Can the for-profit conferences make it in an online world?

I’ve attended a lot of online conferences so far in 2020, and even helped to run one. We’re in the summer lull now, and I expect to attend several more in the fall/winter season. With only a few exceptions, the online events that I’ve attended have been vendor conferences, and they have all offered free access for attendees. That works well because for vendors, since conferences are really part of their marketing and sales efforts, and most of them only charge enough for in-person events to cover costs. That equation changes, however, with the conferences run by professional organizers who make their money by charging (sometimes quite high) fees to conference attendees, presumably for higher-quality and less-biased content than you will find at a vendor conference.

I had the first inkling of the professional conference organizers dilemma with the Collision conference that was supposed to be held in Toronto in June. I had purchased a ticket for it, then in early March they decided to move to a virtual format. They automatically transferred by ticket to an online ticket, meaning that they intended to charge the same price for the online event as the in-person event, and it took several requests to get a refund for my ticket. The event was mostly about in-person networking as well as being able to see some big names presenting live; as soon as this becomes online, it’s just not as interesting any more. I do fine with online networking in a number of other ways, and those big names have a lot of published videos on YouTube where I can see the same content that they may have presented at the (now virtual) conference. I suspect many others made the same decision.

Now the fall conference season is almost upon us, and although the BPM academic conference and the vendors (TIBCO, OpenText, Camunda) long ago announced that they were going virtual, there were a few obvious holdouts from the professional conference organizers until just a few days ago:

  • APQC announced on July 23 — barely two months before their October 6-8 event — that the Houston-based Process and Performance Management conference would be moving to a virtual format. APQC members have access for free, but non-members pay $275. This is a decrease from the in-person non-member price of $1,595 plus $950 per day of workshop (up to three), with early bird discounts. I was scheduled to keynote at this event, and that’s now cancelled; their schedule is just time blocks without specific speakers as of today.
  • On the same day, Building Business Capability announced that BBC 2020 on October 19-23 will now be virtual, instead of in Las Vegas. They have a full speaker agenda listed on their site, but also a somewhat eye-watering price for a virtual conference: $1,357 for the tutorials and conference if you pay before September 11, or $1,577 if you wait until closer to the date. If you only want to watch live and not have access to on-demand recordings, then the price drops by $300, and another $300 if you don’t want the tutorials. That means that their lowest price is the early bird livestream-only, conference-only (no tutorials) for $717. Pricing for their in-person conference was significantly higher, with the top price of $3,295 for the non-discounted conference and tutorials, and the lowest price of $1,795 for the early bird conference-only pass.

Almost every industry has been impacted by the pandemic, and conferences are no exception. Vendor conferences can actually be every effective online if done right, and save a lot of money for the vendors. The professional conference organizers are going to be making a harder transition, since they need to offer content that is clearly valuable and unique in order to charge any significant amount. If a large number of the speakers already have content available elsewhere (e.g., YouTube, webinars), the value of having them behind a conference paywall is much lower; however, if they don’t already have content available, they may not be enough of a draw.

Personally, I’m just happy to be able to avoid Vegas for the foreseeable future.

2 thoughts on “Can the for-profit conferences make it in an online world?”

  1. Your last sentence, “Personally, I’m just happy to be able to avoid Vegas for the foreseeable future” got a laugh out of me. Vegas is always interesting. It is a convenient location for conferences (vs. someplace like San Francisco) since you can get almost everything done at one venue. However, it is still Vegas and can be quite tiring. Usually, by day 3, I am completely ready to head home.

    It will be fascinating to see how professional conferences adjust. They will have to be much more creative in putting together agendas that offer value, especially if they are going to try to charge rates in the range of what BBC 2020 is asking for. Our company usually attends an OPEX exchange every year. We have found it very valuable. However, with COVID, they’ve switched to a virtual format but they are still trying to charge practically the same amount. I wished them good luck :).

  2. The reduction in events of all kinds has really decimated a number of businesses: meeting planners, catering companies, travel and logistics, venues, Audio-Visual companies, registration companies, and on and on. not to mention hotels and restaurants that feed off the largesse of conferences.

    I get a close view of this via my wife’s firm, Red Velvet Events, here in Austin. I think many of the for-profit conferences will have to reinvent to survive. There may be bankruptcies or discontinuations. Most of them can’t translate to an online format and still charge what they charge. It’s unfortunate because everyone is getting hit by something out of their control. It isn’t a reduction in demand, it is mandated demand going to zero.

    Still, I think that it will bounce back – perhaps smaller than before, and with more virtual vendor conferences than before. But once we can safely meet again in person, I think people will remember how valuable those in-person connections are – perhaps even more so when there are fewer competitors going to those conferences.

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