Will the Conference Return?

by Dave Michels

The coronavirus will change the way we work. I’ve said this on a few different channels , and it seems to be a popular conclusion. WFH was already growing in popularity for lots of reasons. The virus just accelerated things, and now (employees and employers) are realizing it actually works. It forced companies that had no interest in teleworking to rapidly embrace the concept.

There are several reasons why WFH is here to stay, but what about conferences? There’s been a few virtual events – are they also here to stay? No.

First, there haven’t been that many virtual conferences.

WFH often works because the exact same tools and processes can be used remotely. There’s obviously some differences, but those fall into the pros and cons, and for most of us  the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

Conferences are harder to mimic. In my annual reports, I list the events I attend each year (24 in 2019). One could say that I am a professional attendee, so hear me out. Conferences are a unique beast.

There’s certainly an educational aspect to a conference. And, learning can be done in an online distributed format such as distance learning, eLearning and webinars. If it was just about getting through some educational sessions, conferences could become virtual. Online sessions, such as webinars will undoubtedly increase – but thy won’t replace the need for conferences.

Conferences are all about immersion. I do not attend a conference for an hour or even for a work day. Most of the events I attend are about three full days of immersive content. That includes meals, social functions, casual conversations, and of course sessions. I often get more information out of a meal than a session, and I learn more from walking around an expo hall than I do from looking at a list of sponsors. It’s not practical to mimic 12 hour days online.

Conferences do have an element of fun, but they are also hard work. My day starts early and ends late. I’ve recently done a few happy hour virtual events, but it’s not the same thing. It’s reasonable to share a meal at an event, but awkward to eat on a video call.

There will be a day when we can recreate a conference without travel, but it’s not in 2020.

But there’s a problem. It seems increasingly unlikely that we will have any physical conferences in 2020. Enterprise Connect and UCExpo are still aiming for the fall, but as of today the virus is still spreading and there’s no indication that travel will return this year. That’s going to make things tricky for someone like me who depends on conferences as fuel for insights. I do expect the year to be filled with virtual events as the next best option. But I fully expect the physical events to return whenever the all clear bell rings.