We’re all hunkered down in quarantine, so major trade shows have been cancelled. Virtual events will get us through this patch – but what comes next?

It is said that in times of crisis, we adapt.  We modify our behavior and we persevere.  And when the immediate crisis has subsided, we look at what worked, and often adapt much of it into our lives as we move forward.

We’re obviously in a crisis now, and among the many changes we have had to make is one that impacts our professional lives.  For years, we’ve regarded major conferences and trade shows as an integral part of our technical learning curve…and yes, as a major part of our social interaction with our industry peers.

That’s all changing before our very eyes, and the COVID crisis is only one element.  To be sure, the restrictions placed on our travel and ability to assemble have directly impacted the conference industry.  A recent article places the loss at more than a billion dollars, and that number has only increased since then.   O’Reilly’s decision to shutter its physical conference business also hit the industry like a bombshell.  But our ability to adapt and change presents us with other opportunities.  O’Reilly’s CEO acknowledged as much, saying, “With large technology vendors moving their events completely on-line, we believe the stage is set for a new normal moving forward when it comes to in-person events.”

The past few years have seen accelerated growth in smaller regional conferences, along with a greater emphasis on virtual conferences.  The shift has already begun, and we believe it will continue long after we are back to “business as usual,” which we believe will NOT be “business as usual.”

For openers, CFOs and others responsible for the bottom line will be more active in questioning the value of spending significant sums of money on a conference in Las Vegas or elsewhere, especially in lieu of the cancellation of conferences this spring.  What, they will ask, is the ROI for going to these large get-togethers? Can the money be more efficiently and effectively spent to attract and retain prospects and customers?  Are there smaller, regional alternatives that cost less and pose fewer risks?

Conference attendees ask the same: Can I spend less money and achieve similar results closer to home? Would I prefer to be among a smaller public gathering? Can I simply attend an online forum of some sort?

Regional and virtual summits will meet those needs on both counts; in fact, they have already begun doing so.  A recent Los Angeles-based physical conference that had signed up 300 participants quickly pivoted to an online Virtual Summit when the “stay at home” order was issued; in the process, the event more than doubled its registrations.  Even when things get back to normal, companies may well see regional conferences as delivering the same educational and business benefits as the large mega-conventions.  They will be treading lightly, with even less inclination than before to attend and spend at the bigger shows.

I’m not suggesting that all of the big conferences will shrivel up and fade away.  Those sponsored by major vendors, like RSA, Microsoft, Tableau and Gartner, will still be held and will still be successful.  But the COVID crisis has forced companies, big and small, to take a more focused look at the conventions they may have previously taken for granted.  (And it’s not only in the tech sector, of course; events like hardware shows, auto shows, even PizzaExpo, have been delayed or cancelled.)

Our current crisis has forced us to adapt and to alter our thinking in any number of areas.  The purpose of the conferences we attend to learn and interact with our peers are, and will be, no different than in the past.  Their physical nature, however…where and how they are held…will.  The change has already begun.

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