Technology, e-commerce, and branding conferences rely on the idea of access. For attendees, it’s access to information, networking, community, and new experiences in cities that vary wildly on the fun index. For exhibitors, sponsors, and speakers, it’s access to targeted audiences in order to sell products and ideas.

For decades, that model has cruised along without much disruption, hopping from Vegas to Boston to Austin to Portland and back again. Until now, of course. The conference industry is heading into a protracted era of reform and reinvention, and it will have to confront issues it’s been ignoring for years.

The rush to reopen in-person gatherings is understandable given the money at stake for organizers. But in the wake of this massive social and economic change, will tech conferences evolve to meet the needs of professionals who are prioritizing safety, inclusivity, and cost?

Getting What You Pay For

Conference registration pricing was already getting out of control before Covid-19. An attendee badge starting at $1,800 (and up and up) is predicated on a pricing model that assumes your company will pick up the tab. Freelancers, aspiring professionals, and the rest of the world are left to fend for themselves.

The justification for charging that much for an online conference is even more ridiculous, and it gets to a core problem shared with higher education: you’re providing content that a) is available from many other sources and b) competes with all other online content for user attention. Is an online university experience worth $50,000 a year? We’re already seeing the fallout from that proposition

On a much smaller scale, is an online two-day conference experience worth, say, $2,000? “That depends” is now the default answer. There’s a much stronger case to be made for conference agendas that cut the fluff and double down on training, skill-sharing, and research-led deep dives into technology trends.

Even after we return to a semblance of normalcy, the registration cost for many of these types of gatherings is just too high. Companies will already be reviewing who (and how many) they send, as well as the health safety implications of sending employees to cities and states with radically different norms and rules. 

If you’re trying to create a diverse, inclusive environment with many voices, a price tag defined by the highest VC-backed budget won’t help matters. Organizers will need to dump amenities, find cheaper spaces, cut management expenses, shorten conference lengths, and establish a sliding scale based on income/revenue, or else reevaluate the conference ROI.

Sponsorship Blues

Another conference revenue stream comes from sponsorships and signage, which are also baked into the marketing plan of innumerable service providers and VC-backed startups.

If you’re one of these unlucky sponsors, you hope for attendees to vaguely register you as a coffee break sponsor ($7,500) or as part of the “presented by” addendum to a panel discussion ($20,000) which hopefully includes your boss on the panel. Even in the best of times, the cost is exorbitant and the “brand visibility” returns can be iffy.

Making connections at a sponsored happy hour, or making an impression on a panel, provides a little justification. But without that, what value does a sponsor really get? A contact list and some logo placement? We actually got some pitches this spring to sponsor virtual versions of these things for the same price. Thousands of dollars for essentially an hour-long webinar (or worse, Zoom cocktail hour) is not realistic.

When in-person conferences do come back, the sponsor logistics really will be a nightmare. Handshakes, free drinks, buffet tables, and close quarters are a reason people buy access, so what does that happy hour look like when everybody’s social distancing? Masks, temperature checks, and hand sanitizer tend to kill the buzz.

Sponsors will have to get creative. They could lean hard the other way as “safety providers,” paying for sanitation stations versus the inevitable snack break. Or offer individual perks like private offices for attendees, small dinners in safe spaces, gift cards to go visit restaurants or bars with outdoor seating, and more robust networking apps.

Little Boxes

Exhibit space, like sponsorship, was essential to the bottom line of tech and e-commerce shows. 

But now, the idea of hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of people flowing through a rigidly-designed indoor space, touching all kinds of plastic and metal surfaces, coming into close contact with strangers from all over the world, breathing recycled air for hours at a time, and subjecting themselves to some form of behavior monitoring … it just seems crazy.

When exhibit space comes back, things will have to change. More space is needed, but costs will have to stay the same, which is tough for exhibition planners who try to maximize every inch (and dollar) of floor space. 10×10 booths can barely contain exhibitors under normal circumstances, so exhibit areas will get bigger and booths will be spaced out more. 

Fewer people will staff the booths and fewer people will be allowed on the floor at one time. Ditto for the crowded side halls full of pop-up displays and 2×6’ tables. Product demos will reach fewer people and be shorter.

Exhibitors rely on traffic, socializing, and badge-scanning. If new safety procedures and booth layouts are implemented, who’ll foot the bill? What will floor traffic look like? Will individual booths have seating areas for attendees, or swag for souvenir hunters? How about edible treats to draw people over?

Don’t worry, events and marketing team, there’s a silver lining. Bigger, more comfortable booths aren’t a bad idea for everybody involved. New, appealing, light-filled, open spaces could be considered, freeing us from the brutalist bunker-chic of Hall C. Badge-scanners may give way to proximity-based information-gathering apps (with permission settings, of course). Foot traffic may go down, but conversations might be more meaningful.

Quality Control

There are upsides to all these challenges that might make a better product. 

For conferences that have to remain virtual for the foreseeable future, online sessions and keynotes will be competing with every other content stream on your laptop. They’ll have to be worth our attention and the overall quality will have to rise. No travel could make booking guest speakers and moderators a lot easier, and organizers could experiment with programming more content on different “channels” attendees could flip through during the day.

Online pricing will have to adjust for the fact that attendees aren’t getting an immersive on-site experience, they’re essentially sitting at their home desk watching a talk or class. 

That’s on top of other reality adjustments common to streaming content providers, like shared passwords, delayed viewing, viewer dropoff during sessions, less control of the user experience, and live commentary outside of a moderated environment.

In-person conferences have to be worth the travel, hassle, and cost. Our cost-benefit calculations will factor in our collectively waning interest in listening to privileged, blazer-clad industry execs, UX experts blandly imploring us to “understand our users,” and thinly-veiled ads fronting as case studies.

Pick A Card

Of course, another way to boost numbers is to draw from a bigger, more diverse pool of potential attendees. That would in turn require a bigger, more diverse pool of speakers and sponsors. 

The idea that tech conferences fall into a numbing sameness is nothing new. For all the progressive declarations, the culture can be startlingly exploitative and conservative. But this is a true opportunity for reformation. There’s a hunger for unique perspectives, and this is the time to capitalize on it. 

People of Color, gender, neurodiversity, LGBTQ, age, economic standing … pick any card to start, then thread different voices through a majority of sessions and presentations. This request has been put forward (many times) before, but isn’t there enough financial, ethical, and social incentive to finally make it a reality?

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