Virtually of course!