I have a love/hate relationship with conferences.
The “love” part comes from serendipitous interactions with awesome people. Sometimes you just need to get people into a room to hash out ideas and build relationships. I enjoy these types of conferences (see our Social2030 event from a few weeks ago), but they don’t easily scale beyond a few hundred people. (Blame Dunbar for that.)
The “hate” part is pretty much everything else: complex travel/logistics, crappy WiFi, poor food options, awkward nightlife interactions, and (timely) the inevitable conference flu. After most conferences, I usually feel like I could have accomplished more setting up 1:1 meetings over Zoom and watching keynotes/panels a few days later on YouTube.
If most conferences disappeared, few attendees would be worse off. I believe they would find other ways to make the same connections and be more productive. Exhibitors would suffer from lack of a sales channel, but innovative products tend to find a way to reach customers. Digital channels are capable of picking up the slack.
The main problem is that conferences are self-reinforcing. If your peers are attending, you also feel the need to attend. Your boss will more easily approve a travel expense if the conference has years of social proof. Moreover, as these conferences swell in size and scope, sponsors are attracted at a greater rate, driving up profits. These profits are reinvested in more prominent speakers, venues, and goodie bags in order to retain attendees, even after the true thought leaders and innovators leave.
This is my theory for why more awful conferences don’t die. They simply limp onwards, leveraging past success to fund bigger, but more useless events.
It’s hard to say just how much of the global conference industry is pure economic waste. The whole industry is too big to fail. Globally, it generates $116 billion each year. Over 300 million attendees visit 32,000 conferences, featuring over 5 million exhibitors in 1.5 billion square feet of exhibition space across 180 countries. That’s basically everyone who is doing business, everywhere.
A coronavirus pandemic may be the first chance we have to break the vicious cycle of conference proliferation. With more attendees staying home, conference spend will shift into other sales channels. The beneficiary of those dollars will be new digital products that simulate the conference experience in new ways. We’ve already seen a revolution in asynchronous work communication with Slack and synchronous work communication with Zoom. Can we simulate all the good parts of a conference with new tools, and get rid of the bad?
I am excited to find out. Tweet me your favorite conference replacement solutions, and I’ll share with the rest of the Firehose community.