in person  conference with a crowded audience watching a speaker on the stage
PHOTO: Samuel Pereira

We've all seen the headlines: The world is changing. Everyone is getting used to the “new normal.” The future is virtual.

As a conference organizer I’m having these conversations almost daily. I’ve had to move my in-person conference dates from April 2 to Sept. 28 due to the pandemic. I put together a virtual conference on April 2 for attendees to give them some value while they wait for the September date. Several conferences I was going to speak at were also cancelled. Others have gone virtual. Microsoft is going 100% virtual for its conferences through July 2021.

So, should we all prepare for the end of face-to-face events?

The Value of Face-to-Face Events

Absolutely not. I’m here to tell you that no matter what happens in the next couple of years, virtual conferences are not a replacement for in-person events.

Think about it this way: Microsoft Ignite, Microsoft’s biggest event of the year brings in 30,000 people a year on average with a registration cost of a couple of thousand dollars. Locations have varied from Chicago to Atlanta to Orlando. The conference sells out every year … and guess what? Most of the content is available online for free after the event! Why on earth are people paying thousands of dollars and taking time off of work for an event where the sessions are available for free to watch at any time? Because of the value of face-to-face events.

Please understand, I’m not saying virtual events are unimportant. I’m not saying they don’t provide a valuable service. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be organized or that you shouldn’t attend. Truth be told, I’m positive I’ll be organizing more of them. What I am saying is a virtual event is no replacement for a face-to-face event and there are many reasons why a face-to-face event can be better than a virtual event.

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Face-to-Face Events Are a Full Experience

People clamor to go to face-to-face events. A few days off work? Travel? Vendor parties? New places to eat? An in-person event is an experience. You get away from the 9-to-5. Your boss knows you are away and people don’t generally expect you to respond to messages right away. You learn new information, build skills and it’s an escape.

With a virtual event you sit at that exact same place as you do for your job: the same desk, the same day-to-day, the same distractions — only now you have to also manage to pay attention to the voice on your screen and hope your network doesn’t kick you off.

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In-Person Events Make it Easier to Focus and Dedicate Time

When you attend an in-person event, you are sitting in a session room, not at a desk. You don’t have people stopping by your desk asking random questions. Or if you are at home, you don’t have that load of laundry that needs to be swapped, or maybe lunch to go fix, or Facebook to check, or that email from your boss to read, or oh look, squirrel! 

Sitting in that session room helps ensure you are paying attention to the material being presented. Have you ever created an out-of-office email notification for a virtual event? Think about it.

What’s more, depending on the conference you can raise your hand and ask a question. In a virtual event you may not have a Q&A option or your question may never be addressed, leading to frustration and increasing the likelihood a distraction will lure you away. It is so much easier to stay focused on the content when you are actually there, sitting in a session room with other people trying to pay attention and learn.

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Sessions Aren't the Most Important Part of a Conference

Let's return to the Ignite example: a 30,000 person conference sells out every year when the sessions are available for free after the event. Why is that? In addition to getting away from work for a few days and having a better chance of focussing, there simply is no better way to network and connect with other people than at an in-person event. Go ahead, ask someone who’s been to Ignite why they go and almost universally the response will be “the networking.” Where else can you meet face-to-face with the folks who created the functionality you use every day, talk to a vendor who has a solution for a problem that’s been plaguing your organization, or share a beverage with someone who you can commiserate with?

In fact, the only reason I’m a partner and owner at PAIT Group is because I met my business partner at a conference. We would have never met otherwise. The connections you make at a conference with other attendees and professionals are just not possible at a virtual event. I’ve made friends all over the world because I attended a conference. I’ve built business relationships. I’ve had experiences. You don’t get the same experiences at a virtual event.

If all you want is content, why not just spend days on YouTube or Pluralsight? It’s about more.

What’s the Answer if Things Don’t Go Back to the Way They Were?

There’s a lot of fear right now. People aren't eager to get back on a plane and fly and employers aren't thrilled with the thought of employees traveling great distances. Even after the danger has passed, it could take a while before some people are comfortable being around large crowds. Do you blame them?

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought as a conference organizer. The obvious answer is your best bet is to attend smaller, locally-organized events you can drive to. Most of the attendees to my conference in Branson, Missouri drove from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, even Texas. Simply being able to drive somewhere and attend a conference of a few hundred people as opposed to thousands will do a lot to alleviate anxiety while still getting the benefits of an in-person event.

What about the huge conferences? The 30,000 people Ignites and such? Organizing a large conference carries a lot of financial risk. Will these events ever be able to go back to “normal”? I think so? I hope so. But even if they don’t, maybe the answer is to follow the smaller, local conference approach. What if Microsoft (or conference “X”) created a set of smaller satellite conferences around the country and streamed the sessions to the local conference centers? Think of it: instead of 30,000 people traveling to New Orleans and hotels selling out and walking 30 minutes to get to a session and waiting for shuttle buses — you could drive to the nearest satellite city, attend sessions in conference rooms where some have the speakers present and others have the sessions streamed from one of the other locations. You still get to network with attendees, speakers and vendors. Also, the other attendees would be from a similar geographic region to each other and that may actually make networking more valuable as it increases your chances of talking to someone you can relate to. It wouldn’t be that much more complicated to organize and could potentially save the organizer money. I like this approach the more I think about it.

Maybe the Right Answer Is a Combination of Both?

Don’t get me wrong. Virtual conferences offer a lot of benefits, especially for those people who simply can’t attend an in-person event. Maybe they have health issues, family issues, can’t travel or maybe they hate being around other people. Everyone needs access to the content and what’s really great about what we are seeing now is that this new normal helps build out that experience so when things DO go back to normal, everyone can still be involved. I think we will see more in-person events offer streaming as an option for people who can’t or won’t make the journey. If we do this right, we can create a safer more all-inclusive experience for everyone. Future business partnerships can be made, drinks can be shared, and everyone can learn and grow.