Will Virtual Conferences Replace Real Ones?

I often look ahead to the year 2020 for industries ranging from finance and media to transportation, energy and more. But last month it was an enterprise closer to my heart: the Professional Conference Management Association educational meeting in San Antonio, where I talked about “Imagining the Convention of 2020.”

Will virtual conferences and events supplant their real-world predecessors? The short answer is, of course, no. Consider last summer’s five year college reunions for the class of 2006—the first class to graduate with Facebook in full flower. Ever since 2006, alumni organizers have worried about this class: these graduates have been talking to each other regularly on social networks ever since they graduated. Would they still want to meet in person as well? The answer was yes: five year reunions for the class of 2006 were well-attended. Hugs and beers, in short, are still not effectively shared online.

Rogers real, not Virtual However: virtual events will become a far larger part of the conference industry in the late Teens and Twenties. The shift will be driven by much better (and cheaper) video displays and ubiquitous high-bandwidth connectivity. Add to that a new generation of virtually-adept attendees—and the increasing cost, both economic and environmental, of conference travel. And crucially, conference sponsors—the folks who buy the booth space and sponsor those lunches and coffee breaks—will also start to move more of their marketing budgets into the virtual world. Thus the conference industry needs to think hard today about how to make money on virtual events.

Too many conference planners remind me of newspaper publishers a decade ago, for whom online was a sideshow that didn’t get the intense focus it deserved. Now, as print revenues plunge, newspaper publishers have far less time and money left to reinvent their businesses. The printed newspaper may still be the centerpiece, but the audience is spending far more time online. Ironically, traditional publishers are increasingly turning to real-world events to bolster their bottom lines. Event organizers need to do this in reverse: begin to think of events as content, and figure out how to “publish” them to larger audiences.

The first problem is that virtual conferences are today a Babel of various interfaces and technical standards. That’s not how it is in the physical world, where every conference venue is fundamentally familiar—whether in Hong Kong or New Orleans, attendees immediately recognize registration booths, hallways, meeting rooms, the convention floor. And at every convention center the exhibitors’ trucks deliver standardized booths onto the loading docks, which then set up, in a standard way, on the show floor. But virtual conferences vary wildly in look, navigation and function, confusing to attendees and frustrating for exhibitors who have no interest in building a different digital “booth” for every show that comes along.

More of my thoughts are in this interview in PCMA’s magazine, Convene. But it’s worth noting that for me the best part of the PCMA speech was after I was finished: the people I met the rest of that day in San Antonio. That’s an experience we can’t yet entirely duplicate in the virtual world—but we will grow much better at it in the years ahead. The conference organizers who get it right will literally reinvent the meaning of event.