Conferences After Covid Will Be Shorter—and Smarter

A virtual pet parade, a “social shouting” Slack channel, and Zoom karaoke—these are some of the activities that event planners pulled together after the Covid-19 pandemic canceled in-person gatherings and they searched for virtual options that wouldn’t, well, suck.

Like, say, a cake-decorating contest. Tenessa Gemelke is director of education and events at Brain Traffic, a Minneapolis firm that organizes conferences for content strategists, and this spring she was tasked with taking Confab, the company’s long-standing popular event, virtual. The conference is perhaps unique for hosting, among other novelties, separate gatherings for introverts and extroverts. “In the introverts’ lounge, it’s just for people who feel like, ‘I just really want to check my email and please don’t talk to me’; those were really popular,” Gemelke says.

This year was different. “People were so lonely, especially at the beginning of the pandemic,” she says. The agenda included fireside chats that facilitated conversations in which people could be vulnerable, but there was also the issue of socializing. “We thought, this is TV, it’s not a party, there aren’t going to be appetizers, but what would someone watch on TV?” Gemelke says. “We always serve cake at the end of the conference … so we had a cake decorating contest.”

In an ideal world, next year’s cake would be served up in atoms rather than bits. But tightly packed in-person gatherings are likely to be among the last types of events that resume once the pandemic ends, which means that conference organizers will hang on to many of the virtual elements that were very much their Plan B. “I think what will come back first is very small local events,” says Julie Liegl, chief marketing officer at Slack. “People getting on an airplane to Las Vegas to go to a convention center seems very far away, but a group of CIOs going to a dinner in Atlanta, I could see that; I think it’ll be the small events that come back first.”

And, curiously, some of the unexpected benefits of online conferences will ensure they continue in some form, to everyone’s advantage: When organizers don’t have to pay for a physical space, they may be able to lower or even eliminate ticket fees. And events that don’t require travel can attract a much deeper pool of speakers as well as a broader audience.

That’s what Tosan Arueyingho, who runs the Black Is Tech conference and networking group, found when it came to planning this year’s event, held virtually in September. Arueyingho decided that going online presented such an opportunity to broaden his audience that he offered tickets for free. Last year’s event, which took place in New York, drew 1,000 attendees; this year, 6,000 people signed up. “Since we didn’t have the cost associated with setting up a whole venue, we had the opportunity to open it up to people; you don’t have to travel, you don’t have to pay for a hotel; that helped us grow quickly,” says Arueyingho, who’s based in Houston.

Arueyingho opted for an online conference platform called Hopin that enables video sessions, small group discussions, an expo environment, and messaging. The tool also collects data on participants’ activity. “The good thing about virtual conferences is that you have access to data—who connected, who came to your booths, who asked a question,” says Arueyingho.

That data is helpful both to sponsors and to organizers trying to determine what content is most successful. “Before, we’d be able to understand who was in the building, whose badges are left, but you didn’t understand how long they stayed,” says Lynn Edwards, the owner of Proper Planning, a Tacoma, Washington-based company that puts on large conferences for corporate and nonprofit clients. “Now you have this rich data; you can tell how long people stay. But the data doesn’t matter if you aren’t extracting the learning and aren’t changing your programming.”

Brevity Is the Soul of Zoom

But there’s one thing organizers didn’t need AI to tell them: Zoom fatigue is real. “People don’t want to sit in front of their computer for more than 30 or 40 minutes; that’s why TED talks are so successful,” Edwards says. It’s not just the virtual sessions that profit from being shorter; it’s overall events as well, according to Mary Beth Reidy, executive director of conference programming and partnerships at the Conference Board, a New York–based nonpartisan think tank that hosts dozens of events each year for businesspeople. “My opinion is that a three-hour event is the longest you can go with any degree of comfort, and I expect that the trend of shorter events will hold even when we’re back in person,” she says.

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