The Future of Conferences
If 2020 were the year of changes, COVID-19 would be their catalyst. People meetings and handshakes belong in the past, while digital tools emerge from nowhere daily. We are all witnessing a tremendous shift from traditional in-person events to digital ones. Dozens of conferences are being canceled, postponed or going digital in the light of the coronavirus pandemic. But how long will this last? Shall we talk about the end of traditional conferences? The conventions of the future are being challenged and reimagined.
The traditional conferences: Are we really done?
Unexpectedly enough, @OReillyMedia has made the very difficult decision to shutter their in-person events business. This might create a domino effect for other companies and conference organizers to do the same, which is why many employees feel at stake right now, as many of them will either lose their jobs or be reassigned to different tasks. But who can blame them? After coronavirus, how many of them will want to or be able to return to their old work, right away or at all? How much muscle memory will be lost as predictable planning processes suddenly go fractal across the calendar? The process of planning a schedule, assembling speakers, booking a space, reserving hotel rooms, marketing it to the world so people can convince their bosses to let them go — it all takes a long, long time. And almost none of that process can begin until planners know when it’ll be safe to gather thousands of people in a tight space.
The shift towards virtual events
The past few months have been full of live online sessions: webinars, virtual classrooms, online chats, digital conferences – all kinds of practical and theoretical knowledge has been delivered via our screens. In fact, there are even plenty online events offering members-only privileges with special prices to enroll. And the benefits are various: no travel costs; lower admission costs; reduction in environmental impact; and no venue/food/equipment costs for the hosts, who therefore have more budget on programming and speakers, resulting in a better experience for attendees. However, virtual events cannot replace physical tradeshows. While quality content can be delivered effectively in a virtual model, in-person conferences provide different content and an overall experience.
The digital networking challenge
The biggest challenge of virtual conferences is to find a way to substitute the physical with the online presence. Will participants be as likely to meet virtually? A virtual conference is a poor substitute for an in-person conference. It’s the difference between watching a YouTube video of a play and being onstage yourself. In addition, nobody can deny that our human nature imposes that we travel to attend a conference not only for the information, but also to socialize and be around other people. The hallway track -meaning the side conversations, networking, discussions, and serendipitous meetings that happen outside the formal program- cannot exist in online conferences. Although slack can provide a small essence of a virtual hallway track, nothing can transmit the feeling of valuable in-person conversation on our screens.
Holographic Conferences and Immersive Experiences
All this situation has created a huge opportunity for the industry of online conferences and graphics. There are estimations that business conferences generate more than a trillion dollars in direct spending annually, while Forbes also says this is part of a trillion-dollar 3D telepresence goldmine. Why will this technology become more of a reality moving forward? In this particular case, because major tech conferences, including Google I/O, Facebook’s F8 event, Mobile World Congress, SXSW, and Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) have been canceled. Not to mention the thousands of other conferences that aren’t going to be taking place.
Now it seems easier than ever to project yourself and your speech in front of virtual buttons and augmented reality presentations. Facebook Horizon is just an example of how easy and accessible it is to create a virtual reality experience. But, for a successful immersive experience, you need to put your audience at the center of the work and create a space that people can project themselves into. In order to get your message across, you have to indulge all five senses in the overall experience. If the audience is made the protagonist, they will see the most meaning and relevance for themselves. However, it will still be a one-way experience: you will be talking towards a camera – not a live audience. You could definitely let go of traditional narrative and experiment with emergent storytelling. But still, not a real one.
So, what does the future hold for conferences?
The Hybrid Experience
There is no doubt that conference organizers and attendees will put safety first. In-person conferences with thousands of people from all over the world seem to be a distant memory, whereas new technologies provide an easy -and sometimes impressive- solution. The Internet is a perfect place to convey certain kinds of information, but it still has to do with humans.
Local events might be a solution. It seems that in-person events will never come to an end as the human factor is indispensable for knowledge exchange. Local meetups will persevere, and smaller conferences will fill part of the void, as will online conferences. It seems that we are already making steps towards finding the golden solution to fit our audience’s needs. But, to this end we are also making a few mistakes. We have been trying to bring the whole in-person experience to our screens – whereas, we all know that this is impossible. Neither the talking, nor the smell or the noise and whole experience is possible to be felt digitally. What we need to focus on is try to organize our local meetups and transfer them digitally to some participants. This is the hybrid model that we need for the future of conferences, in order to combine the online with the offline experience in the best possible way.
If you want to know more and exchange views on the subject, follow Dimitris Dimitriadis, Digital Futurist and CIO TheFutureCats.