Let’s cut right to the chase: I’m completely over virtual conferences.
I’ve been to a number of them this year. Some of them, like Riskalyze Fearless Week, surpassed my expectations and made me feel like virtual events were filling a void in a year where travel wasn’t going to happen.
Others (which will remain nameless) made me feel like a 10-year-old from 1995 was running them with his dial-up connection.
I know that virtual conferences will have their place, I know that there are certain advantages to them, and I know that they’ll continue to play a role going forward even after we’re no longer living in a pandemic.
But the more I see predictions about how virtual conferences are going to become the norm and how they’re better than in-person events, I just think: “Are you, dear pundit, completely insane?”
For most of my life I considered myself an introvert and thought I didn’t really need much human interaction.
2020 has taken that notion of who I am and smashed it to bits. I didn’t realize until this year how much I value regular interactions and meeting new people.
I’m a digital marketer, and I believe in digital-first everything—except, I’ve found, when it comes to building long-term relationships.
There’s no replacement for being in the same room as someone. And my experience with that goes back to the formative days of the world wide web.
I once had an online, long-distance relationship with a girl in middle school over AOL Instant Messenger. Spoiler: It didn’t last.
I don’t think that business relationships only formed online can have the same impact as those built with truthful, intimate, real life interactions either.
So that’s why, whether it’s 2021 or 2022, I can’t wait to get back to looking people in the eye in the same room. Even if it’s from six feet away.
That said, when in-person events do come back, they’re going to have to be better than before.
Wealth management can’t—or shouldn’t—sustain the number of events that sprouted up over the last few years.
We don't need more events. We need better events.
So let’s talk about why in-person events won’t be replaced by virtual ones—and also, how they can be better when they do come back.
The Problems with In-Person Events
First, though, let’s acknowledge that in-person events have their fair share of problems.
And those problems were thrown into the spotlight about a year ago when Ken Fisher decided that it would be a good idea to mix some crude analogies into his speaking session at the Tiburon Summit.
To be honest, maybe it’s been a good thing that we’ve had an extended break from in-person conferences following the Fisher remarks. This year might serve as a little bit of a palette cleanser.
But even so, eliminating in-person events does not by itself equate to making improvements to events.
Just a few weeks ago, a number of advisors on social media pointed out how InvestmentNews was promoting its Women Adviser Summit with a shocking lack of diversity.
Beyond issues with event organizers not assembling diverse speaker lists and panels, there’s the issue that price often creates exclusion. When an event costs over $1,000 just to attend without factoring in lodging and airfare and food, an attendee can easily be looking at $3,000 to $4,000 for a single trip.
Attending a handful of conferences over the course of a year amounts to no small expense for advisors or other businesses just getting started.
And then there’s the time all that travel takes. I don’t know about you, but it typically takes me a couple days to get back on top of work after a trip—and that’s even with carving out time to respond to emails and deliver client work while I’m on the trip.
So if we’re being honest, there’s no shortage of issues with in-person events.
But do those problems mean that we should move on and go forth into a digital-only world?
I don’t think so, and it all comes back to a foundational view of what it means to be human. People are meant to be in close contact and community with other people.
And that is the number one reason why I think in-person events still have value to offer. If I hadn’t started attending conferences, I wouldn’t have met the majority of the people in the industry that I now call some of my closest friends—including my TacoTech co-host, Torie Happe from FIX Flyer.
I want other people to have those same positive experiences as I’ve had. But I also recognize it’s got to start with recognizing existing issues and working collaboratively to fix them.
What In-Person Events Need to Do to Succeed in a Virtual World
Getting back to the format and structure of an in-person conference itself, though, there are definite improvements that can be made to make them more valuable and effective in how they create an experience for attendees.
There’s no doubt that we live in a digital world. We spend our lives on our computers, for better and for worse.
So once we go back to whatever normal means in the future, in-person events need to adjust the value they offer.
We’ve seen through virtual events that it’s possible to deliver compelling content. What’s missing is the ability to replicate community.
Conferences need to figure out how to deliver an inclusive community, rather than an exclusive one—that’s true.
But I’d rather be on the line of figuring out how to improve it than to go with the virtual version that’s been offered so far, which is basically no community at all.
So here are 3 things in-person conferences need to change whenever it is that they end up making a comeback.
1. CREATE A TIGHTER COMMUNITY
Let’s talk about community, first and foremost. It is possible and productive to create an online community; look no further than what the AGC has done to connect advisors across the country.
Community, though, isn’t built in a day or two of webinars. It’s built by connecting people who share similar goals in life, and giving them opportunities to get to know each other.
In-person events would do well to focus more on the community aspect. If what we miss most about the in-person conferences is the fact that we get to be around people, doesn’t that just make sense?
In recent years, conferences have stacked more content than you can consume. Let’s do away with the 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. panels with three competing tracks to choose from.
Build in more networking times and peer to peer workshops focused on niche interests. Rather than a speaker, an expert can be a moderator for the entire room to guide conversations and lead activities that provide immediate actions and real-time benefits.
Want to talk about how to use email marketing with clients? Come to this room.
Want to talk to your peers about how to scale back your business instead of always scaling up? Check out this room instead.
The loose “networking” times during cocktail hours can be fun, but they don’t provide any sort of structure to meeting others who grapple with the same questions. Let’s see more of that.
2. PROVIDE VALUE ALL YEAR
I said that a community can’t be built through a day or two of webinars. It also can’t be effectively built in a day or two of twelve hours of panels.
I want to see conferences that provide value all year round. While we’re talking about how advisors need to add more services to increase their value, let’s also talk about how events need to do the same.
If I’m signing up for an event in February that doesn’t happen until September, and I’m paying $1,500 to go to that event, I should expect to receive value from it during that seven month period. It shouldn’t all be contained within two days in the fall.
Events have an opportunity to create real fans and increase their retention rates year by year if they put effort into delivering value outside of the couple of days that an in-person conference takes place.
It can be as simple as setting up Slack channels for attendees to get to know each other before the event comes around, or asking speakers to jump into smaller, more focused online events throughout the year to lead up to and build upon the content that will be shared once the event rolls around.
3. OFFER A DEEPER LEVEL OF LEARNING
When they do return, in-person events need to take a long look at the content they provide.
More isn’t always better. Quality should always outrank quantity.
By introducing more focus on developing community, events can make this easy on themselves. Maybe that emphasis on community even drives attendee numbers a little lower—but by making the attendee audience more focused, the content delivered can benefit.
I already mentioned workshops for peer to peer work during conferences. I’d also love to see more of a workshop, hands-on approach to the sessions provided by conference speakers.
It’s rare and even awkward when a speaker tries to encourage audience participation, because it’s so rare and unexpected.
I should know—I’ve tried this in a breakout session I gave a couple years ago and you would have thought I asked everyone in the session to chop off a hand.
But if attendees go into a conference knowing that they’re going to get a more “hands on” experience with speakers then they also should, in theory, approach the event invested in it with an idea of what takeaways they’ll get, instead of treating it like a short vacation.
Instead of delivering a generalized “state of X” keynote, a speaker can get deep into what they know attendees really care about when a conference focuses itself on knowing its audience and communicating that back to its speakers.
Instead of providing information that might be relevant or impactful for half the attendees, a speaker can deliver value for closer to 100% of people in their session.
A Hybrid Future
In spite of my clear preference for in-person events, I know that digital conferences will live on into the future and they’ll have an important place.
In fact, I hope that when in-person conferences do return that more of them offer a digital option.
It would be great for in-person events to stream some or all of their sessions live. This will make events more inclusive by allowing people who aren’t able to travel, or aren’t comfortable with being there in-person, to take part in the important learning opportunities that these events can offer.
I’m excited for the future of events, and believe that once they do make a return, they’ll offer a more engaging and enjoyable experience for everyone.