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Re-Imagining Industry Conferences in Pandemic Times

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Photo of traditional tech conference
Image: Anton Gvozdikov - stock.adobe.com
Industry events like Enterprise Connect serve a rich ecosystem, not just of buyers and sellers, but our circle of analysts and consultants, and its postponement last month created a large void for all of us. It’s easy to say we may never go back to large-scale in-person events after COVID-19 passes, but they hold too much inherent value to call them COVID casualties and just move on. Will EC be able to convene in San Francisco the week of Aug. 3 as now planned? Whether yes or no, I see the current situation as a call to action to leverage the very technologies on which we in this industry stake our careers.
 
COVID-19 has disrupted everything, but that also makes this a prime opportunity to rethink conferences and find other ways to keep our industry connected and moving forward.
 
The Case for Virtual Events — Really
The idea of virtual events becomes less fringe the longer our new normal of work-from-home and social distancing persists. Virtual events — as most of us understand them — are a second-rate substitute for in-person conferences, and we all know the reasons why. Fair enough, but I want to push back on that in two ways.
 
First is our frame of reference. Many of us in this space are digital immigrants, and our concept of what a virtual event can be is very different from that of digital natives, especially those who are gamers — and there are many of them. I may be a proud card-carrying Boomer, but I also recognize that the former view is simply the wrong way to be thinking about virtual events in 2020.
 
Secondly, with large-scale live conferences off the table through at least the early summer in most cities, it’s unrealistic to use this as the measuring stick against alternatives. Of course, virtual events cannot truly replace the good things that make conferences worth attending, and most of us are very much looking forward to getting to the next Enterprise Connect, hopefully in August. To be fair, in-person events do have their share of drawbacks, some of which are addressed with virtual events, so the best-case scenario at some point would be to have a nice mix of both.
 
For now, though, we have to consider the best available options. Virtual events may fall far short of what we’re used to with in-person events, but when change is forced up us, they can quickly become normalized.
 
More importantly, when a void like this opens, innovation calls, so it’s only natural to look where the innovation is happening. Instead of bemoaning what we can’t do — nobody likes being cooped at home 24/7 — let’s at least consider what’s possible with the technologies we have. If any industry understands the very technology that’s needed for virtual events, it’s ours. Without prejudice, I’ll just say that if gamers can do it, so can we.
 
The mass adoption of Zoom video — both in scale and speed since COVID-19 took hold — has proven the value of cloud platforms. Livestreaming provides a great user experience for large-scale events, and with 5G, mobile access can be just as good as sitting by your PC, video monitor, or TV. With today’s virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and extended reality (XR) capabilities, virtual experiences have never felt so real.
 
Second Life Gets a Second Life
Remember Second Life? This was a very cool concept about 15 years ago, and even our space got pretty excited about it. I first blogged about Second Life coming out of the VON conference in 2006 when VoIP pioneer Jeff Pulver showed us his virtual world, Pulveria, where his avatar could address the audience in real time — that was a big deal, but I doubt anybody remembers that now. A year later, Cisco was on the bandwagon, showing its take at C-Scape 2007. I’ll spare you the blog posts, but here are a couple of my photos from those respective events.
Photos of early virtual events

Virtual event demos: Pulveria, 2006 (at left); Cisco C-Scape 2007

 
Like everything else, Second Life has evolved a lot since then, and if you don’t think it could host a pretty engaging event now, it’s probably a good time to visit its website. Here’s an interesting stat to support that — a recent survey by the Interactive Advertising Bureau found that 44% of respondents watch more livestreamed events on their portable devices than live television. Nobody was ready for experiences like this in 2006, but they sure are today.
 
Social media platforms like Facebook host an endless variety of livestream events and watch parties that can easily support the scale of audiences at most of our industry events. There’s clearly an appetite for this form of engagement, and just as the concept of privacy is evolving, so is the idea of communal activities like conferences. I’m not advocating that we flip the model to go totally virtual, but we need to at least consider what’s out there now, especially where audience engagement is high.
 
Talladega Nights, too
Taking things up a big notch higher, it’s impossible to overlook the gaming world and eSports. Live sporting events are hurting much more now than conferences, and these technologies are very much part of the new thinking there. Perhaps the best-known example is eNASCAR, where professional drivers compete in simulated track events. Nobody really knows if these events will attract and keep a large audience, but you have to give NASCAR credit for trying.
 
If virtual events work well for these industries, there’s no reason not to borrow a few pages from their playbook for ours. I don’t just mean that at face value, as gamification could be part of the mix to engage us at collaboration events. This really wouldn’t be a big leap given how gamification is being used now with contact center agents, so the way forward may be right in front of us as we speak.
 
On a broader scale, I must emphasize that all these examples of innovation are coming from the consumer world. No surprise — as I’ve frequently written, consumer innovation leads and enterprises — as well as businesses —invariably follow. Much of the innovation in our space doesn’t come from within, and it’s no different with conferences. So, what do we have to lose to try something different, especially if it’s a roaring success elsewhere?
 
And Now for Something Completely Different, VIVE
Virtual events may very well be the best solution for people to engage on a large scale while social distancing is with us. The Vive Ecosystem Conference (VEC) is the most timely example I’ve come across, and you just have to see it for yourself. Vive is an HTC event and ecosystem, so it’s not surprising to see a Chinese company using this as a way to counter the damper COVID-19 has put on our lives, especially for being social. For VEC, HTC has partnered with Engage, an Irish company focused on using VR and AR for education, training, and events.
 
We couldn’t have had experiences like this a few years ago, and this is a great example of how far these technologies have come. Couple that with how normalized virtual interactions have become — in just a few short weeks — and is it really so hard to see the possibilities?
 
Just consider how all interactions in a virtual environment have a digital trail. Think about how easy it is to tell which sessions are attended, how long people stay, who visited your booth, etc. Metadata from attendee activity during the event will help planners optimize the layout of the “show floor.” Speakers will have more opportunities to engage with attendees — before, during, and after their talks. Networking will be easier.
 
Then, think about attendees — everyone could have a virtual assistant to plan and manage their schedules. With a little help from AI, every attendee could have a highly personalized experience that optimizes how they spend their time.
 
Attendees could use split screens to follow multiple sessions at once, overcoming the problem of having to choose among them. Then, of course, organizers will capture all the sessions with audio and video, so you’ll always be able to go back for anything you missed. Again, thanks to AI and a few search parameters, you could just get the highlights or critical pieces based on your specified needs.
 
Hey, this isn’t sounding so bad is it? Since you’re not spending money on travel, it would be easier to justify paying for this type of experience. With this model, event producers can accommodate bigger numbers, so that can help keep the cost down and be more accessible to a wider, more global audience.
 
The more engaging you can make it — perhaps with some clever gamification — the bigger the audience, and the longer they’ll stay. I’ll be the first to say nothing beats the real thing, but if there’s no “real” to be had at the moment, virtual is as close to real as we’re going to get right now. As with any great user experience, if you build it, they will come, and we’re certainly not lacking for the technology. Until we’re clear to attend large gatherings, this is a great time to rethink how events can work today, and given our core focus on collaboration, I think the possibilities are pretty promising.

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This post is written on behalf of BCStrategies, an industry resource for enterprises, vendors, system integrators, and anyone interested in the growing business communications arena. A supplier of objective information on business communications, BCStrategies is supported by an alliance of leading communication industry advisors, analysts, and consultants who have worked in the various segments of the dynamic business communications market.

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