Conferences Need to Adapt to the New Normal

Conferences Need to Adapt to the New NormalOver the past couple of months, we have seen some in-person conferences begin to resume. The biggest in our industry, InfoComm, is coming up in just a few weeks. AVIXA has been very clear that unless it is told by authorities to cancel the show, the show will go on in person. Yet, there are many people in our industry who will not be able or willing to travel. Without getting into the specifics of that, this dilemma did get me thinking about how quickly everyone seems to get back to the old ways of doing things.

Conference planners are talking about in-person conferences, and several of them are ruling out any remote or hybrid involvement. Likewise, even after 20+ months of this pandemic, we see so many webinars that are still being run the boring way, with one (or several) speakers standing in front of a camera speaking. It does not have to be that way! I encourage conference organizers to be much more creative in developing conferences that not only permit remote participants but encourage them and give them an amazing experience.

The pandemic changed the world, and successful conferences will change with them. We need creative individuals to carefully consider why conferences or trade shows happen in the first place. What is the value to the organization, the attendees and the exhibitors? The value to the organization should be that they help their members learn, network and get introduced to new products while also making some money off the conference. For the attendees, the value needs to be both education and networking. For the exhibitors, they need to gain new leads and show off their products. These things don’t have to happen in the silo of a once-a-year gathering of 40,000 people.

Before the pandemic, there was a common belief that all these conferences had to be in person and that, at most, recording some keynote talks and publishing them would be the way to reach people who could not attend. I believe that, as the AV industry’s premier organization, AVIXA needs to garner all the creativity and technology that its members have — and capitalize on it. Are some of these suggestions silly? Maybe, but I think a technology trade show ought to be willing to go a little cutting edge. What are some of those crazy ideas, you ask? Well, how about using some of Almo’s HoloPod technology? What about Amazon’s Astro? What about VGo’s Telepresence robot? If a technology show is not a place to try these out, then I don’t know what is.

A couple more down-to-earth suggestions are to closely partner with any or all of the media organizations that cover AV. Between them all, there is enormous expertise in reporting, sorting, editing and compiling information and video. The company that publishes this blog, rAVe [PUBS], already has a significant presence at every trade show. Why not turn to them to give remote attendees a live view of the show floor? Why not have a group, or groups of remote attendees, “go along” with one of these reporters and asks questions along with the reporter? Honestly, as a person from a small organization, this would give me much more access to booths than when I’m actually at the show.

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For the training sessions at InfoComm, why not put OWLs on the tables in these rooms and allow remote participants to be there? If you have questions on how to do this, feel free to reach out to any of the 1,000 plus higher ed tech managers who have been doing this for the past two years. You could even have regional gatherings for some of these sessions and classes, allowing hybrid attendance to the show made of smaller groups. For many, traveling 2-3 hours by car and staying a single night is much more feasible than leaving for 5-9 days. Get vendors to host some of these regional gatherings and provide a lunch meal. This allows for some of the in-person networking that people get at an in-person conference.

I do recognize that what I am proposing will bring a higher cost to produce the show. Broadway seems to be having this same debate right now. Do we video plays and put them on streaming networks or force people to come to Broadway and see them? Will providing them to people in their homes lower the attendance? I believe it is a firm no! I watched Hamilton on Disney+, and it was fantastic. That will not stop me from hoping to get to New York and see it in person. The same goes for InfoComm. I cannot go every year due to cost, timing, etc. If I had a robust remote alternative, I would be willing to pay for that experience. The amount I would be willing to pay may even be more than we may initially expect.

When thinking about the cost, there is more than just travel, lodging and food. There is the mental cost of being away from work and family. There is the time wasted on a full day of travel. If I could cut my cost in half and still get a robust experience, that would be tempting. I encourage AVIXA and any other conference organizer to put some numbers down on paper and see if they could make a go of this. Like many new ideas, it may take a few years to get the full return. But, it also may provide value to everyone involved in the conference.