Preparing for HDI Service Management World in mid-November caused me to reflect on some of the notable changes in conferences since COVID brought live events to a standstill for nearly two years. This is my sixth post-pandemic live conference held by multiple event organizers, with the earliest having been in October 2021. As such, I’ve observed some of these differences firsthand and will provide some thoughts on the pros and cons.
One of the most obvious changes is that many live events are no longer exclusively live and in-person. For two years now, event staff and sponsors had an opportunity to perfect the art of remotely delivered presentations. These differed greatly from pre-pandemic webinars where a presenter spoke at you. No, these virtual conferences became the norm with speakers who presented remotely just as they would have had the event been held in person.
Consequently, in the post-pandemic world, a hybrid approach has become more normalized. Although the entire conference agenda may not be available to the remote audience, a wide enough selection is broadcast to at least give those not in attendance a feel for topics covering best practice, case studies, and emerging trends.
An obvious advantage to the hybrid conference approach is that those unable to attend – whether because of personal choice or employer (budgetary or policy) constraint – can take part, and a wider audience can be reached. This benefits the event organizers, sponsors, speakers, and most importantly those who would attend but are unable. In addition, remote conference attendance in the hybrid format is typically significantly lower in cost (if not free.)
The only real disadvantage to this approach is that virtual attendees have less opportunity to interact with the speaker and with peers. To a much lesser extent, the more limited schedule of presentations being offered remotely means that some topics of interest may not be available to the remote attendee. Of course, this is part of the tradeoff one might expect given the reduced cost.
Another obvious change is that the number of conference choices available is more limited. It is a sad truth that some conferences that were annual juggernauts have not been resurrected in the post-COVID world. There are several organizers that I’m familiar with who made no attempt to hold virtual conferences during the pandemic events shutdown of 2020 and 2021. These are the conferences that have failed to reappear, perhaps because the organizers lost momentum or because they lost their audience.
The only real advantage here is that there really was a glut of conference options before 2020. It could easily be argued that there were just too many that covered the same subject matter, and that each attracted only the same people year after year. In the absence of some of these events, their annual constituents are now looking at other live conference options, thereby injecting new blood into these events, and expanding networks that otherwise may have stagnated.
The corresponding disadvantage, of course, is that less choices is not necessarily a great thing. From an attendee perspective, long cherished relationships and traditions may be lost. As a conference speaker, I love to share my message at multiple conferences and get to know as many people in my industry as possible. From a sponsor perspective there is a smaller pool of opportunities to connect with a community. In short, less events can translate to less opportunities to connect – for everyone.
Nearly everyone has felt the budgetary pinch when it comes to business travel, training, and development. This applies to event organizers, sponsors, and employers. Most organizers rely on annual recurring event revenue to inject vitality into their future events. Two years without much revenue have forced some to scale back on food, entertainment, keynote speakers, and more. By the same token, event sponsors have seen their budgets slashed, and are forced to make tough decisions about what events and conferences they will sponsor. I have seen some companies that were traditionally top-tier sponsors before the pandemic not even make a sponsorship appearance in the past year.
Believe it or not, I feel there is an advantage to smaller budgets. What in some cases before the pandemic had become loud, audacious, and raucous events with slick production values but lower substance have become more intimate. Scaling back on costs by organizers created more opportunities for attendees to hold conversations without thumping music drowning out the discussion.
On the con side, some of the big-budget expectations that attendees have are no longer being fully met – despite conference costs being about the same as they were in 2019. Attendees may not see a national act or a top-tier international keynote – but will still see high quality entertainment and speakers. With fewer sponsors, there also may be less opportunity to openly explore solutions than in years past. Obviously, some employers have also gutted “unnecessary expenses” – a category which, unfortunately, conferences and events typically fall into. This feeds the vicious cycle of lower sponsorship – because they rely on attendees to generate leads for their company.
Speakers and Topics
Likely in part due to what our society endured for two years, presentations have evolved from traditional topics about service to a much heavier emphasis on experience. This evolution has ushered in a whole new wave of speakers. I’ve attended several events since 2021 that have openly shared that the lineup included a record number of first-time speakers.
This is an incredible development! Experience over service is something that I’ve long been a proponent of, and seeing it gain traction is truly exciting.
Seeing the speaker community expand is also a phenomenal development. A mentor of mine once told me, “Don’t think of the speaker pie as having a limited number of pieces. Help bake a bigger pie!” In that spirit, I actively seek out first-time speakers and make a point of attending their sessions to be supportive. I want to see the speaker community get back on its feet and become more energized with vitality as the conference circuit returns to normal.
Which brings me finally to an observation about the attendees of conferences and events in the post-COVID world. There is palpably a deeper level of commitment to truly engage. There are a lot less of what I affectionately refer to as “professional partiers with a travel budget” in attendance - the type that only show up for a session or two, hang around only with their friends, but don’t miss any of the parties.
Since conferences have restarted, I’ve seen a lot more attendees who really interact – with one another, with speakers, and with sponsors. There is a lot more community-building happening, and that’s exceptional!
Traction is also building, as events are recovering their attendance levels, and without losing the newfound intimacy. As someone who has worn all the hats – organizer, sponsor, speaker, and attendee – this is exactly why we hold conferences and events.
Spend some time building a community and expanding your network at Service Management World, or your next conference. When you get back to work next week, tell others about the highlights of your week. And if you see me this next week (or at any event anywhere), please introduce yourself. I’d love to connect!
Doug Rabold is Chief Experience Officer, Founder and Principal Consultant of Bold Ray Consulting in San Antonio, Texas. As an IT Operations Leader he has had direct oversight of over a dozen different ITIL processes. Doug has led teams of up to 300 resources and managed contracts and asset values totaling over $50 million.
Doug successfully transitioned from a sales career to IT Operations in 2009. As a lifelong learner, he attended the University of Illinois and holds numerous IT industry certifications. Doug is a certified trainer and has well over ten years of experience in public speaking.
Doug is currently serving as Chairman of the HDI National Board of Directors and is member of the ITAM Forum Strategic Advisory Board. He previously served two terms on a Customer Advisory Board helping guide development of an industry leading ITSM tool from a customer perspective.