ProBeat: How coronavirus will change tech events forever

I could have written this column a month ago, on February 27, when Facebook canceled its F8 developers conference scheduled for May. While I was writing, O’Reilly got out of the event business permanently. I could have also waited another month, and I’d have even more material. We have no idea how long the coronavirus pandemic will last and even less of a gauge on how long we’ll be feeling its impacts thereafter. Here at VentureBeat, we host at least two major events per year. We’ve shifted GamesBeat Summit 2020 (April 28 and April 29) to completely digital, and we’ll be clarifying our plans for our AI conference Transform 2020 (July 15 and July 16) shortly.

It would be foolish for me to tell you that COVID-19 will only impact this year’s events. It would be equally foolish for me to tell you how each event will look like in 2021. But here is what you, the tech event host, the business executive, the startup founder, the developer, or simply the casual event attendee, should think about. Going forward, tech events will never be the same. Some will cease to exist, some will change drastically, and I think, some will stay exactly as they were.

Should I host a tech event?

Companies put on tech events for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s purely a marketing play. For others, it’s their whole business model. And of course, there’s a bunch in between.

For those that are simply promoting themselves, their products, and their services, they will naturally compare the ROI of their events for 2020 versus other years. Whether they cancel their event or put on an online-only version, they will judge that against putting on a physical event. That’s a very hard comparison to make, given that one can’t discount market conditions. The coronavirus isn’t only resulting in health-based decisions, but economic-based ones too. It would not surprise me if some companies choose to not host tech events anymore, or to permanently shift online. But each company will decide what makes sense for them — we won’t see all companies that put on tech events about themselves conclude the same thing.

For those that put on tech events for others to mingle, do business, and learn, it’s going to be an even harder equation. Because events are the main piece of the pie, these companies will be hit hardest. They will compare the ROI for 2020 versus other years as well, and again, they’ll have to account for market conditions, but it will be more difficult to determine which way to move forward. The issues, holes, and limits of online-only events will be exposed, for better and for worse. Some will choose online-only while others will deem 2020 an off-year and never look back. I think most interesting will be those that will try to experiment with mixing online and in-person components.

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Should I attend a tech event?

Similarly to how tech event hosts are reevaluating their options, attendees will be reevaluating whether they should attend at all. Based on 2020, some will make blanket decisions on whether they simply attend everything they usually do or skip events altogether. Most attendees, however, will take it on a case-by-case basis. This is assuming, of course, that the decision isn’t made for them.

The next biggest factor is what type of attendee you are. If some portion of marketing your business comes from attending tech events, you’ll likely look at 2020 and think through what worked and what didn’t. You’ll also consider that the 2020 market conditions were an anomaly. It can be expensive to attend an event. Can you still get the deal done if you don’t show up in person? Will you get fewer deals done?

This year, mid-tier and small-tier companies will be most impacted because in-person events are often how they get attention. They will also be most willing to try new ways to stand out, which may include online-only events or other forms of marketing entirely.

Broadly speaking, any offline activity that can be done online will be done online. If that activity can be done more successfully online, where success is measured by ROI, many will consider not doing it offline anymore.

Then there’s the question of networking. Executives often seal deals at events, but there’s also plenty of relationship-building that doesn’t immediately result in a signed contract. Those interactions are a lot harder to quantify.

Some may realize that they can skip events, or at least certain events. Others will conclude that they cannot skip any. But the biggest learning will be whether online-only works for them, or not. All of this will result in the type of attendee changing for many events.

Age, time, and location

It’s possible, for example, that younger attendees will be more willing to embrace online-only tech events since they grew up on the internet. Overall though, I’m doubtful the desire to meet in person is going to disappear. Does the value of face-to-face meetings vary with age? Are such meetings necessary to build trust or are they not everything they’re cracked up to be? Like the other factors above, I strongly believe this will vary from person to person, event to event.

One more thing is worth highlighting in all this disruption. When it is deemed safe to attend tech events again, there will be a conflicting sense of caution and urgency. Similarly to how the various bans were rolled out, the changes won’t happen overnight. There won’t be a specific date to point to and say “This is the day when health recommendations, travel restrictions, and attendee sentiment across the world turned green again.” A significant amount of logistics have to work in tandem for people to show up at an event, especially if travel is involved.

On the flip side, there will be pent-up demand to attend events, especially from those that have been missing them. Add the fact that more events are packed into a smaller timeframe and you have a pipeline issue. Yes, many events were cancelled or shifted to online-only, but others were delayed to the second half of the year.

Event organizers and attendees will have to balance these two forces pulling in opposite directions. Here at VentureBeat, we’ll be doing what we always do on the site and at our events: Keeping you informed.

ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.

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