Tech trade shows become virtual events for COVID-19

The conference business was a slick, well-oiled beast drawing in hundreds of thousands of attendees every year before it was stopped in its tracks.
2 April 2020

We won’t be rubbing shoulders for a while. Source: Shutterstock

The COVID-19 (Coronavirus) has changed a huge number of things in our world, nobody needs to be reminded of that fact.

Whole industries such as travel and entertainment have practically been shut down. In return, our most basic utility services (not just electricity and other forms of power, but food supply, refuse collection and sanitation) have been elevated to a new elite status. 

Many of us who previously took little notice of what blue-collar workers do day-to-day have suddenly started being a lot more grateful for their existence. As entire supply chains get tilted off their previously stable axes, we need to find news ways of doing the things that we took for granted as recently as the start of 2020.

Tech trade show trauma 

With a few high-profile casualties such as the cancellation of Mobile World Congress 2020 in Barcelona back in February, a lengthy list of major technology vendors have gradually shifted their physical real world events to online-only, virtual event status.

Usually opting to rename the virtual event a new ‘digital experience’, most vendors have taken their physical show plans down within 10-weeks of the planned conference date.

This gradual shift to online has arguably provided some small level of entertainment amongst the chaos. 

Some of us were like… when will SAP Sapphire, ServiceNow Knowledge, MongoDB World, Alfresco Modernize, NetApp Insight or Nutanix Next (yes, they all have cute event names after the company brand) confirm that it’s not on anymore? Some enterprising soul should have built a sort of bingo game app to allow us to cross them off. Yay, I got IBM Think, I only need SUSECON, DataStax Accelerate and Percona Live for the full line!    

At the time of writing (April 2020), we’re seeing the 2020 fall/autumn season of shows still being left in place, but with most vendors listing a caution on their websites to say that they’re ‘closely monitoring the situation with COVID-19’ etc. 

PR fallout fear factor

So how have the people responsible for promoting press attendance and generating wider publicity for tech trade shows reacted?

The public relations community has said that on the plus side, the newer format of virtual events offers a great way to showcase masses of content and also cut travel. So it’s something of a plus for climate change, while also opening the door to more downloadable content for everyone (even people who would not previously have attended), but this does come at the expense of not being able to do the relationship-building stuff that real events include so often.  

According to Crawford Warnock, director of Northampton-based Firstname Communications, the main issue is that virtual conferences are so easy to miss (or ditch), so ensuring attendance becomes a case of email-after-email that risks annoying some journalists, customers or other stakeholders.

“Once someone is booked on a flight or has a hotel reservation, it is pretty much guaranteed they will be there. By comparison, there is no such confidence that someone will conscientiously be logging on for what might be hours, amid a busy schedule. And even when they are ‘attending’, there are a million and one things still competing for a journalist’s attention whilst online,” said Warnock. 

Warnock suggests that there is an undeniable convenience factor in online conferences. Online exclusive content can be delivered without the confusion of attendees being distracted with meetings, t-shirt giveaways and all the other diversions offered on the show floor and throughout the event venue itself.  

Virtual events best practice

Taking the wider view, it has been an interesting development in the industry with almost all professional tech firms taking a relatively similar approach to going online. The conference business was a slick, well-oiled beast drawing in hundreds of thousands of attendees every year before it was stopped in its tracks.

Because the shift to virtual events is comparatively new, very few best practice principles have been drawn up and agreed upon. 

Do we have to log in and stay online all day? Can we get the whole thing streamed later on when it works for our current schedule? How long will the content be available? Are the video presentations ‘searchable’ for meta tagged text? Can I still get a t-shirt? There are many questions to be asked.

The upshot of the whole trend could accelerate investment into virtual event platforms as a competitive new market. It’s early days and most people agree that life may never go back to pre-COVID-19 normal… if you can actually (already) remember what that was like.

Bohemian travesty

So COVID-19 has affected all major gatherings without prejudice. If Freddie Mercury is looking down on us now he too would be upset to learn that the Queen & Adam Lambert tour of the UK has been pushed forward to 2021. 

Perhaps this will allow us all to focus on our best friends and other human beings, play the game and cope under pressure if our mother is tied down to self-isolation until we can finally break free and see that last strain of virus bite the dust and declare ourselves the champions.

As Freddie would say: the show must go on.