As the world continues to waffle between WFH, back to the office or another, middle-of-the road hybrid, it appears that trade conferences and seminars are facing a similar, existentialist consideration. In some industries, on-site/in-person conferences remain few and far between. In others, it’s full steam ahead. And just about everywhere, there are myriad mutations of the hybrid event.
All of this begs the question, “Why do we go to conferences in the first place?” The answer to that—and it’s likely not a consensus answer—will very likely drive the direction of similar events in the future.
The standard answers have plenty of merit. A well-attended industry conference is a great place to get “face-time” with clients, prospects and partners one might not otherwise have the time or wherewithal to visit individually. It’s a cost-effective way to catch up with numerous other people without the constraints of Zoom. And it’s a lot easier to “bump into” a targeted prospect on the exhibit floor or at the conference happy hour than it is to camp out in lobby of said prospect’s office.
Let’s be honest, though. For some, “networking” at industry conferences is more along the lines of “vacation” (or “bachelor party”). And while the number of those misbehaving at conferences is not large, it’s definitely a reality.
Ask yourself this: how much of the benefit of attending an on-site conference do you really get after 10pm?
For a similarly low number, conferences are a chance to see how the industry’s doing or hear interesting ideas. We’re still skeptical about the number of people who go to on-site shows purely for the speakers, but we can all agree that at most conferences, there’s definitely a session or two (or eight) well worth attending for the intellectual component.
The question remains, then. Is it the networking, the learning, the idea exchange or the offsite frolicking that drives thousands to on-site conferences? And if it truly were just learning and idea exchange, why were the virtual versions of conferences that traditionally drew thousands to distant places significantly less well-attended?
None of this is to bash on-site conferences or the people who attend them. Far from it. Conference attendance and sponsorship has helped make LodeStar what it is today. We’ve benefitted greatly from most of the conferences we’ve attended and miss them. Imagine how many sessions on TRID compliance and the need for closing cost calculators we’ve attended, spoken at or sponsored. And we human beings are social creatures. To say that the Zoom experience of networking is exactly the same is an in-person experience takes a lot of confidence. We don’t believe it is, either.
What we are asking, then, is how do we evolve in-person conferences for the needs of a new era of business? Do they really need to be four or five days? If that’s really true, ask yourself how many times you see an attendee in a session get up, looking at his or her phone and walking out of the session to attend to something “back at the office?” Do the “afterhours” events have to have so much prominence that we feel we’ve missed something if we’re not out until 2am, only to be up and back at it four hours later? Is there a way for us to mold the content in new ways?
The intention here is not to provide an answer or preach about the evils of trade conferences. Far from it. But we are asking a question that we think it’s time to start answering: isn’t it time to modernize the way we gather and network as an industry?
How, if at all, would you change the way we do conventions? Whether you agree or disagree, we’d love to hear from you! Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.