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What now for conferences in the future?

Updated: Apr 30, 2020

What now for conferences in the future?

Ashley Gordon, Proprietor and Director Client Relations

As a community and industry, we have now reached an almost dormant status and most of us have found ways to cope with the current situation. The concern now is what will the future hold. Uncertainty is everywhere. The views on the future are about as wide as the horizon.

Take the cruise industry for example. Some business commentators say that forward bookings for 2021 look very positive and people want to get cruising again. Others take a much bleaker view, with one American-based business commentator stating that cruise ships which cost millions to build are now worth USD $5 per ton as scrap metal. Most likely the real future lays somewhere in between.

If this plague has taught us anything it is that everything in the world is in some way connected to everything else. Nations, businesses, industries and even families are all globally connected and very vulnerable to external factors which are totally beyond their control.

Looking specifically at conferences, it is easy to see that the health of the general economy, employment rates, income levels and supporting industries such as lodging and air travel all affect the conference industry’s potential. So too do travel restrictions, politics and prevailing health regulations. Without clarity on all of these factors, postulating about the future of conferences is made difficult but some likely trends are staring to emerge.

The future plenary session will look something like a live TV studio, only with social distancing

Most of us have had our fill of video conferencing and cannot wait to get back to in-person meetings. This is natural human nature and the underlying reason why a conference industry exists.

However whilst most delegates will want to attend in person, a large percentage simply will not be able to for the foreseeable future. International borders will open gradually and individually and some organisations will place restrictions on where their people can travel, just as some jurisdictions will prohibit arrivals from selected sources. There will be intermittent changes too, as outbreaks emerge and subside in differing locations.

The conference of the future must encourage delegates to attend in person where possible but also provide an immersive digital alternative participation model for those who cannot. Unlike the past, digital participants are going to have to pay sustainable registration fees – even more important as there will be many more of them. Digital delegates can no longer just be observers or have to engage differently than in-person attendees.

For example, digital and in-person delegates should use the same platforms for live polling, questions and surveys. Plenary sessions (and eventually, I suspect, all sessions) will look like TV studios and they will have to be anchored by very capable facilitators who can smoothly integrate live-crosses and discussions between physical and digital delegates. All of this will require increased technological resources, skilled people and added expenditure, making it necessary for digital delegates to pay realistic fees.

Whilst there will never be a real substitute for in-person attendance, we must find ways for digital delegates to be able to participate in some form in all facets of the conference such as trade exhibition, poster sessions and social events. Some platforms allow parts of these experiences already, more are under development now. This area of meeting technology will quickly adapt to meet the demand.

In the immediate future in-person attendance will be limited to delegates who reside close, within 100 or so kilometres, of the venue. This will gradually expand to interstate, regional and international delegates but make no mistake – digital is here to stay. I suspect many organisations will want to be careful with expenditure for years to come and digital participation, even at a full registration fee, does avoid considerable expenditure on travel, accommodation and meals.

Physical delegates will have to contend with social distancing regulations with which venues will be compelled comply – and I am talking about a lot more than having hand sanitiser everywhere. Expect profound effects on how we deliver conferences and a trend towards smaller conferences in general.

Venue room capacities will effectively halve, buffets at tea breaks and lunch are a thing of the past and I doubt we will see roving waitstaff walking around social events with tempting trays of uncovered hors d’oeuvres and pre-poured drinks again anytime soon. Many of us are going to have to review our environmental sustainability policies to allow for the return of single-use disposable items such as cups and food containers.

There will be limitations on how many delegates can be spaces at the same time, so serving lunch to everyone in the exhibition area may be a problem depending on available space. All these measures will add to cost whilst placing limits on how many physical delegates you will be allowed to have in a venue. It is very likely that there will be stipulated maximum numbers imposed on conferences and that will affect everything from budget structures to registration fees. You can also expect additional administration. Just as Workplace Health and Safety brought additional regulations, compliance burdens and limitations on what could be done at conferences, you can expect to see something similar with Hygiene.

Another consideration – increased utilisation of digital platforms to connect even those delegates who physically attend. This has been happening anyway but with social distancing and capacity limitations there will be greater emphasis on digital communications between physical attendees. Many of the plethora of existing conference app products offer delegate to delegate communication and networking capabilities. What we should see now is more integration of digital and in-person delegates into the same apps, thus enhancing networking potential for everyone. Who knows, we may finally see more than 20% of in-person delegates actually using conference apps!!

What will everything cost

Simple: mostly more. At first, we will probably see sale-prices to attract short term business but very soon thereafter reality will kick in. Social distancing is not cheap. With social distancing airlines will not be able to sell middle seats, thus reducing potential revenue by around 30% on every flight. That will have to be paid for by increased fares for the seats they can sell, but at least you will not be so cramped! The same factor will affect pricing at venues where capacities will substantially drop. Accommodation is likely to be less expensive for some time given that all their markets, business, group and leisure, will be significantly reduced for several years to come. Competition in this market will keep a lid on prices. Supply items will cost more as supply chains gradually transfer production from China to other locations.

We can also expect to see more sharing of resources and assets. I was discussing this recently with colleague and noted science speaker and futurist, Dr Catherine Ball.

She suggested that collaboration is the new competition” as businesses seek to rebuild following coronavirus. After thinking about it, I realised her comment is right up there with my all-time favourite truism from the Bauhaus era, Less is more. She is 100% right. We are going to see mergers, alliances and strange bedfellows as former rivals join forces to reduce the downward pressure on prices brought by excessive competition. The process has already started and over-supplied sectors of our industry will see significant transformation.

The recent past has seen the offshoring of significant service and administrative functions across the conference industry. Some operators have offshored call centres and staff who process registrations, payments, accommodation reservations, data base management and even sales and delegate attraction activities to developing countries so they can take advantage of vastly lower labour costs. Some software and technology suppliers to our sector also have much of their development and coding work done in these low-cost countries. They are not alone – banks, telecommunications and insurance companies have been doing it for years.

The post-coronavirus era will see a significant reduction in offshoring of work.

I suspect the new market will demand much greater local fulfillment of services. There has been much talk about the continuity and security aspects of international supply chains and already public sector and some major corporate clients are asking questions about where their services are performed. Many clients will see offshore work as a risky practice. Others are going to want to be seen to support local businesses and jobs. Still others will demand significant price decreases if they are aware that a supplier is paying third world wages but seeking first-world remuneration. Companies that can legitimately make claim to using 100% local labour will have a distinct marketing advantage in the months and years to come.

Will conferences still be relevant and necessary?

Now for some good news: an absolute YES.

Crises bring with them a need to collaborate and discuss issues and find solutions. After every major crisis in history there have always been lots of meetings. Wars end with conferences to discuss armistice terms. Disasters are always followed by conferences that analyse responses and examine how to better prepare for the next one. Because Coronavirus has affected every government, profession, industry and trade on Earth, every sector has a need to examine the effects and plan from their specific perspective.

Is a recession coming?

Even the most optimistic commentators are talking about recession and many would agree that we are in one already. Others predict a long depression. There is no precedent for this scale of economic loss, but we must also consider that there have never been such strong responses by Governments either. There are also geo-political factors which will affect recovery – will we be victims of a trade war or worse with China and can we quickly find replacement markets? Hmmm – I see potential for trade conferences already!

A global recession is looking unavoidable but, in the end, it is confidence that really matters. When confidence returns to businesses and consumers, recovery can commence. The Spanish Flu epidemic was followed by the Roaring Twenties, which was the greatest period of economic growth seen to that point, though of course the ending of the Great War at the same time more than likely helped. The point is that history tells us that disaster has always been followed by recovery. In other words, there is a future – all we need is confidence, at every level.

Ashley Gordon, Proprietor and Director Client Relations,

Carillon Conference Management Pty Limited, Brisbane, Australia.

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