Coronavirus (COVID-19), Learning & Development

Conferences: Is it Time to Get Back on the Road?

One of the many impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the widespread abandonment of professional conferences and work-related networking and learning events. Such events have understandably been seen as unnecessary large, in-person gatherings that could further spread the COVID-19 virus. The health and safety risks of such events did not justify the risks for most organizations. But now that governments and companies are starting to accept the reality of life with COVID and work life slowly returns to “normal,” many are asking: “Are these conferences worth it even now?”

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Make no mistake: Work conferences can be extremely expensive. Often, they involve long-distance travel, including hotel stays, meals, rental cars, and other travel expenses. They may involve renting a conference space from pricey hotels or event centers, and they take a tremendous amount of staff time and effort to plan and coordinate.

Advocates of the work conference, though, will argue that the costs and logistical challenges are well worth the benefits, which include building personal connections and greater engagement than can be reached through virtual alternatives.

We reached out to industry experts to see what they and their organizations are thinking about the potential return of work conferences.

What Is the Current Conference Landscape?

While some companies are returning to their pre-COVID conference habits, many either have abandoned conferences for the foreseeable future or are taking a wait-and-see approach as the pandemic lingers. This means that while there are conferences taking place, they are often smaller affairs than pre-pandemic events.

“Attendance at medium to larger events are off as much as 30 to 50 percent,” says Rick Harris, CEO of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals. “A lot of companies weren’t sure about the 2022 COVID landscape and did not budget for live meetings this year. That means fewer attendees than pre-pandemic,” he says. The good news, though, he adds, “is that the attendees are generally senior-level executives who control the budgets, so the quality of attendee is greater.”

In-Person Networking

A very common argument in favor of in-person conferences that multiple experts made is the value of in-person networking. Telecommunication technologies have certainly improved in recent years, but there is still no substitute for real, live human interaction.

“Both myself and my team have already started attending live conferences,” says Colin Toh, CEO and founder of Headphonesty. “We feel that you can get so much more out of a live event than one that’s virtual, especially when it comes to networking. Being able to talk to someone face to face creates a much stronger bond and connection that’s just hard to replicate when it’s done on Zoom. You can also connect with many, many more people at an in-person event.”

Time Away from the ‘Office’

Pre-COVID, attending a conference often meant being out of the office for the better part of a week, between attending the event itself and the travel required to get to and from the event. While attending a conference is still work for the attendee, for those covering during his or her absence, it can feel like he or she is simply on vacation.

With millions of Americans working fully remotely, the impacts of this travel are actually somewhat mitigated. This is because conference attendees are probably used to getting work done and communicating with colleagues while away from the office, meaning they’re arguably more effective and productive when squeezing in some work during conference breaks than employees used to working exclusively from the office. Nevertheless, it’s impossible for staff to give their full attention to both a conference and their day jobs.

It Is (or Can Be) Good to Have Options

Obviously, conference organizers have a choice of whether to host conferences in person or online or to allow both in-person and online attendance. If you’re thinking that both is the best-available option, the choice isn’t as easy as it might seem. Some participants attending in person and others joining online creates a disparity in attendees’ experiences and can take away from the experiences of both.

When some attendees are in person and others are online, event organizers have to either exclude the online participants from some events or make all events suitable for online attendance, which can limit the feasibility of some activities and formats.

Nevertheless, many companies like having options with respect to whether to attend a conference online or remotely. “Based on the turnout and scale of a conference, we send employees for live and online conferences,” says Jared Stern, founder and CEO of Uplift Legal Funding. “The relevance of the conference to our long-term goals is an important criterion,” he adds. “Live conferences are such great learning tools for employees. We would consider that as on-the-job training. We are looking to invest equally in online and live conferences. If one of the landscapes sounds more promising, we’ll invest more in the same.”

Safety Is Key

For both actual health and safety and the mental peace of mind of attendees, presenters, event organizers, and other staff, it’s extremely important to take health and safety seriously. In the COVID era, this might mean asking attendees to be tested for the virus before attending and making masks and hand sanitizer available. If an event is perceived as unsafe, it will significantly reduce attendance and cause those who do attend to have distracting health and safety concerns.

Work conferences once seemed like a fundamental aspect of professional life. While sometimes stigmatized as agonizingly boring and lame by some attendees, most employees do enjoy and value their time at conferences. But after being forced to forego such events for roughly 2 years during the COVID-19 pandemic, companies are now trying to determine whether it makes sense to return to the practice.

As the experts we’ve spoken with demonstrate, there are pros and cons to getting back to in-person conferences and events. Whether they make sense for any particular organization will depend on the company’s unique situation.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.