Posey's Tips & Tricks

Are Virtual Conferences Viable Alternatives to Live Tech Conferences?

Despite the cost- and time-saving advantages of an online event, nothing beats the real thing.

It's IT conference season again, and like every other year, big vendors such as Citrix and Amazon are in the midst of throwing their events. At the same time however, I have been receiving an unusually large number of invitations to attend virtual conferences.

Virtual tech conferences have been around for a while now. They are essentially online events that are designed to mimic in-person events. Such an event, for example, might have a morning keynote presentation followed by some breakout sessions, and perhaps even some opportunities for networking.

On the surface, virtual tech conferences seem like a great idea. Attendees can get access to the same information that they might at an in-person event -- but without the travel costs and time away from the office. But are virtual tech conferences really a good alternative to in-person events?

In my opinion, virtual tech conferences definitely have their place. It simply is not practical to attend every in-person event. There are just too many of them. Virtual tech conferences give attendees the opportunity to learn the things that they might normally learn at a live event, but without the travel. Even so, I think of virtual tech conferences as being more of a supplement to in-person events, not a replacement for them.

This might seem like an odd statement being that we are living in the time of ever shrinking IT budgets, and constantly improving online collaborative platforms. Even so, there are several reasons why I believe that live events offer a better overall experience.

The first reason is probably the most obvious. Live events allow you to engage in ways that just aren't attainable through virtual events. Last year, for example, Microsoft was offering Hololens demos to select attendees at its Ignite event. As someone who has used a Hololens, I can tell you from first-hand experience that actually wearing a Hololens is far different than hearing someone give a speech about it.

Another reason why I think that there is a real benefit to attending in-person tech conferences is that in-person events bring together IT experts from all over the world. I will never forget attending Microsoft TechEd in 1997. At the time, the organization that I was working for was having major problems with our ability to restore Exchange Server databases from backup. I won't bore you with the nitty gritty details, but I will say that we had spent months trying to solve the problem. Even Microsoft support and our backup vendor seemed to be at a loss.

One afternoon I mentioned the problem to some other IT pros that I was having lunch with. As luck would have it, one of them had just solved that very issue in his own organization, and was able to provide me with some very helpful advice that I was able to put to work in my own organization. I seriously doubt that ever would have happened in a virtual tech conference.

Yet another argument in favor of in-person events is that, at least for me, live events seem to carry a higher priority. When I am going to be attending an in-person IT event, I usually put a lot of planning into the event. I decide long before the start of the event what I want to learn, who I want to talk to and what I hope to accomplish while I am on site. Things are different when it comes to virtual events. I am a little bit embarrassed to admit this, but as a virtual event approaches, I often catch myself thinking of it as being just another meeting that I don't have time for. In fact, I am very likely to prioritize a last-minute writing assignment or a phone call with an editor over a virtual conference.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of all of attending in-person tech conferences is that of getting face time with contacts. A couple of years ago, for example, I attended a conference in Houston that some of my editors from this site were a part of. One evening, I ended up going to a baseball game with one of my editors. I'm not a sports fan, and I had never attended a major league game before, but it ended up being fun. More importantly, I got the chance to know my editor  a little bit better. That probably would not have happened in a normal day-to-day setting, because we both stay so busy.

Over the years, I have attended countless in-person events, and numerous online events. While I have nothing against virtual events, I do not think that they even come close to offering the same experience as an in-person event.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 16-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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