Conferences Moving Online: How Will This Change the Future?

Lisa Wentzel

In late February, the Biogen Leadership Conference was held in Boston. Within two weeks it was determined to be the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak in Massachusetts. It also spilled the virus into several other states as attendees returned home. One month later, conferences across the globe began canceling or rescheduling for the remainder of 2020. As it became clear there was not a definite timetable during which traditional conferences could safely be held, organizers began scrambling for ways to hold conferences online. This creativity, born out of necessity, has changed the meeting landscape in the short term. Will it change permanently?

Trade shows/conferences are a billion-dollar industry for the world economy. Not only are conferences themselves affected by cancellations or the transition to online, but host cities are as well. Many local venues depend on business conferences generate; hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, etc. This industry, conducted physically, creates revenue and jobs. Cancellations are costing cities millions of dollars. These are factors that must be considered when examining the future of conferences.

Industry impact aside, planners cannot ignore the benefits of online conferences. The pros for online events include quick and easy planning, lower cost, broad reach, and easy attendance. Most importantly in the current climate, the safety of attendees is neither a health nor financial liability for the organizer. Alternatively, there are many cons: less personal connection, distractions, and the chance technology will fail for the presenter or attendee. A logical solution combines the benefits of both in-person and online.

Enter the hybrid. In longer-form programming, where face-to-face interaction is a primary goal, attendees can choose to be on site. At the same time, there is an opportunity to reach out to those who are interested in the content but do not have the means or ability to travel. Tier pricing can enable rate varieties for in-person and remote attendees. Content can be specifically created for the target audience. This creates a broader spectrum of participation.

At this point in time, we are still in a holding pattern. In a survey taken the week of May 18, 2020, by PCMA (Professional Convention Management Association), business event professionals overwhelmingly agreed that digital-events will replace face-to-face events over the next three months. The same group was much more optimistic about the return of in-person events in 2021. They predict the path back to the face-to-face meeting is one of small local/regional events and online options. To entice attendees to physically attend a conference, the content will be key. Live events will need to present a real value and extensive safety measures.

So will the future be changed by the pandemic shift to online conferences? Yes and no. While virtual events will be a major strategy moving forward in 2020 and into 2021, there is clearly the desire and market to continue face-to-face conferences in a post-quarantine world. What the pivot has shown us is there are alternative options. Conference planners can take the successful ones and build a new norm.




Written by Lisa Wentzel – Event and Sales Support