Mitch Joel: Real and Virtual Conventions Go Together

June 26th, 2009

Real and Virtual Conventions Go Together
By MITCH JOEL | The Montreal Gazette

Last year, I wrote a column for titled, You Should Attend an Unconference. It looked at a new kind of conference where individuals were connecting and collaborating en masse online to create an event in the real world that was self-organized by the attendees.

Over the year, these types of events have continued to flourish. About two weeks ago, I participated in (and helped organize) an unconference called, BookCamp, that was held in Toronto to discuss the future of books, writing, publishing in the digital age. With more than 300 participants, the conversations were deep, intense and spilled over into the after-party.

On the other hand, the standard conferences that we're all more familiar with have been taking a huge hit. It's not just that travel has become more complex and time intensive, but the economy has taken a toll on these types of events.

Companies are sending fewer people to conventions. Even if they are considering taking part in the trade show with a booth, many companies are opting for less square footage and more humble booth design.

Even the geographical location of these conferences has shifted to appeal to the changing landscape. At a recent event in Florida a conference organizer confided in me that they shifted the location from a well-known resort to a local hotel because many of the participants complained that even though they had the budget and would be willing to attend, just having this brand name resort on their expense reports would send the wrong message to their employees and the shareholders.

All to say this could be the best time for the conference and trade show industry to re-invent itself. Industry trade shows and conferences have an important role. For many firms, it was the one time each year when they could see the latest products and services available from suppliers (and even competitors). Gatherings provided a “town hall” to meet with potential customers and a place to celebrate one another's successes (most of these industry events also feature some kind of evening gala and awards ceremony). The addition of keynote addresses and concurrent learning tracks empowered and educated the attendees with the latest in terms of technology, strategy and tactics to grow their business. But, somewhere along the way, many of these events have become stale and dull.

Technology and the proliferation of the Internet have not helped. People are now generally connected, savvy and up-to-speed on the changes in their industry.

With e-newsletters and great speakers on YouTube, it's not easy to wow an audience anymore. Industry leaders are following blogs, people on Twitter and even connecting through online social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn. It's not uncommon to see digital groups forming prior, during and post-event to stay connected and to continue the sharing – a lot of times unbeknown to the conference organizers.

Within this shift lies tremendous opportunities. As amazing as technology is, there is still nothing like face-to-face contact and the benefits of getting away from the office and the home.

People who attend events and “press the flesh” are usually much more accessible and have the time to focus on some of the more social aspects of business (lunches, networking cocktails, dinner, golf, etc.). These are things technology can't replicate.

The truth is that conference organizers have to turn these gatherings into something much more memorable. They need to amp it up and create a “moment in time” where people can connect, build, share and grow. The focus needs to be on the more human aspects of why people gather: to learn, to network, to celebrate and to grow their business.

A truly successful conference is one that leverages the many online platforms to create connections before and after the event, while leveraging the actual event by providing unique and original content along with a place for those professionals to also share their personal experiences.

The annual convention and trade show of yesteryear is changing and morphing.

The ones that are worth going to are the ones that have transformed from the annual event business professionals are expected to attend, to the types of events that you would not miss for the world – both the virtual and real world.

Mitch Joel is president of the digital marketing and communications agency Twist Image.