Posey's Tips & Tricks

IT After COVID-19: Can Virtual Conferences Compare to Live Events?

It makes sense for tech giants like Microsoft to take their conferences to the cloud in the wake of the pandemic, but virtual events will be a hard sell to veteran conference-goers.

With so much of the world still in lockdown, tech conferences are being canceled left and right. Many of the bigger events aren't really being canceled, though -- they are just being converted into virtual events.

While I don't dispute that making the switch to virtual events is probably necessary for various logistical reasons, I am hoping that 2021 will see the return of in-person events.

On the surface, virtual events seem ideal. For an event organizer, a virtual event is far less expensive to produce. Going virtual eliminates the need to lease a large venue. It also eliminates costs such as meals on-site, the attendee party, and transportation between hotels and the venue where the event is being held.

A virtual event seems like a better option for attendees, too. After all, attendees don't have to worry about taking time off from work or shelling out big bucks for travel.

As I ponder the relevance of virtual events, I can't help but think of a friend who takes a somewhat different approach to tech conferences than I do. This friend never actually goes to any of the live events. Instead, he just waits for the announcements and sessions to be posted online later on. He has told me that this approach gives him access to exactly the same information that he would have received had he actually attended the event, but saves him the hassle and cost of being there in person.

But if it's true that you can simply watch all of the sessions online after the show ends, why bother going in the first place? What is the benefit of attending a tech conference in person rather than simply watching the sessions online?

Everybody probably has their own answer to this question. For some, the benefit to attending an event in person might be something as simple as getting a break from the norm.

Take Microsoft Ignite. The event has been held in Orlando, Fla., for the last few years, and there is an area near the convention center where many of the attendees hang out after-hours. It's an easily walkable area filled with restaurants, pubs and a few tourist attractions. Even though it's not really my thing, the pubs are packed each night with conference attendees enjoying a few drinks and maybe some live music. I'm sure that it makes for a nice change from their normal routines.

For others, the appeal of an in-person event is likely to be the fact that so many experts are gathered in one location, giving attendees a chance to ask questions that might otherwise be tough to get answered. In fact, I once attended an event for this very reason.

At the time, I worked for an organization that was experiencing some serious Exchange Server issues. Nobody on the IT staff (including me) could figure out what was going on. To make a long story short, my boss sent me to an event related to Microsoft Exchange and instructed me to talk to as many people from Microsoft as I could until I found someone who knew how to fix the problem. I ended up getting the answers I needed by the second day of the conference, and I also learned a lot from the conversations I had with others while at the event.

In-person events are also beneficial to those who need to cultivate business relationships. For instance, vendors in the exhibit hall use tech events to generate sales leads. At the same time, tech journalists like myself use the event as an opportunity to watch new technologies being demonstrated and to ask questions.

I think the biggest argument in favor of attending live events is that doing so makes it a lot easier to focus on all that the event has to offer. While I am planning to virtually attend this year's major tech conferences, the experience definitely won't be the same as being there.

I'm sure I will probably be able to check out a few sessions, but because I am at home (and everyone knows it), I will inevitably have people trying to set up calls at times when I would rather be listening to a session. Other distractions might include the need to perform domestic chores such as grocery shopping and vacuuming.

The point is that being at an event in person makes it a lot easier to focus on the event, rather than getting bogged down by day-to-day stuff and hoping to just squeeze in an hour or two of the event's content.

For this year, attending IT events in person doesn't seem to be an option. My plan is to attend virtually and to try to get as much out of the experience as I can. Even so, I sincerely hope that we will see a return to live events next year. Virtual events might work in a pinch, but they are not even close to being a good substitute for attending an event in person.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 19-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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