How to host a virtual conference
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When was the last time you met someone at a conference? In any other time, the phrase "I met someone at a conference" would seem entirely unremarkable. In COVID times however, this is (perhaps) newsworthy.
To be clear, I've attended a number of virtual conferences over the past 12 months: AWS re:Invent, INBOUND, CES — just to name a few. At each of these conferences, I've learned plenty. I've been able to check out the virtual vendor "showroom floor," and it's been totally lonely. Unlike in-person events of the past, meeting people has been almost impossible. Content is often pre-recorded, and even the speakers themselves are often not in attendance.
That's why I was pleasantly surprised with the format of the Hollywood Professional Association (HPA) Tech Retreat, which actually allowed me to connect with my peers and fellow attendees.
Conferences in 2021
While I hope that we will be getting back to travel and gatherings at some point in the near future, it's highly unlikely that it's happening this year. Bloomberg has put the resumption of long haul travel way out in 2023, and without travel, there will be no major conferences. For large-scale, in-person events like the Oscars and Coachella, plans are being made for 2022, but like many things, they could be pushed back again.
Until in-person conferences return, I think it's likely that we will continue to see further innovation in the networking opportunities that are digital-only. The HPA Tech Retreat opened the door to social connection in several ways:
- Content related Q&A
- Content related chat
- Online indicators
- Networking lounge
All of these are shallow replacements for the face-to-face engagement which conferences previously facilitated. But at the HPA Tech Retreat, I can actually say, "I met people at a conference in 2021."
The future of conferences
Prior to 2020, the big move in conferences was towards digital and interaction. The big conferences had apps which were designed to help navigate the venue, set your calendar, buy food, etc. Now, the challenge is making conferences feel like events at all. Keeping people engaged and paying for things is not easy. In 2020, many conferences dropped their price or eliminated them altogether — AWS re:Invent 2020 was free. INBOUND took the step of mailing out a box of goodies to make the experience feel more special.
I do think it's likely that conferences will return. The first reason is that virtual conferences just feel less relevant. What's the point of tuning into a video stream if the same information is going to be available in a week anyway? The second is that many conference and other event-based business models simply break when they are virtual. We are still figuring out what the value of participation as speakers, sponsors, and attendees means in the digital world.
In the future when big in-person events do come back, it could be that we see the integration of contact tracing or contactless information exchange (think virtual business cards, QR codes, etc.) into event mobile apps. Venues will likely be more spread out, temperatures will be checked, etc. but I, for one, am looking forward to seeing you again in-person.
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