Over the past two years, conferences I normally attend have been held on Zoom. Speeches are made live or made available online for later viewing. I “attended” one homeschool conference, watching one speech, and never got around to watching the rest of the videos available on demand. While I used to find so much motivation and inspiration in homeschool conventions, this one fell flat. It wasn’t the fault of the organizers or the one speech I actually got around to watching; it was the web-only format. 

Held at least once a year, the Conservative Political Action Conference is an event for conservative political activists and professionals. I’ve been attending for more than a decade, but this year’s CPAC was different for me: Instead of using it as an opportunity to visit with friends or do media interviews, I spent the majority of my time in the exhibitor hall and talking to attendees. I was helping to staff a booth selling my new children’s books (“Heroes of Liberty”), and spoke to hundreds of attendees over the course of the weekend. That experience provided a new window into why in-person events matter.

Most outsiders know CPAC for its speeches on the main stage and the straw poll at the end. This year, former President Donald Trump made news with his speech, hinting at a potential 2024 run and noting his victory in the straw poll of favored presidential candidates (with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis coming in second). But the real power of CPAC isn’t found on stage; it’s in the activists roaming the halls.

The organizing doesn’t just happen at the conference itself, either. I had a two-hour conversation with a fellow CPAC attendee seated next to me on our red-eye flight home, where we discussed local issues at school boards, city councils and the state legislature. 

This is the power of mingling and holding in-person meetings of energized and like-minded groups and individuals, and it just can’t happen on Zoom. 

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As we were in Florida, the CDC relaxed its COVID-19 recommendations considerably (not that the CPAC crowd was waiting for such an edict). After close to two long years, the pandemic is waning, and even the CDC and President Joe Biden are finally admitting that fact. Schools are among the last to return to a semblance of normalcy but are now beginning to make their way there, long after many other aspects of American life, such as concerts, restaurants and sporting events. 

During the State of the Union, Biden implored Americans to get back to normal. He said, “Because of the progress we’ve made, because of your resilience and the tools we have, tonight I can say we are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines.”

He went on, “It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again. People working from home can feel safe to begin to return to the office.”

But even after schools and offices, in-person conferences and meetings have seemed to lag. CPAC was a bit of a trailblazer, and perhaps a testament that we can get back to seeing each other in person again.

I appreciate that while it’s easy for more nimble institutions and municipalities to make announcements about the relaxation of mandates a week or two in the future, we’ve seen that those relaxations can be short-lived. For an event planner, the insecurity can seem too much risk when logistics have to be planned months in advance. 

CPAC was held this year in the “free state” of Florida, where organizers could feel safe that local politicians wouldn’t suddenly impose new requirements or mandates. But even in Florida, the hotel bellhop told me that CPAC was the first major event the hotel had seen since he began work there. He told me this behind a mask, because employees were still mandated to wear them, even among thousands of unmasked hotel guests. I asked if he minded wearing a mask at work, to which he replied, “Would you want to wear a mask for eight hours a day while performing manual labor?”

Even at an event of this nature and magnitude, the specter of COVID-19 was still present. 

But the experience of CPAC this year made clear: We need to start meeting again offline. There is no virtual replacement for the experience. We can’t keep canceling events; this cannot become our “new” normal. As the pandemic winds down, let’s hope that CPAC is a trailblazer in large, in-person gatherings again.

Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for the Deseret News and an editor of the children’s book series “Heroes of Liberty.”