Exploring the pros and cons of the brave new world of online conferences and conventions
This feature first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Most of us can agree that 2020 was, in many respects, a train wreck. The ripples caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have shaken up the tech industry both for good and for ill. One of the industry sectors that has been affected most directly is the annual slate of information technology (IT) conferences, conventions, trade shows, and other gatherings of all shapes and sizes.
Looking back at 2020, when every such event from Microsoft Ignite to AWS re:Invent to (ISC)² Security Congress “went virtual,” what did we learn? In what ways are online conferences and conventions preferable to live gatherings, and how might organizations incorporate some of those benefits into future planning? In what ways are they less desirable, and how might frustrations uncovered in 2020 change things in the future?
Let’s start with what we’ve learned about travel. Almost everyone has always traveled to these conferences — despite the innovation, in recent years, of online components at some of them — and most people would probably put down “travel” on the positive side of the equation. That is, not having to travel in order to attend your favorite conference is a big perk.
Certainly having the freedom to ditch travel plans is a positive in terms of saving money and time, as well as avoiding a varying degree of stress and irritation. For some, of course, this could be viewed as a negative. Business travel, including to conferences and conventions, benefits airlines and hotels. It keeps travel venues afloat and, beyond the economic impact, I believe that travel is good for conferencegoers.
It keeps your mind occupied. IT pros traveling to attend a conference can catch up on sleep, work, or networking while seated on a plane. To my mind, opening up the possibility of eliminating travel from future conferencegoing altogether is a more of a negative, but I grant that many (if not most) IT road warriors are probably thrilled at this tantalizing prospect.
Virtual conferences create the possibility of attending any conference anywhere, including to people who might not have ever considered attending an IT event before. That’s a large positive, in my opinion. The past year showed us that any person can simultaneously attend a “Las Vegas” event and a “New York” event.
Lots of us are familiar with the problem of conflicting schedules and other limiting factors barring our path to participating in industry events. When everything is virtual, on the other hand, a busy IT professionals can attend whichever panels, presentations, or discussions he or she finds most intriguing, rather than factoring in travel, planning, and registration just to pick up a couple of key sessions. With many conferences recording and saving live sessions, you can even attend after the fact.
A virtual conference can be arranged and hosted for a fraction of the cost of a traditional business shindig. Instead of choosing which of your people would be most valuable to have in attendance, for example, you can just have the entire sales team present.
Virtual conferences entirely or essentially eliminate the following costs associated with a physical event: physical gathering spaces, venue insurance, venue rental fees, printing marketing materials, serving (or purchasing) food and beverages, and other unexpected expenses.
Companies still have to spend some money. A virtual conference entails the cost of the platform, internet connection, speakers, and sometimes an entry fee. This, compared to a traditional event, is still an enormously lower amount being spent by those involved.
There are also huge cost savings for those attending virtual events (as opposed to hosting them). From a travel perspective alone, if you have a group of 12 people and you can essentially eliminate their trade show and travel budget for an entire year, then you might add as much as a million dollars on your bottom line.
I think at least deep into 2021, and possibly for all of 2022 — and beyond — many organizations will ask, “Why are we going to this conference, since we didn’t last year and we are fine?” Some organizations may never again see the budgets for conferences or travel that they once did.
Here an area where virtual events can truly shine: conventions and conferences can look a lot better. When everything is online, you can add interactive graphics, web content, and more to your live presentation, to say nothing of designer cutaways and all sorts of virtual effects.
The only negative aspect here is that it can be harder for an audience to latch on to the “vibe” of the speaker and understand their body language. Talking heads will seem recorded, even when they aren’t (and are likely to be less immediately compelling when they are). I think many organizations will learn from this and dynamic, engaging speakers will rise to the forefront.
Of note, it’s much easier for individuals with disabilities to participate in a virtual conference. For example, closed captioning for the deaf is much easier to enable and present for a virtual event — which leads into my next point.
Inclusivity is a big word nowadays, and the negative impact of non-inclusive behavior is real. Getting surgery and then sitting in on an important meeting from your recovery bed is an amazing treat — trust me.
Honestly, I think opening up the potential for as many people as possible to be included in any event, as well as providing tools to enhance that opportunity to those who need them, is one of the best things that has come out of COVID-driven shift to virtual events. A virtual conference can both reach and host infinitely more people than a traditional conference.
The potential outreach is limited only by marketing effectiveness and platform capabilities. The more money you sink in, the better off you are. While any physical venue has built-in limitations, a virtual conference can host astonishing amounts of global participants. I hope that every company evaluates how they include people with special needs or mobility issues in the future.
Lack of interaction and general isolation are terrible side effects of the COVID conference shutdown. You cannot hang out with people after a speech. I attended a conference recently and it had timed slots — just as you started to talk to everyone and get on a roll with the conversation, you’d get whisked to another room, or booted off of the platform.
I don’t have any suggestions as to how to combat this but I think the mingling and side conversations, the “lobby,” if you will, will need to be beefed up at these events. The social interaction of a video conference is a poor substitute for direct human contact. It’s one of the main disadvantages of the virtual world.
Until we invent more immersive videoconferencing — perhaps via virtual reality — this drawback will continue to persist. Not being able to establish a full human connection may also prove problematic for the high-stakes meeting that sometimes crop up at industry events (or are directly planned to be held there), where negotiations often depends on establishing an interpersonal connection.
Business owners should keep this shortcoming in mind when they contemplate attending a virtual conference to connect with potential clients or partners. Again, event hosts must figure out the “lobby” scenario and provide better interaction.
Mixed: Product marketing
What about the sheer marketing aspect of a virtual IT gathering? Sharing information about your company is easier and more effective through a virtual meeting as potential clients are just one click away from your products and services. You can directly target them easier.
Moreover, an old-school live event drastically reduces potential leads due to its physical constraints. Potential buyers have limited time and energy to walk around and investigate all the booths and companies. An online event sends the message more clearly, directly, and effectively.
Advertising is also less costly. You’ll only have to invest a one-time cost in the development of a digital platform. The old-school way of marketing calls for the production of hundreds of brochures and swag items, substantially increasing the cost of attending event.
On the other hand, you can’t have someone walk around and stop at “your” spot. There’s no standing out from competitors with a flashy display, and you’re less likely to capture people “roaming the floor” without a clear sense of what they’re looking for. The “lobby,” “stop and stare,” and “window shopping” effects are all largely off the table with a virtual event.
Where are we headed?
Weighing all of these frustrations and negatives creates a clearer picture of what provides real value and what doesn’t. There may be no going back, at least not 100 percent, to the old way of doing things. I think conferences, conventions, and trade shows will become increasingly virtual and increasingly tailored to online attendees, even if an in-person component survives.
I think the sign-up process and cost of production, in particular, will change more or less permanently. There’s no need to have months-long registration windows when a person could decide to “attend” at the last minute without needing to resolve any personal complications (such as travel reservations) and without creating “limited space” problems for event organizers.
To the extent that in-person events continue, it is likely to be because people crave a break in their routines, as well a level of personal interaction, that virtual gatherings are ill-equipped to provide. Humans are social animals and, for many of us, a virtual conference simply can’t compete with the vacation-like vibe of a glorious in-person event in some big metropolitan city.
As with anything, time will tell whether the virtual format predominates, or whether people go back to the large, scaled-up trade shows of the very recent past. With vaccines available and a newfound understanding of true extent of possibilities for a virtual event, I think we’ll learn a lot in 2021. Whenever you go or whatever you do this summer and fall, I wish you a safe and healthy journey.