When COVID-19 hit, it upended the workplace tradition of the business lunch.
Now Jeremy Welt, a marketing consultant, takes his meetings on bike rides or canyon hikes.
“It just got to the point where it was time to meet with people again and go beyond the phone, beyond the Zoom call,” Welt says. “And being outside just seemed safer.”
Living in L.A., where it can be perpetually 72 degrees, helps. There are bike trails up and down the state, many car free and by the beach, and canyon trails that attract lovers of the outdoors year round.
Interviews with several people who have ditched the lunch for the 2020 version of the business golf outing say they don’t want to go back to the old way in post-COVID times. They feel healthier being outside and less distracted.
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Natalie Barrad, who runs a marketing company in Aliso Viejo, California, near Los Angeles, has been hiking, biking and even swimming with clients.
“The traditional ways we used to meet are no longer, so now we’ve become creative in the ways we get together with clients or peers,” she says. Barrad has scheduled swim workouts at a local pool, to “talk strategy” in between laps.
“The intensity of the workout isn’t the same, but you’re not checking your phone and you can stay on topic,” she says. And by putting in some laps in between the conversation, “it gives you an opportunity to digest what was just said, and come back with another thought.”
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As she noted, “No more coffee shops anymore.”
Starbucks, Peet’s Coffee, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, and other chains were the types of places business people gathered to meet up for years. But in COVID-19 times, they are either closed for inside seating or have limited outside seating. For people worried about being closer than 6 feet from one another, that could be a problem.
But on a bike, wearing a mask and cruising on the paved beach bike or open mountain trail, there are no such issues to worry about.
After years of business lunches, on the bike, “we’re getting exercise at the same time, our blood is flowing and the overall quality of the conversation is much higher,” Welt says.
He started biking after getting an invite from an associate, and had to scramble to play along. Since March, new bikes have been back-ordered and are harder to come by. The only model available to Welt was one missing the horizontal crossbars. He was happy to just have a bike.
Welt hasn’t picked up new business on the business rides, “but I’ve learned a lot. Way more than in an email or Zoom call. There’s just something about looking someone in the eye, and a conversation that has some way to breathe that is just more real.”
And Welt is enjoying the new normal so much that he drives to the beach to meet associates, and takes along a beach chair and umbrella to work with his iPad afterward.
“There’s just something about being out in nature,” he says. “It’s just good for the brain.”
It’s happening all over. In Nashville, Mimi Bliss, who teaches companies how to be Zoom savvy, has been meeting clients on walks as a way to get away from the video screen.
“You’re moving, you’re not sitting, and this an opportunity to connect to people,” she says. “We’re at a nice time of the year where the weather is nice (60 degrees) and it’s great to get out of the house and be outside.”
Her hope: “Let’s walk” replaces “let’s have lunch,” or meet for coffee post-COVID-19.
And beyond the hiking and cycling, in Beaverton, Oregon, Andrew Funderburg has come up with a novel way to meet his clients. Funderburg, the owner of the Fundy Design photography software studio, had seen clients from his booth at the many trade shows he attended yearly.
With trade shows canceled, he’s driving to them, in a self-converted cargo van stocked with coffee and beer. So far this year, he’s been to Boise, Idaho, and Salt Lake City, and is planning a trip later this year to Southern California.
“We sit outside and chat one on one,” he says of the van outdoor meetings, where he adds that he can go “deeper,” in conversation than on a busy trade show floor.
Meanwhile, back in Southern California, Barrad notes that in the corporate world, what she’s doing now on bike and hiking trails was always accomplished on the golf course.
“You would build a relationship in a very unique way that you couldn’t do over a business lunch,” she says. “This just seems more authentic, because you’re constantly moving.”
And Alex Kruglov, the founder of the pop.in social games website, who has accompanied Welt on beach bike rides, has transitioned to either bike-and-talk or walk-and-talk meetings, so much so that he now finds himself uncomfortable at a traditional coffee or conference room meeting.
“I get fidgety,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I’m so used to the motion-based meeting now.”
Follow USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham (@jeffersongraham) on Twitter.