Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The End of In-Person Think Tank Events?

The era of in-person think tank events may be over, or at least paused for a very long time.  That lovely shrimp buffet at American Enterprise Institute (AEI) or swanky cocktail reception at the Brookings Institution?  Sorry, not happening anytime soon.

Every major US think tank has halted public, in-person think tank events, which often draw dozens and sometimes even hundreds of people.  Instead, think tanks have moved events almost entirely online, leaving those who depend on think tank lunches for sustenance in a very dire place.

Right now, think tanks are drawing up plans for how they can eventually return to normal, but it is still too early for most think tanks to even begin to plan when they'll hold their next public event.  Instead, most think tanks continue to grapple with how and when to bring their own employees back to work.

In the meantime, think tanks are struggling with how to attract and maintain audiences.  With everyone doing online conferences (corporations, universities, consulting firms, trade associations, embassies, think tanks, etc.), supply may be outpacing demand.  Moreover, "Zoom fatigue" appears to be another problem facing think tank events, as the relative novelty of online video conferencing fades with the increased use of such tools and services.

It is one thing to attend a think tank event in person and meet the speakers and guests and network (and dine on filet mignon and crab cakes), but it is another to sit inside your house and watch speakers drone on for hours and hours, particularly now that the competition for content and interesting speakers is so robust.

The new normal raises a number of questions.  Have think tanks become less important or influential in the coronavirus-era?  Will the crowds that once thronged think tank conference rooms ever return to their pre-coronavirus levels?  Does it make sense for think tanks to even have a physical presence, or can they exist solely online? Will any major think tank collapse due to the global economic crisis?  Will any think tanks think outside the box and do some type of unique pivot to become a dominant force?

While Think Tank Watch continues to ponder these questions and many others, we really are only sure of one thing right now: that lovely lobster dinner on Think Tank Row will instead be taking place in pajamas on a sofa for the foreseeable future.