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With Conferences Falling to Coronavirus, It’s Time to Rethink the Virtual Conference

By Craig Roth | March 05, 2020 | 2 Comments

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It has become de rigueur in the past few weeks for conferences to be cancelled due to “an abundance of caution” about coronavirus (COVID-19). Many of the announcements promise a conference will still proceed as a virtual conference just like the planned one, but potentially more boring.  Maybe this is the time to up the game for what a virtual conference can be?

Urban electronic billboard that reads JOC TPM20 Cancelled

The reason I have time to write this blog post now is that, after a 4 hour flight to attend a full day private conference, I arrived to be told it was cancelled and to just fly back home.  When my wife asked how my flight was I replied “dumb”, a word I’ve never used to describe a plane trip.

And I’ll be at home for a while since other conferences, like Docusign, Amazon, Facebook F8Google Next and Microsoft’s MVP  conference were also just cancelled.  Gartner has done this as well, cancelling Gartner IT Symposium/Xpo 2020 in Dubai.

The typical idea is to switch these conferences to virtual conferences by streaming all the sessions. They are also allowed for playback at a later time, which people often say they will do but then get busy and forget.  Or they wind up multi-tasking halfway through.

So go beyond typical.  With so many conferences going virtual, maybe this is the time to seriously re-imagine what a virtual conference can be.  Just like simply digitizing existing processes leads to minimal benefits, just virtualizing the current conference format doesn’t exploit the possibilities opened up by eliminating the physical walls and seats of the conference center.  And you (and the attendees) are saving quite a bit of money without all the physical trappings.  A fraction of these savings can be funneled into creating more compelling formats for the content.

Virtual Conference Idea Starters

Here are a few ideas to think outside the box (or outside of “Grand Ballroom C-D, Upper Level Concourse 2:30-3:15”):

  • E-universities: University of Phoenix, Kahn Academy, and Masterclass may show the way to go, thinking of the collection of content more as a set of classes to finish a course.  Designed from scratch to be virtual, they tend to have more slickly produced videos, workbooks, and interaction.  The feel is much different than a conference.
  • Documentary style: Streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO have helped fill out their catalogs with lots of documentaries.  Documentaries that try to inform and convince you with a strong point of view (think “Super Size Me”, “Citizenfour”) use quick cuts, music, interviews with numerous experts or people that have experienced the subject.  What if the conference sessions were “produced” rather than “delivered” in 1 hour hour pitch?
  • Virtual un-conference: Power to the attendees.  The topic is provided.  But after that the attendees decide what sub-topics they want to discuss and how long on each.  There may be an expert speaker, but that speaker doesn’t exert control over the agenda.  Virtual technology makes it easier to take quick votes and polls to determine what most attendees would like to talk about and to get feedback-on-the-fly to adjust in realtime to the zeitgeist of the virtual room.
  • Collaborative deliverable creation: Why do presentations have to revolve around slides?  Maybe they should be more like collaborative workshops where the attendees jointly create a deliverable.  Many presentations end with “to-dos” or “30 day action plans” provided as bullets, but maybe it’s better to jointly create that list as the deliverable for a presentation with attendees offering up ideas that generate discussion.  Crowdsourcing technologies like Klaxoon and Bluescape could be used to host them instead of just showing canned slides.
  • Virtual Worlds: 10 years ago many thought it would be Second Life (or a few enterprise versions).  That hasn’t panned out as expected (attendees showing up as “furries” might be part of the reason), but there are still some.
  • VR headsets: Some thought virtual headsets could provide a more immersive experience. It has worked for some music concerts, but I don’t think I’d want to sit for hours with one of those things pressing on my nasal bridge.

I’m sure there are many other ideas for how this could work.  How would you re-envision the conference in virtual form?

The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

Comments are closed


  • apply here says:

    As more gatherings get shut down due to Covid-19, a new group of companies are trying to re-create the experience online. Hotel cocktail not included.

  • sozan says:

    COVID-19 Destroy Everything.