For decades, the Detroit Economic Club had a built-in potential audience with tens of thousands of people working in downtown Detroit.
Many, including non-members, could plan to walk a few blocks to a downtown venue to attend a lunch hour event to network with others and hear top CEOs, politicians and thought leaders.
Then, the pandemic hit in 2020.
Even two years later, Steve Grigorian, who has been the club’s president and CEO since 2017, is pondering how the DEC will need to adjust to reflect what’s likely to be a long lasting change in how and where thousands of people work.
Consider these telling numbers that Grigorian shared with me from the Downtown Detroit Partnership. Before the pandemic, about 75,000 people a day were working in downtown Detroit.
The number tumbled to around 10,000 in 2020 after the start of the pandemic that March when many offices shut down operations and survived on a quickly thrown together work-from-home model.
Roughly a year later, vaccines for COVID-19 became readily available in Michigan and more workers trickled into their downtown offices and workplaces. But even then, the number only went up slightly to around 22,000 workers in the downtown area — less than one-third of the workers before the pandemic.
Trickling back to work
In early May, we were still looking at around 26,000 people coming into office downtown, he said, including some who are not there every day of the week. The number will be increasing, he said, as Dan Gilbert’s Rocket Companies and others begin more efforts to return to work in the office on flexible schedules.
“Detroit’s not alone on this. Every big city, most big cities, probably have very similar numbers where they’re slowly rebounding and bringing people back into the office,” Grigorian said.
“Everybody is experiencing the same dynamics.”
Event organizers all feel the same pressure, he said, and many are trending around 50% today of the attendance they used to draw before the pandemic.
“We’re probably 50% to 60% of what we would draw pre-pandemic,” said Grigorian, who joined the DEC as the chief operating officer in 2004.
The ongoing shift to remote work — which is slowly morphing into part-time telecommuting — drastically limits the scope of that potential audience as fewer people drive downtown to work.
Many people now, Grigorian said, are avoiding long commutes and doing their jobs from home miles away in Ann Arbor, Clinton Township, Rochester, Clarkston, Bloomfield Hiils and Woodhaven.
“Now it’s a pretty significant effort for them to say ‘What? You mean I need to change out of my T-shirt and shorts and jump in the shower and drive downtown? And then reverse that? That’s a three or four hour chunk out of my day. And I’ve got standing Zooms now.’ ”
Many times, people who are working from home think twice about rearranging their day to head to Detroit to a DEC event in the middle of the day at Huntington Place, the MotorCity Casino Hotel or the Westin Book Cadillac hotel.
What worked before might not work now
The Detroit Economic Club has been part of the city’s landscape since 1934. Its historic roster of speakers includes Hollywood icon Cecile B. DeMille, spiritual leader Billy Graham, computer software titan Bill Gates, and many U.S. Presidents.
Some spoke before they became president.
Republican Presidential Candidate Donald J. Trump even reached out to the DEC to speak during his campaign in August 2016 and highlighted his proposed changes in taxes.
The DEC has often been able to say that it is “proud to have hosted every U.S. president since Richard Nixon.” But President Joe Biden, elected in 2020, in spite of a long political career has never spoken before the group.
Grigorian, who often goes downtown to his office to work these days, says the new remote work culture makes it harder for him to predict how big an audience a speaker might draw.
Some key events — such as the annual lunch with the Detroit Tigers May 11 — can now attract more than 500 members.
Another draw is expected May 23 at the Motor City Casino Hotel when the featured guests will be Tom Izzo, the head basketball coach for Michigan State University; Mel Tucker, MSU’s head football coach, and Alan Haller, MSU’s athletic director.
But other in-person events might draw 200 members — events that easily could have attracted 350 to 400 people before the pandemic.
Before this spring, some employees couldn’t attend major functions under pandemic-related restrictions set by their companies. The companies might have allowed a private meeting with a client, Grigorian said, but did not want their employees in large crowds.
As of April 1, he said many companies said it’s OK for employees to start attending events.
But again, what will make people take an extended break whether they’re working out of the downtown office or the home office?
New work habits built around work from home, Grigorian said, have been formed over the past two years and some will likely remain in place.
“I’m not saying it’s a good habit or a bad habit,” he said. “It’s a habit.”
Brewing new ideas
The remote work trend, he said, isn’t going away and the dynamic of how the DEC schedules events and offers networking opportunities will need to change, too.
“We’ve got to innovate like every other business has had to innovate when the pandemic rocked everybody’s world,” said Grigorian told me as we met for coffee.
One new type of event: A late afternoon program that features Brendan Whitworth, CEO of Anheuser-Busch, addressing “How Innovation Brews Business Transformation.”
The event is designed to be different, purposely scheduled for late afternoon with networking starting at 3:30 p.m. June 8 at the Atrium at Ford Field.
After the fireside chat, the DEC will host a summer beverage tasting of Anheuser-Busch products, including new products that will be introduced to DEC members.
The CEO has agreed to mix and mingle. CEO Whitworth isn’t a suit and tie guy, Grigorian said, and will be in a golf shirt and tennis shoes. Casual attire is encouraged.
“I’ve taken out one of the variables; you don’t have to get dressed up,” Grigorian said.
And people might be more willing to drive downtown in the early summer for a late afternoon event on a Wednesday — or even work that day downtown — to network and mix and mingle with a CEO.
The ticket price is the same as other events $45 for members and $75 for non-members.
Membership is $150 a year for regular membership; $500 a year for “Gold Members” who have greater access at events.
The group launched a Young Leader membership in 2011 for those under the age of 40 that has a $75 annual fee. Before the Young Leader membership, Grigorian said, the group had about 5% of its membership in the 21- to 39-year-old category. Today, it’s up to 33%.
The DEC has about 3,000 members.
In addition, Grigorian said the DEC is going to survey its members to see what day is better for events. Monday, once popular for DEC events, might be less popular among those who are choosing when to work from home and when to work downtown, he said.
During 2021, many DEC events were held via Zoom, including a conversation with Swamy Kotagiri, the CEO of Troy-based Magna International, who called COVID-19 a black swan event and indicated no one could have been prepared for it.
Zoom was beneficial to the DEC, Grigorian said, because it enabled members to see speakers virtually during the pandemic. Speakers were lined up to be in person in late spring 2020 but the DEC flipped the format to go virtual.
The DEC did more than 65 total events in 2021 — all virtual — to provide value to members, he said. A more typical year involves 35 to 40 events.
A key feature of the DEC, though, is the networking component for those in business development and that is nearly impossible to provide virtually.
Dan Schulman, president and CEO of PayPal — who spoke to the DEC via Zoom in May 2021 — admitted that he too was getting restless after working from home for months on end.
“It’s a bit like ‘Groundhog Day’ every single day for me,” Schulman said then.
A year later, a growing feeling is building that some workers feel “Zoom Gloom.”
While we’re not seeing widespread “Zoom fatigue,” about one in four workers say they are worn out by using online platforms to connect with others, according to a January 2022 Pew Research Center survey.
Workers under 50 whose job can be done from home and who use videoconferencing platforms often are more likely than their older counterparts to feel worn out by the amount of time they spend on video calls. The survey indicated that 29% of younger workers felt worn out by using the technology, compared with 18% of those age 50 and older.
Grigorian maintains that people want to get out and connect with others.
“You can call it whatever you want Zoom Doom, Zoom Gloom, Zoom fatigue,” Grigorian said.
This year, the DEC has offered a mix of virtual events and in-person events. Grigorian has seen people who are happy to see one another again.
Going forward, one objective will be to provide more social opportunities to network, which is what people seem to be missing.
Like many business leaders, Grigorian still sees value — even if some adjustments need to be made — in human interaction.
“At the end of the day, I firmly believe business is done face to face. It’s not done virtual,” he said.