Is it time for Conference 2.0?

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Today I saw a news headline that Google decided to cancel the “physical part” of the Cloud Next conference, making it now an “online-only” event. This is a fascinating development because for most technology companies, abandoning the “big event” seems to be sacrilegious. In addition, it seems like the number of business and professional conferences canceled in the last few weeks here in the US (and across the globe, including the largest industry conferences in Germany where our HQ sits) is far exceeding the actual coronavirus infection rate. The issue with the industry conferences is that many do not have the resources or infrastructure available to host digital versions of their events.

It made me reflect on the situation in a little more thoughtful manner. Personally, in the next few months, two of the conferences that I was scheduled to participate in were either delayed or were canceled outright. Eventually, this will start to have an economic impact as people are concerned about the potential of a lengthy quarantine period associated with (COVID-19) the coronavirus.

Perhaps it’s time to re-imagine the conference. Maybe it’s time for “Conference 2.0”. Any time you have a major disruption there is an opportunity to make things better. At jovoto, we’ve worked on several projects which were run in conjunction with either a physical event or a conference, and it makes me think this is an area in which we can collectively push the envelope a little harder.

Yes, stopping conferences would have a devastating economic impact. Cities like San Francisco, Las Vegas, and New York are built around conferences and receive millions of visitors thanks to the events held in these cities. These visitors bring important tax revenue (hotel tax, rental car taxes, etc) which helps city budgets, and the business travelers with their entertainment budgets keep the restaurants and bars full. For many businesses, conferences are the monetization engine that they have built their business model around.

Can we really eliminate conferences? I don’t think so. Absolutely nothing can replace a face-to-face connection. Humans are wired to work this way. That said, something has changed, and perhaps now is the time to reconsider exactly how conferences work, and with the new technological tools of collaboration that we have, maybe we should acknowledge that we haven’t been doing it the right way.

Conferences are not perfect and we all know it. There is often a stigma associated with the “necessity” of the event. The bean counters will challenge the business people “will this conference investment really result in lasting business professional relationships that help make you more effective in meeting your goals?”. These are fair criticisms. I’ve been to many conferences which, at best, were large scale parties, with little opportunity to really engage and make new connections. However, I’ve also been to conferences in which there were a few key events or personal meetings that created real opportunities and insights that impacted the future.

Maybe the future for conferences looks a little different. Perhaps the future is a blend of both the physical and the virtual. Maybe we can push for events that start virtually, leveraging the experts, presenters, and attendees to focus on key problems or solutions that will be further developed or discussed in the conference itself. In this manner, a conference can slowly build up to a crescendo with the actual physical event focusing more on achieving the overall mission of the conference organizers and attendees. People will have already started to meet or engage online, and the conference can be even more effective.

My sense is that this is where we are going. At jovoto, we have a series of successful initiatives that worked in this manner. Our Future of Food and Future of Work initiatives kicked off digitally, and then eventually led to in-person gatherings which allowed all the participants to engage both offline and online.

In addition, we have hosted a number of successful projects which have wrapped up with a physical conference. One of the most successful was done in conjunction with the Digital Arabia Network. For this program, we used a co-creation event across multiple Middle East countries which challenged our creative community to come up with solutions and ideas which would benefit the region. This part of the mass collaborative event took place entirely online. Upon completion the ideas and concepts that held the most promise did get presented at a series of physical events, allowing attendees to engage with the creators and stage the ideas that had the highest potential. The Digital Arabia Network initiative created impactful engagement at a fraction of the resources normally needed to carry out a lengthy conference.

This isn’t to mention that with an online kickoff, Digital Arabia Network gained a significantly larger reach than if they had run the entire ideation and actual networking offline. And it goes without saying that it was better for the environment (cutting the need for travel for hundreds of participants).

Maybe this is the path forward for a new “Conference 2.0”. Some events do exist for the party, i.e. Dreamforce, but if you attend conferences that aim to generate real impact, create meaningful engagement, and bring you closer to experts who are tackling your industry’s unsolved problems maybe Conference 2.0 makes more sense.

If you find this intriguing and want to talk more about Conference 2.0, let me know! I’d love to connect.

Shoot me a message at tbroderick (at) jovoto (dot) com. ?

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