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The Conference Phoenix

There is no mistaking it: the pre-COVID definition of “business conference” is dead. COVID set it on fire, and it burned right in front of us. Yes, conferences have gone to great lengths to “go digital”; these “virtual conferences” are an admirable attempt to keep these events alive. While we respect their commitment to the experience of each attendee, they are clearly just sifting through the ashes of their dead events. Thankfully, phoenixes always rise, and conferences will most certainly come back. But will what will they look like? And will they be worth it? We will answer these questions by analysing the top business conferences and their reactions to COVID.

The reason for conferences in the first place

Conferences have always been a great way to establish connections. But not all conferences were created equal. The number of heavy-hitters and decision-makers has always varied widely, and even if you were at the “right” conference with a critical mass of industry players, it took a certain kind of person to leverage the connections made. These events were where your top salespeople could prove their worth. Thus, for many of our clients, we recommended conferences as part of business development strategy. Of course, their importance varied by the industry, but they were, in general, a viable path.

As we know, “were” is the operative word. In 2019, CEO Magazine released a list of the World’s 20 Most Influential Global Business Conferences. These “cutting-edge business events” spanned the financial services, media, IT, telecommunications, business technology, and many more industries and took place in London, Las Vegas, Sydney, Hong Kong, and other world business capitals. According to our calculations, some 1,478,078 people attended these conferences in 2019. And this is only counting the in-person attendees, so we can only imagine how many businesspeople were affected by their cancellation. In 2020, every single one of these conferences that was scheduled to take place after March was cancelled, delayed, postponed, or moved online. No conference escaped COVID’s reach.

What will conferences look like after COVID?

To answer this question, let us first denote three distinct periods: pre-COVID, mid-COVID (now), and post-COVID (hopefully 2021). In an ideal world, post-COVID conferences will be the combination of the best aspects of pre-COVID and mid-COVID conferences. We all know how conferences worked before. There were variations, of course, but the general formula remained consistent:

Conferences = keynote speakers + booths + networking events

For most attendees, the main reason they sign up for a conference has to do with networking opportunities, which COVID attacked most directly. Faced with the serious dilemma of how to retain positive aspects of in-person conferences while going virtual, conferences have been forced to innovate. For example, Sibos, which takes place in London and caters to the financial services industry, updated their mobile application to allow participants to interact during sessions to enable online networking with other attendees. Normally, the “annual conference and exhibition connects more than 8,000 executives, decision-makers and thought leaders from across the industry”. Because those 8,000 people can no longer occupy the same physical space, the company is allowing all participants to see who else is attending and will “allow them to initiate new partnerships”. In addition to the annual conference, Sibos will be providing “ongoing monthly digital sessions” until 2021’s conference. While commendable, they are a clear downgrade when compared to the real thing.

Putting lipstick on a pig

The CES conference is perhaps the conference that stands to lose the most from COVID. CES stands for Consumer Electronics Show, which takes place in Las Vegas every year and brings an estimated 264 million USD into the local economy. It always generates quite a bit of buzz because CES is where companies debut their best new products that will have a sizable impact on the consumer electronics landscape. With over 182,000 attendees, it is no wonder that many companies time their new products so that they can debut at CES. The conference is exciting: countless showcases and exhibitions show how humankind is advancing with each year.

Since CES takes place in January, they were able to hold the event successfully in 2020, but they have already cancelled their 2021 physical event and have instead opted for an online-only one. To make their 2021 event worthwhile, they are offering a “highly personalised experience”, which essentially means that they are doing their best to focus on all the positive aspects of an online-only experience. For keynotes speeches, they are emphasising that now everybody will have a front-row seat. For product showcases, they highlight how it is easier to sort through the showcases and live demos based on business interests. For networking, they are offering live interactions, meetups, and roundtable discussions.

Looking to the future

According to CES, they plan on “combining the best elements of a physical and digital show”, a refrain I have heard from many conference planners. We can interpret this in two ways. The first is the optimistic one: they will take the best parts of the pre-COVID and mid-COVID conferences and produce an event that is superior in every way. The innovations made during COVID will serve to enhance the experience of the physical guests, so the professionalised digitised elements help them get even more out of the conference than they could before. For example, Sibos may keep the mobile interactions feature, making it easier for physical attendees to interact online during the conference.

The pessimistic interpretation is as follows: they will keep too many aspects of the online-only conferences, which will end up watering down the in-person conference. This will result in an inferior experience overall. For example, suppose these conferences maintain an online option that is too strong, or just too similar to their in-person experience. In that case, important decision-makers – people who can actually make deals – may end up staying home.

Prediction: Will they be worth it?

At this point, the answer to this question is impossible to know. But after reviewing the world’s largest conferences, I am optimistic about the rebirth of conferences for many reasons. Mainly, the companies running these conferences are savvy. We saw how quickly and proactively they moved to save themselves during a disastrous year. Yes, they had to “put lipstick on a pig” or try to “make lemonade out of lemons”, but they did an admirable job. Moreover, as with any market correction event, the wheat is separated from the chaff. Many of the weaker conferences will likely cease to exist, so there will be fewer players on the market in the early 2020s. If there are fewer conferences, then the concentration of decision-makers will be greater, resulting in a higher-quality conference from a networking perspective. Finally, people need to get out: they are sick of staying at home, and salespeople especially are champing at the bit to get back out there. For these reasons, I am confident that the conference phoenix will rise, even if it does not look quite the same as before.