It’s not a typical experience to find joy at a work conference. At least, that was the case before COVID-19.

But after 15 months of social distancing, masks, quarantines and then vaccines, the 2021 Global Insurance Symposium in Des Moines felt joyful.

While some people still did a few pandemic-era fist and elbow bumps in jest during the June 28-30 event, there were plenty more handshakes and even some high fives and hugs.

Insurance professionals including regulators, attorneys, consultants and startup entrepreneurs met up with old friends and colleagues they hadn’t seen in ages, catching up after what seemed like an eternal limbo of isolation and Zoom calls. Folks traveled from around the country and world to attend. They ate and drank collectively. Some made new friends and contacts. Crucially, plenty of networking took place in person after a long absence, a practice that was at risk of becoming a lost art.

Deals were most certainly made, or at least talked about. It all felt almost novel.

Nick Gerhart, VP and chief innovation officer at Homesteaders Life Company, left, moderates a panel discussion on global risk on June 29 with Matteo Carbone of the IoT Insurance Observatory at right. Participating remotely, seen on video screen: David Green of NASA, and Gina Guzman, VP and Chief Medial Director at Munich Re US (Life)

Still, this was an in-person event with a twist – held with a dual online component for folks who weren’t ready to travel yet, didn’t want to or were unable to. Most of the panels only featured the moderator and a single panelist in person, with the rest joining virtually via big giant screens on either side of the stage. In-person attendees and sponsors alike didn’t seem to mind at all, simply reveling in being together in the same space.

Only a few hundred people attended in person, down from higher pre-pandemic numbers, with 100 or so registered for the online version.

In addition to many virtual panelists, social distancing practices were still in , in terms of seating for the main panel discussions. The setup was in a large auditorium with lots of extra floor space, and reduced seating at tables where attendees sat. Also, group sessions were smaller than in the past, with participants in smaller rooms sitting spaced apart along rectangular tables set up to form squares (The setup was also designed to encourage networking and more intimate conversation.).

Hand sanitizer options were everywhere.

Strong Feelings, Getting Down to Business

An Iowa-based insurance industry professional attending the conference, an industry veteran who asked that his name not be used, said the gathering was a positive post-pandemic event, even as it included some virtual components. Hybrid events, he predicted, would remain for reasons well beyond pandemic concerns.

“Prior to this last year, we worked in offices with each other. Then we went totally remote and we were all scattered, and what I think is going to be the new way is hybrid,” he said. “People that can get the approval for the cost of the symposium but not travel can still attend, and people that can get here can get there. “I like this hybrid approach [as] it allows you to be more inclusive.”

For him, the bigger part of the event was to simply mingle and do business with peers in person.

“A big part for me to be in person is the networking, and I just haven’t had that for 15-16 months,” he said. I also think a lot of communication is non-verbal. When you are remote you don’t have that/ You don’t have this experience [of conversing face-to-face]. There are a lot of benefits to being in-person.”

Megan Brandt, a program manager with Global Insurance Accelerator, one of the GIS presenters, said it was a profound experience to be in-person with colleagues and friends after so long.

It was “both exciting and overwhelming,” she explained, exciting because of seeing people after many months apart, and overwhelming for the same reason.

“It’s been so long since we’ve had normal interaction and then coming together for topics that have affected our industry – it’s a neat time for the industry conference to take place,” Brandt said.

John Fohr, CEO and co-founder of TrustLayer (left, in glasses and T-shirt) networks at the GIS InsurTech Expo and Opening Reception, held on June 28, 2021.

John Fohr, CEO and co-founder of TrustLayer, an Insurtech focused on a proof-of-insurance risk management platform, said the conference led to some intense realizations.

“It feels exceptional but it doesn’t yet feel normal,” Fohr said during a break between sessions on June 29.

The reason why: Fohr realized he’s still getting over more than a year of pandemic conditioning.

“I am amazed by how much I was reprogrammed over the last year and feel that I have some agoraphobic feelings that I have never felt before,” Fohr said. “But just as I was surprised by how much we’ve all changed over the last year, I am very optimistic we’re going back to a sense of normalcy.”

Fohr said he was just happy to be there and conduct business in a manner that was second nature before the pandemic.

“I got a chance to sit with one of our closest broker partners for two hours and we brainstormed in a way that is almost impossible over Zoom. Nothing beats human contact,” Fohr pointed out. “Zoom can relay information but it can’t spur human relationships in the same way [as] sitting across the table from someone.”