A New Paradigm for Conventions?

In the last few days, I’ve seen numerous notices of telecom conventions and meetings that are being canceled or postponed. Many big corporations that attend conventions have already decided that their employees can’t undertake non-essential travel. It’s likely soon that local governments are going to cancel conventions even if meeting organizers won’t. It seems, at least for this year, that big public telecom events will be a rare event, if they happen at all.

I’ve been thinking about this for a few days and it seems like a good time for us to reexamine how we hold telecom conventions. When you consider how much technology has changed, the way we hold telecom conventions hasn’t changed in the last forty years since I’ve been going to them. There is usually a string of speakers during the day using PowerPoint presentations (used to be overhead slides), mixed in with some panels of folks discussing various topics. There are vendors that pay for coffee breaks and meals hoping that people will stop by their booth to chat.

You probably wouldn’t be able to tell much difference if you were plopped down into a convention from twenty years ago – other than the laptops were larger and the speakers wwere talking about the big breakthroughs in DSL. There is one big difference I’ve noted that should be of concern to convention planners – there are not nearly as many young people attending the conventions today as there was twenty years ago. They find them boring and unproductive.

I got a few glimpses of a different way to meet. FierceWireless just announced a completely online ‘convention’ for 5G. I call it a convention because it stretches over multiple days and includes an array of speakers you’d expect to see at a live 5G convention. I also got a notice that WISPAmerica 2020 is going virtual – no details yet of how they’ll do it.

Having virtual portions of conventions is an idea that’s long overdue. It’s got to be a lot easier to assemble good speakers for virtual presentations. Virtual speakers can devote a few hours rather than a few days to talk at a convention. People like FCC Commissioners or presidents of major telecom firms might speak at a lot more events if they are able to speak from their office for an hour instead of making a trip. Online sessions might also make it easier to ask questions of presenters – sessions are freed from the constraints of clearing out meeting halls for the next presentation, and question sessions could be extended as needed.

If we really want to duplicate the convention experience, then having virtual speakers is not enough. The main reason that a lot of people, including me, go to conventions is the networking and the chance to make new connections in the industry. As a consultant, I invariably meet a few potential new clients and I get to catch up with existing clients. I also go to check in with the various vendors to see what’s new.

I don’t think it would be hard to duplicate the networking in a virtual convention. Speakers, vendors, and attendees could post calendars and make appointments to speak virtually with each other for 15 or 30-minute slots. This would be a lot more productive than a live convention because I always come home feeling like I’ve not met with everybody that I should have.

The coronavirus isn’t going to last forever, and it will die out or we’ll eventually find an effective vaccine. Virtual meetings like the one I describe above could keep communications in the industry flowing this year and not put the industry on hold. If anything, the giant increase in the demand to work-from-home and the demand for telemedicine means that the broadband industry will likely be busier than ever.

My hope would be that after this crisis is over that we don’t return to the existing convention format. Future live conventions would benefit by these same ideas. Bringing in virtual speakers can improve the quality of the message being conveyed. Most conventions have a few good speakers but a host of the same folks that speak year after year. Having a mix of live and virtual speakers would be an upgrade. Scheduling meetings between attendees is an idea that’s 10-years overdue.

This would also be a boon to vendors. The current system of having valuable employees man booths for several days to then meet with folks during hurried time is incredibly nonproductive. Having a reservation system to easily schedule virtual meetings with vendors would be incredibly attractive to me. It ought to also be attractive to vendors who get quality time with interested attendees instead of trying to juggle several folks standing around their booth at the same time. I can’t tell you how many vendor booths I’ve walked away from because they were busy with somebody else.

Of course, this raises the question in the future of also having virtual attendees. Paying a fee could give virtual attendees access to the speaker sessions. It would also allow for one-on-one meetings with speakers and vendors. I know there are many conventions that I’ve considered attending but that didn’t fit into my schedule. I would participate in more events virtually if I could buy a half-day, full-day, or several-day pass, priced appropriately.

The above scenario is a big break from the way we’ve traditionally held conventions. I know that I would find the virtual format I’ve described to be a lot more efficient and productive than what actually happens at conventions. We already have the technology that could make this work – although somebody has to bundle this into a convention product. There are folks who attend conventions to get out of the office and have a beer with colleagues – and that’s one reason conventional conventions won’t totally lose their appeal in the future. But if we want to make conventions relevant to the next generation of telecom employees and make them more efficient for everybody today, then mixing a virtual component into conventions ought to become the new norm.