The events industry is perhaps the worst hit by the pandemic. The majority of conventions and conferences have been canceled or switched to purely virtual. In some cases, the pivot has gone well. In others…there were a number of issues with CoNZealand, the virtual WorldCon, which I won’t discuss here.
This has led to speculation: Will all future conferences be virtual?
Virtual is Accessible
A lot of people like virtual. Why? It’s so much more accessible. The APS meeting was moved online, and quadrupled registration. The Nebula Weekend, SFWA’s annual conference, went online…and ran out of conference swag.
Virtual allows people to attend who otherwise can’t. It lets you attend a conference on the other side of the world. It lets disabled people who can’t travel attend. People can attend while watching their young children.
Virtual is great. It’s also cheaper, obviously, than running a face-to-face conference. Oh, and it’s easier to deal with harassers and trolls (even though it’s easier for them to get there in the first place).
But then there’s the converse.
Virtual Doesn’t Replace Everything
There are experiences that a virtual con simply can’t duplicate. There really are.
It’s harder to mingle with strangers (Although the Nebulas did a great thing with random Zoom breakout rooms that almost got the experience). You can’t eat with your new friends. Cosplay, a major aspect of science fiction and anime cons is nearly impossible to virtualize. Virtual masquerades have been tried, but you can’t judge craftsmanship.
And, of course, for some people, a conference is an excuse to travel and see a new city they might not otherwise have considered.
Cities Need Conferences
Then there’s the third factor: The local economy in many cities needs conferences, especially huge events like WWD4 or DragonCon.
Congoers spend money. A lot of it is spent in the vendor room (and many small businesses are struggling or even having to shutter because they don’t have access to trade shows). But a lot is also spent at hotels, at nearly restaurants, etc.
Unless it’s a small conference at a hotel miles from the nearest other restaurant (not always a fun experience), attendees will go out and do stuff.
This makes for a massive influx of cash into local economies…and a lot of it goes to small businesses.
If conferences go virtual, there may be no replacing that.
So, What Should Be the Future?
Large events are unlikely to return until at least mid- to late 2021. I’m working the 2021 WorldCon and we’re preparing both for a physical con and a virtual one. (I hope we can run. I could actually afford to go for once. But it has to be safe).
When they do come back, though, people are going to rush back. Some high risk attendees might well delay, but younger and healthier people are going to be desperate for the experience. Vendors are going to need the money. Even large corporations are almost certainly looking forward to the return of the live product demo.
We can’t get away from that first thing: Accessibility.
In the arena I’m familiar with, that of the science fiction con, we are talking about what we have learned. I can’t make predictions for other areas, but here are some for that realm:
- The future is hybrid. The future is physical cons with the ability to attend or even participate virtually. And some of us are quite excited about this! Imagine going to a science fiction con and seeing a mounted combat demonstration streamed to the panel room live from the arena (this one has already been done). Or a local falconer flying their birds then doing a Q&A. Or, for that matter, a presentation straight from the ISS. And that’s quite aside from the fact that…a few years ago, an older science fiction writer was supposed to attend a local con here. Then he had eye surgery and it didn’t go well. His doctor forbade him from flying. With a hybrid model, he could still have participated. The downside for business cons is that some people who would very much like to travel might be trapped in virtual attendance by cheap bosses.
- True online conventions will accelerate. There will be more virtual conferences; but they will be digitally native. They will not replace face to face shows, but will be their own thing, not trying to copy or duplicate the experience but rather to provide something that can only be done in the virtual space.
(Incidentally, no, I don’t think virtual reality will fully replace face to face experiences either. I think if there’s one thing COVID-19 has taught us it’s what can and can’t be done at a distance).
So, that’s my rather hopeful thought for the future of conferences. They will come back, but they will be better for what we have learned.