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Will I ever go to a physical conference again?

Opinion

09:00 Friday, 09 April 2021

UK Cyber Security Council

In February 2020, I went to the Teiss London conference. I wouldn’t have imagined that over the next 14 months I would attend talks and conferences at a far greater rate than ever before, but that they would all be virtual.

For many of us, sending conferences online has been a revelation. There’s no need to travel, the interaction is there just like doing it in person, and in many cases if the live broadcast clashes with something in the day job, they’re recorded for you to watch later. And since the format has changed – one- and two-hour sessions scattered over days, rather than a two- or three-day intensive conference – there are more opportunities for keen speakers to find presenting slots or round-table memberships.

The sheer range and variety of online conferences has given everyone a skills and CPD boost. For example, I have 15 CPD credits remaining to attain out of the latest three-year cycle of my CISSP, with 10 months still to run, and this has been helped greatly by the online conferences I’ve attended and the webinars I’ve watched. Online conferences are also much cheaper to curate – while one must feel for the owners of the venues that would normally have hosted all the in-person events we’ve missed for the last year and a bit, it remains true that the costs to sponsors and event managers have plummeted correspondingly.

As more of us are vaccinated, venue-based conferences will begin to grow again and before long the restrictions on numbers of people in buildings will be lifted entirely. But will we find ourselves getting back to hopping on trains and aeroplanes to flock to noisy conference centres and do overnight stays in overpriced city-centre hotels?

Yes. Absolutely, we will. Because although we will definitely carry on with our online conferences – bolstering our skills and knowledge more quickly than we could have imagined pre-lockdown – there is still a place for venue-based events.

Why? Because no matter how effective online events are, there’s always going to be a place for the occasional in-person experience. Networking over the internet can be good, but networking over a coffee or a pint is better. A socking big exhibitor stand can be a far easier place to see a company’s entire product suite than a screenshare over Zoom – particularly if the product is a lump of hardware rather than a software or SaaS service. With just modest planning (and, as is increasingly common these days, a well-designed smartphone app from the conference organisers) you can run round the stands of multiple vendors of similar products in just one morning, without the gargantuan organisation task that would be needed to organise half a dozen online vendor demos. (And of course, online demo time tends to be arranged in units of one hour, whereas in a venue you have control over how long a demo takes because it’s your prerogative to say: “Thanks very much, I’ve seen what I need to see”).

I think there’s more innovation yet to come, too. The professional bodies of which I’m a committee member have traditionally held venue-based talks, and have shied away from doing lots of online talks during lockdown simply because there’s already so much happening on line as everyone else shifts to e-conferences. But we’ve discussed how we’ll do events when we’re allowed once more to do them in person, and the answer is most definitely not that we’ll go back to how we were. It’s far more likely that we’ll do some hybrid events – real-life presenters with audiences sitting in the same room, but with live streaming, recording, a co-ordinator keeping an eye on the online question pool and ensuring both local and remote delegates get value.

And I think we’ll find this creeping into conference venues too. After all, there is a sizeable minority of attendees for most conferences who would like to go but can’t – through work commitments or travel costs, generally – some kind of online delivery will give the organisers a bigger pond of visitors to fish in and hence give the sponsors greater value for their investment.

We’re highly likely to see fewer venue-based events, then, but they will still be there and in good numbers. But will we be attending them? Absolutely.