In-person business conferences are going to come back—but they’re going to come back smarter, said Sherrif Karamat, CEO of the Professional Convention Management Association, in an Associated Press story earlier this month. “I’m very bullish” about the eventual full return of in-person events, Karamat said; but he added that many virtual elements would remain, and said conference organizers are thinking more deeply about why their conferences really matter to participants. “I feel we’re going to take this much more seriously,” Karamat said.
How far could I have gone in convention management if were my name Sherrif Karamat?
In any case: I’ve been taking conferences pretty seriously for a long time. Too seriously, even. I agonize for months over each session, over the mix of sessions and over the ratio of sessions-to-networking-time, at the World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association, which up until last year, I convened every year in Washington.
It’s possible to over-worry these things, and to over-plan them—especially when you consider what they’re really like to attend, in person. I tried to capture the experience 11 years ago, defending traditional conferences against people who wanted back then to bring Twitter and Internet voting and other outside influences into the experience. I wrote that conferences didn’t need more technological interactivity, because “a traditional conference is itself a tsunami stimuli”:
Surrounded by one’s peers in the flesh for the first and last time in a while, one is simultaneously struggling to absorb new ideas from speakers, and to imagine how those ideas might be modified and applied back at the office.
Hour upon hour, session after session, more ideas, more reactions, both intellectual and emotional. Notes scribbled, business-cards collected, hands shaken, social fuck-ups made and self-forgiven, bad sessions walked out on, good sessions walked in on, the exhibit hall slinked through, dinearounds signed up for, at the bar for one more, blinky breakfast roundtables barely made.
There are new people to meet, old colleagues to catch up with and random encounters to contend with and to integrate into the experience. All the while checking voice mail and e-mail to make sure a hundred crises haven’t erupted back at the office. Oh, and speaking of the office …
… toward the end of the event, the pressure builds to sum up the conference for your boss who fought for the budget money to send you, and for your colleagues, who have been covering for you all week.
What did you get out of it? What did you come away with? Any ideas we can use?
By the time you get on the plane, your head is overstuffed with techniques, case studies, the odd-but-nagging opinions of others, half-developed theses of your own—and if it was a truly productive event, it’s a little achy from booze, too.
Now as conference organizers play our small part in the ensemble cast of the never-ending improv tragicomedy called COVID: The Liminal Years, we are gravely telling one another that for the fore-surmisable future, conferences are going to have to be “hybrid events,” fully inclusive of people unable or unwilling to travel, while also “playing” to the people in the room.
No, goddamnit. Back to me, again, writing in defense of the conventional conference participant, in 2010:
As a conference organizer, I realize that one of the most important gifts I can give my attendees is a respite from the random. A conference, however overwhelming for those who are really interested in acquainting themselves with new people and ideas, is a comfort, because it’s here and now and us and nobody else.
To make conferences better, we ought to make them not more like a schizophrenic Twitter feed, but less.
And not less of an intimate, shared experience, but more of one.
Our tech friends always surprise me with what they can do to make far-flung, refracted situations simulations of flesh-and-blood human gatherings. At our virtual World Conference next month, you’ll be able to click on the little blue chairs to join little Zoom meetings with people you want to meet (there’ll be icons) … or on subjects you want to discuss.
And here’s me, virtually bartending at Georgetown University’s campus bar, The Bulldog Tavern.
Participants had a great time even before we all got pants drunk together, in our separate homes in a dozen time zones. A typical comment: “It has been engaging, inspiring, exciting, and intermittently infuriating–which is exactly what I want and expect from a convening of this kind. From the first day, I have come away bubbling with ideas for how to apply the insights and examples of your presenters to my own work. And here on the eve of our final session, I am close to overflowing.”
But that kind of experience is possible mostly because ours is already a tight community, built on a foundation of many in-person events before we needed to rely on this nonsense. Common memories of being right where we belonged, and knowing it for sure. Talking, listening, laughing—even singing!—together. Sometimes, in our dubious favorite watering hole, the Bulldog Tavern, where Many of our people already knew what this bar looked like—and smelled like—and so for them, the virtual was visceral.
None of it touches my own righteous skepticism about what Internet gatherings will never achieve by themselves. “Online communities build nothing,” Kurt Vonnegut said 20 years ago, elaborating: “We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you different.”
Online communities can help maintain real communities, as the PSA World Conference will do for one more year. And despite your own righteous skepticism about online events, you’d be a jackass not to be there, to support your professional association and to stay up-to-date and connected in these weird and dangerous times.
But next year, when we’re in back person? I and our tech partners will do our best to provide a window to people who can’t be there, yes. But job one will be to do everything I can to make us feel as completely, intimately, as utterly in person as we ever were before.
Because not having that feeling—when we’re all in the room together—would be the biggest heartbreak of all.