IT events and technology conferences, once mind-bogglingly big in-person learning and networking opportunities, have certainly changed a lot since 2020. What started out as optimistic postponing for safety concerns quickly transformed into a new reality of virtual-only presentations and even total event redesigns due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now a year later, the outlook seems the same: another cycle of virtual-only events.

We have to ask, “Is this the new future for conferences”? Will conferences ever go back to normal? Is normal even a fair question? Given another year of updating health regulations and distributing vaccines, what does the future of IT events hold?

Virtual struggles

Virtual events have been pulling a lot of weight. And many are still learning how to make the most of online-only formats. But for some, online IT events have left a lot to be desired. A good number of MSP conferences, for example, were hosted online in 2020. These ranged from two-day power conferences to events spanning over a week, some with as many as 2,500 sessions to attend. Feedback from virtual IT events has been mixed.

One problem is that there is an abundance of software available for hosting these sessions. With no standard, some participants are forced to learn a new platform for each event they attend. Not every event software is intuitive to navigate, either, which can be frustrating.

Another issue is the time zone concern. If a business has a global audience, it can be difficult to capture significant attendance with sessions set in only one timezone. As a result, IT events are being organized with repeating sessions in multiple time zones so that worldwide participants can attend.

Are event operators learning a lot from the experience? It’s safe to say that virtual aspects to event-hosting continue to improve, but some IT events have had to make large pivots to accommodate the times.

Big players, big changes

Perhaps you’ve heard of CES, the Consumer Electronics Show. Touted as “the most influential tech event in the world,” it has been hosted in Las Vegas in January each year since 1967. In January 2020, it was attended by over 160,000 tech enthusiasts. And while CES had many months to prepare for the required shift to virtual, the 2021 show only garnered an online attendance of around 80,000, reducing the audience nearly by half.

What might have been the key difference?

With a total of 88 conference sessions and nearly 50 hours of programming, there was a lot of content to consume (it’s now available on-demand on the CES website). The trouble with having days worth of content to disseminate online is that a virtual audience tires faster than a live one. Attendees may prepare and travel just to experience live speakers and activities. In online-only experiences, “Zoom Fatigue,”— where participants acquire virtual meeting burnout —is a documented issue.

What can be learned?

Moving into 2022, the CES website states they’re planning for a hybrid of virtual and in-person experiences for the next conference. This isn’t surprising, as CES is a showcase for technology, and some of the joy of the exhibits comes from an opportunity to see how the technology operates or try it for yourself. However, it’s significant that CES is shifting to a hybrid model, as it may suggest that a few benefits have been discovered to the virtual side of IT events.

Hybrid IT events: the benefits

Hybrid events, a combination of in-person and virtual sessions, may be the way most IT events are positioned in the future. Why? Certainly, live events can be more costly, and virtual events can be exhausting to navigate, but when the two are combined, there are a lot of positives:

  • Travel: For those who are excited to get away from the office setting for work, they can attend in person. For those who may struggle to find the resources to attend an event across the globe, they can attend from home.
  • Cost: Securing enough budget to send a large team globe-trotting can be tough. Some companies may only send a few key employees to in-person events. With virtual components, it may be possible to afford more team members to access the content.
  • Accessibility: People who thrive meeting others face-to-face will be able to shine at meetings in-person. However, people who’ve found navigating conference centers a nightmare, or were overwhelmed by crowds, can access the same content as everyone else, from a comfortable location and with technological assistance if needed.
  • Timing: If an important industry event takes place during a month with a heavy workload, there’s no need for people to worry about managing time for both. They can sign up for virtual on-demand access to only the sessions that are relevant, and watch on their own schedule.

Hybrid IT events: the drawbacks

Of course, creating hybrid events comes with its own share of downsides. Especially while IT event operators are learning to adapt to this new format, there will be some learning curves. It’s also important to consider the following:

  • Setup: The way events are organized and operated will have to accommodate aspects like clear live recordings and online interactivity. No one enjoys tuning into a live streaming event they can’t see or hear clearly.
  • Expenses: It may be more costly to host a hybrid event. This cost may be passed along to attendees, but it may also be mitigated by offering more sponsorship opportunities and both in-person booths and virtual branding.
  • Safety: This is a big concern for the future of live events, and it incorporates elements of setup and expenses. If there are no clearly established guidelines, the treatment of the live portion of a hybrid event will vary wildly from venue to venue.

Will we want to go back?

There are mixed feelings about the return of in-person conferences. Across posts about IT events on Reddit and Spiceworks, comments show a wide breadth of opinion ranging from, “I can’t wait to attend live again” to, “I’ll never go to another event that’s not virtual”, and plenty of concerns in between. If IT event planners and organizers are seeing these, they have to be paying attention. With a limited amount of money to create an event, at some point, you have to make a decision on what kind of format to go with.

There are some valid concerns about the safety of large gatherings that inspire many would-be attendees to hold off. There are also those whose business has been dependent on live conferences in the past, who are eager to return and make up for the lost time. Either way, while processes are still being discussed and vaccines are still being distributed, in-person events are on hold. Most operators are not even considering the possibility of hosting anything but virtual IT events until at least Q3 or Q4 2021.

Into 2022 and beyond

What does the future hold for live and virtual IT events? When it comes to Auvik’s plans, it would be great to follow up on Frankly MSP Live 2020 once it is safe to do so. Hopefully, by 2022, there will be clear safety regulations for live events and improved technology for virtual events. If that does happen, hybrid events may be the way forward. Either way, it is likely that the IT world will not do-away with conferences, of any type, any time soon.