After more than a year of quarantines, masks and other COVID-19 precautions, an insurance industry group is about to hold an in-person meeting again.

Eden Pearson

The Global Insurance Symposium is meeting in Des Moines, Iowa from June 28-30, more than a year after postponing its 2020 gathering in favor of a modified online event instead. In a nod to the post-pandemic age, GIS 2021 will also have a simultaneous online component for folks not yet ready to travel. As well, organizers of the Iowa-based annual event are taking safety precautions for those that decide to take the plunge and meet face-to-face.

“It has been an enormous undertaking. We have worked diligently to ensure the safety of the guests and to encourage collaboration between all of our industries,” GIS Co-Chair Eden Pearson, Nationwide’s senior director, State Government Relations, told Carrier Management.

GIS is an annual event that presents a roster of global insurance experts, panel discussions, technology demonstrations and, traditionally, in-person networking between multiple sectors that rely on the insurance industry. Not surprisingly, there will be a focus on “the latest industry trends and doing business in a post-COVID world.”

This year’s two main program themes: Global Risk and the Post Pandemic Future; and Insurance and Inclusion: Bridging the Diversity Gap. Launched in 2014, it is presented annually by the Greater Des Moines Partnership, the Iowa Insurance Division, the Iowa Economic Development Authority and a number of Iowa insurance firms.

“We felt it was important to do it,” said GIS Co-Chair Mike Abbott, a partner with Faegre Drinker, Biddle & Reath LLP. “We tried to make it flexible but to hold a really good event that would be unique and beneficial for both people that attended in person and also people that attended virtually.”

Pearson noted that the event attracts a wide range of insurance industry professionals, including regulators, agents, attorneys and more, which made an in-person meeting important.

“We really feel that there’s significant value in networking in person,” Pearson said. “And so we knew that, … if we could do it, we were going to make it work.”

Mike Abbott

That goal included making attendees feel safe, particularly those who have stayed quarantined throughout the pandemic, until now.

“It was a significant undertaking, and there were a lot of conversations on how to do this safely,” Pearson added.

The event will be held at the Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center in Downtown Des Moines. Pearson said there will be a focus on ensuring social distancing and providing plenty of hand sanitizer. Masks for unvaccinated attendees will be encouraged but optional.

“The venue’s last recommendation was for nonvaccinated persons to wear masks, and we will continue to encourage spacing at tables,” Pearson said. (She and Abbott said they are both vaccinated). “When we were planning this, [we] made sure that we had a larger venue than necessary to ensure that we had the room that we needed to give people space to feel safe. Hopefully people will feel safe with what we are able to control.”

Additionally, this year’s breakout groups will be smaller-than-usual groups of about 12-15 attendees each, led by an insurance industry thought leader/facilitator. The approach is designed to serve as a COVID mitigation effort but also facilitate networking and more intimate conversation.

Additionally, the conference organizers plan to send out a health assessment email to all attendees before the event starts.

Organizers said they had over 250 people registered to attend in person as of June 22, with the number rising each day, and about 100 and rising signed up online. Eden said that in past pre-pandemic years, net attendance has hovered around the 700 mark. According to Abbott, there was an understanding that this year’s first post-pandemic gathering wouldn’t necessarily reach pre-pandemic attendance levels, due to caution as well as fatigue from the surge in online conferences during the pandemic. At the same time, there has been a last-minute surge in registrations, he said.

“What we’re finding is that a lot of people have been hesitant or maybe waiting … until kind of the last minute to register, so we’ve actually seen [registration] spikes,” Abbott said.

In the end, the GIS co-chairs have basic, clear guidelines in mind for a successful event.

Abbott said that success will happen if attendees come away feeling glad they were able to have face-to-face conversations, feel safe and find value in an in-person gathering after many months without one.

Pearson offered similar sentiment.

“It’s just being able to see face to face these people again [and] have some of those organic conversations that you don’t necessarily have on a virtual platform,” Pearson said. “I have attended several virtual events over this past year provided by different organizations, and this is the first time that I am going to be able to have those conversations face to face. To me, that’s a success.”