What’s the Future of Conferences?

Many of the conferences we are involved with, in virtually every industry, have speakers who talk about disruptive innovation. And disruption is also a salient topic in the event industry. Those who plan conferences are asking questions, such as: Will face-to-face events become obsolete? Will people connect via social media and other technologies instead of at live events? If live events survive, how will they change and what will they look like?

Last year, BullsEye was invited to summarize a unique retreat on the future of conferences organized by innovation expert Robert Tucker (click here for the summary). Industry experts from organizations such as ASAE, the Conference Board, and other leading conference organizations convened to discuss the future of conferences. Some of the group’s conclusions were:

  • Face-to-face events are not going away.
  • One reason face-to-face events will continue is that attendees highly value the networking that occurs. Event organizers plan to focus on creative new ways to enhance and facilitate networking.
  • There will be increased competition among conference organizations for attendees and vendors.
  • A key differentiator will be creating a unique, compelling experience.
  • Organizers are thinking more broadly than just a specific event at a single moment in time. They want to connect and build relationships before, during, and after events.

Our experience over the past 10 years, having been involved with about 1,500 events, confirms the observations from this retreat. Some of our other observations about the future of conferences include:

  • Shorter events. There are still big 3- and 4-day events. But we are seeing more 1-day and 1/2-day events, as well as continual growth in webinars. People want to be exposed to new ideas and to connect with others, but everyone is so busy that getting away for multiple days, or even one day, is harder than ever. Executives in all industries want short, impactful events.
  • Smaller, more intimate, more interactive gatherings. Yes, there are still mega-meetings with 5,000 or 10,000 or more attendees, who watch rock-star speakers on stage. But increasingly, we see small, more intimate events with peer-to-peer sharing of best practices. We have been involved with events with 40 CEOs, with 20 CHROs (Chief Human Resource Officers), and with small numbers of CIOs, analytics professionals, and information security leaders. These events don’t have presentations; they have moderators who facilitate an engaging, interactive discussion among a small group—who loves the interactive nature of these events.
  • More connections post event. Few attendees are interested in attending a one-off event. They are interested in connecting with others as part of an ongoing community, and receiving ongoing, relevant content.

We do see technology at conferences, including real-time polling, conference apps, people tweeting, and even some sessions being streamed. But at the smaller, intimate, interactive events that we see, technology plays a small role. The value of these events is human interaction and valuable content. We don’t see this changing in the future as we see leaders in all industries and functions hungry for this intensive, relevant content and human contact.