The Future of Tech Conferences in the Wake of Coronavirus
In the wake of coronavirus — What will this mean for the future of tech conferences when the world goes back to normal?
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Mobile World Congress (MWC), Google IO, F8, KubeCon, and SXSW canceled and looking further forward, many small to medium-sized events are canceling, or considering their plans.
A couple of years ago, I added an idea to my blog posts board called "are there too many conferences," but I never got around to writing it, mostly because I was attending too many conferences. The recent outbreak of Coronavirus forced the cancellation of so many events, and it seemed a good time to dust of the topic and get around to writing it. I won't delve into whether the cancellations are justified, or over reactionary, but more on the effects on what happens after the virus (hopefully) slows, and we all get back to relative normality.
You may also like: Are You Wasting Your Money on Tech Conferences?
It's also worth noting that conference travel has a reasonable impact on the environment. If alternatives to in-person conferences become the norm, even after Corona subsides, the planet will not complain.
There are also opinions that with some events, organizers have had too much control over them for too long, and a swift shakeup of the industry may be a good thing. This is particularly relevant to an event such as MWC, where many mobile industry insiders feel that the GSMA has too much influence over product announcement schedules.
Let's start with why we organize and attend conferences in the first place.
To Make Money
Many conferences exist purely to make money for a parent organization or project, and that's fine. As conferences became more popular and profitable, this was probably the main reason we ended up with too many in some cities, with some events (old and new) closing, curtailing, or merging with others.
For more significant events, it's not just the organizers that make money from attendees. Events like MWC, CES, and SXSW bring millions to the local economy, and while this doesn't always make locals happy, their absence will make a significant negative impact.
It's not just organizers and cities that make money at events. For large deals, or for making lots of medium-sized deals, conferences are invaluable for making and confirming contracts and sales. Often even if a deal has progressed a long way before an event, it's an in-person meeting that seals the deal. Events such as MWC are full of private meeting rooms where I imagine people make some of the largest industry deals of the year. Everyone you need to speak to in one place is also an efficient way of making deals.
To Bring a Community Together
One of the biggest and most intangible reasons for events is to bring disparate community members together at social events and the "hallway track." Conversations had, connections made, problems solved, and face-to-face serendipity delivers in countless unmeasurable ways.
To Announce and Promote
At the more "trade fair" type of events, such as MWC, CES, and IFA exist to fill halls with booths, vendors and hands-on product announcements. These are still the main places that industry, media, and consumers discover new products and share them with the world.
Events such as Google IO and WWDC are a mixture of product announcements and bringing together a community.
While the quantity of conferences in the past years has diluted the quality (and uniqueness) of talks, they are still a great place to learn tips, tricks, and new tools and frameworks. Unless you are a jaded conference attendee like myself, your first experiences are also a wonderful eye-opening exposure to what other people do, and their journeys there.
A lot of the best parts of conferences come outside of the tracks. Lunchtime, coffee conversations, drinks, and social events are often what people enjoy most about attending conferences. I know for me, often traveling alone to events, these are my favorite parts, and I have made a lot of good friends from post-conference socials. Secondly, attendees often use conferences as an excuse to take a holiday before/after, and plan trips around them. Though if we are traveling less for work, we are also likely traveling less for pleasure.
A Virtual Alternative
We now have a lot of wonderful technologies that means we don't all have to be in the same room as each other to have a productive time. There is an increasing amount of remote-first companies, full of people used to collaborating, discussing and socializing with others who are not in the same place as them.
To Make Money
Making money from remote-first events is possibly the harder component, as people still tend to undervalue digital delivery over "in-person" service. It's unlikely that organizers could justify the same prices they charge for virtual events that they charge for "real world" events. However, the production cost for "virtual" events is also likely far lower, as there is little need for insurance, staff, or venue costs. Organizers also need to think about how to make their speakers and content "exclusive" and thus monetizable in the first place.
Technically speaking, replacing large in-person business deals with virtual meetings is possible, but our monkey brains still value face-to-face over remote meetings. In time (and perhaps due to necessity) this will change and has partly changed already.
Some conferences have offered live streams for a while, and often more people watch those (live or post-event) than physical attendees. Platforms such as Twitter and Slido enable viewers to ask questions and interact with speakers. Smaller events can run a decent live stream and interactive component on a small budget, and a few hiccups aside (we all know about conference WiFi), it will remain stable. Imagine what conferences with budgets the size of F8, IO or WWDC can manage (and already do).
I often feel that people think the "superstars" in their respective fields are untouchable or unapproachable. In reality, unless someone is under NDA (looking at you here Apple), most are happy to talk to you and answer your questions on social media, forums, email, or issue trackers. But much like in-person interactions, be respectful of their time, be polite, and give people time to respond.
We already have online learning platforms where people happily learn a wide variety of subjects from videos and online content. Maybe conference organizers in the future could partner with these platforms to deliver their content instead.
Announcements and demos are harder, but not impossible, especially with some emerging technologies. Unboxing and product review videos are huge on YouTube, and more often than not actually getting your hands on products at events is nigh impossible anyway. There are also large amounts of consumers in parts of the world that conferences rarely visit, and so they are well used to getting their "hands-on" experiences from videos and images.
Advances in VR and AR technology might provide better options for gaining an impression of physical products, and for software, when presenting the latest features has always involved someone presenting on a screen, well, that can easily happen remotely.
These alternatives go some way to replace the "community" aspect of conferences, or more accurately, spread community across more alternatives. In some ways, alternatives to large in-person events that not everyone can attend may make the community aspect of events more open. As many events are held in western or developed nations, cost and visas are a barrier to many global citizens.
Forcing more community discussions onto online platforms (which already exist and are widely used) could help bring more members together, and replace a lot of the "in-jokes" and "shared memories" from frequent event attendees that put off members who are unable to attend in-person.
What about replacing "fun"? Sure, not every attendee to tech conferences is that sociable in the first place, we are a collection of people on the introvert to extrovert scale. But many of us do understand the simple pleasure experienced by sharing a meal, a drink, or a table. These are wonderful moments for learning about people and making new friends and have been some of the best experiences of my life.
Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I don't find remote "hanging out" as enjoyable as in-person. Still, I am privileged in that I have always lived in big cities, and thus have plenty of opportunities to meet like-minded people in person.
I know plenty of people get enjoyment from remote gaming sessions, and maybe adding themed social events, or a common meal theme might be enough to get people to bond and have fun remotely. I am uncertain how these services will scale to represent and replace small groups of people in a large room. We already know that more than two people talking at once in an online chat are hard to hear, what about 3, 4, 5, 6+ people all speaking at once?
How can an online platform replace a group of 1,000 people in one "room" broken up into 250 groups of four people talking about similar topics, who's members might swap around into different groups of four. How does a shy person manage even to find someone to speak to in the first place? I would imagine that if the demand is there, people will build tools and best practices to support it, especially if environmental or health issues force us to.
One of the biggest issues for delivering content for a virtual event is maintaining a consistent quality of the content. While most people (and I mean speakers in this case) have reasonable internet access, not everyone does, and people have varied setups for audio and video, resulting in a poor quality experience for "attendees."
Perhaps a future role for bigger conference organizers is more as conference "producers," bringing speakers to a studio, or providing them access to a studio or better equipment for the duration of their presentation. A conference becomes more like a focussed and interactive TV show instead of thousands of people gathering in a large hall.
It could be a mix of in-person and virtual worlds. I have been to viewing parties for WWDC, F8 and GitHub universe here in Berlin. These have far less impact on health and the environment and give us the best of both worlds. We all get to enjoy the content from an event a long way away, but also meet like-minded individuals to discuss and share food and drink together.
The main organizers can also support official satellite events with a point of contact for questions and interactions with speakers, merchandise, and themes for food and drinks.
Necessity Creates Innovation
Maybe Coronavirus is a short term interruption to event schedules, and maybe it will make many of us question the value of all these large in-person events we spend so much time and money on. Maybe considerations for the environment will supersede health concerns after the virus outbreak dies down.
If either of these is the case, I think there are plenty of options to replace most aspects of conferences that people currently enjoy, but the bigger question will be, do we want to make use of them?
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