Beach conference season ebbs as pandemic keeps pols, lobbyists at bay

Beach goers are slowly returning to the sandy shore behind the King & Prince resort on St. Simons Island in recent days, but the usual gatherings of lawmakers and lobbyists at conferences on the Georgia coast were canceled due to this spring's COVID-19 shutdown. Wes Wolfe/Georgia Recorder

This is usually the beach convention season time of year for lobbyists, state lawmakers and members of affinity groups who gather on Georgia’s coast for a chance to network, share a beverage or two and angle for a little inside information.

An industry lobbyist might hear of an opportunity in a hotel breakout room from a state official talking about upcoming plans to spend money to boost rural Georgia. Or a banker could get a chance to try to head off a push for lending restrictions. Members of the Georgia Municipal Association and Georgia Press Association are regulars during the busy season east of I-95.

This year’s coastal migration of politicians and the people who curry their favor is a virtual non-event even as the state eases stay-home orders that shut down Georgia’s hospitality trade and other businesses this spring to try to contain the spread of COVID-19. Traditional conference destinations like St. Simons Island’s King & Prince resort and the Jekyll Island Club across the sound only recently reopened, and many events planned years in advance have been shelved. The loss of business is bad for convention hotels and their workers and it means the lobbyists who usually spread the hospitality around during beach convention season are left to invent other ways to influence state decision makers.

“It’s been tough,” said Joe Brannen, CEO of the Georgia Bankers Association. “While we’ve canceled some, we have been able to move to online formats  others, we moved to next year, others we just aren’t having. It’s been a pretty significant change.”

The bankers usually host about half of their events for the year between March 1 and June 30. They cancelled a big rural development and lending conference planned for St. Simons Island last week. Now, the association conducts webinars over several days to digitally share the information, trying to find a way without the handshakes and close talking common at beach conferences.

The virtual bankers conference streamed May 18-21 in the middle of the week, which would be an unlucky real-life beach conference schedule. Often the socializing begins after registration on a Wednesday night. Then it’s a day of Thursday breakout groups before the agenda wraps up Friday about lunchtime when the conference moves poolside.

And more is lost in the transition to online conferences than the social pleasantries. Zoom meetings are no substitute for the subtle signals that lobbyists and lawmakers can exchange, or a conference speaker’s ability to read faces in a breakout room.

“The available electronic meeting formats really suppress discussion; there is a stilted character to the discourse of talking heads, and questions that would normally spring to mind are stillborn,” said longtime environmental lobbyist Neill Herring. “Eavesdropping in crowds, ordinarily a reliable source for information, is largely foreclosed.”

His long-practiced system of gathering intelligence, organizing stacks of documents and tracking legislation in handwritten notes is knocked a little off kilter in these days of social distancing.

“The ordinary tendency for development of multiple accounts and opinions on matters in and out of formal discussions is suppressed,” Herring said. “The kind of lobbying I do depends on reading and listening, compiling and analyzing. Much of that information stream is no longer nearly as rich as it has been under pre-pandemic conditions.”

The Georgia Press Association cancelled its annual conference, which was set to take place at the Jekyll Island Club this month. Last year’s event drew Gov. Brian Kemp, state House Speaker David Ralston, and two candidates for Georgia’s Supreme Court. The conference’s big annual event is its Better Newspaper Contest awards, a luncheon at the hotel where it hands out hundreds of awards to journalists from more than 70 newspapers.

I think the bigger loss for us, at least for me, is missing the chance to mingle with others in our industry to develop the points we want, or should, be presenting to our elected officials,” said association President Dan Pool, editor of the Pickens Progress. “Surely for the press association, and likely for other industries, missing the chance to attend both the formal workshops, speakers, as well as the socializing, where you can bounce ideas off fellow members of our industry is a real loss, with tangible bottom-line effects.”

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce lobbyists are typically among the biggest beach convention season spenders. This year, the seaside schmoozing is out and online video events are in, like the roundtable series featuring virtual discussions among business leaders. Replays are on the chamber website and YouTube channel.

Still, it’s too early to count beach conference season 2020 on the Georgia coast a total loss. The chamber’s Future of Freight & Logistics event at the Westin Jekyll Island planned for today is rescheduled for July 14. According to Scott McQuade of the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau, hotel clerks are juggling schedules as time is running out for communities along the coast to salvage what’s left of the season.

A later and likely hotter few days at the beach is more attractive than not getting to mix business and the smell of sea salt at all.

“We are fortunate that many have not canceled completely and have decided to just push their event back in the hopes that it will be safe once again for large group gatherings,” McQuade said. “Most hotels and resorts have tried to be flexible to accommodate groups in this unusual circumstance.”