Long Live the Annual Conference

Conferences and meetings are surprisingly resilient despite digital media providing alternative ways to learn, do business and network. Why is this basic association business model not a prime target for disruptive innovation?

We can pay so much attention to what is changing that we don’t stop to notice what isn’t changing. Associations rely heavily on annual conference revenues, and for this reason, they should be constantly considering scenarios that could threaten their viability. Let’s crack conferences apart and analyze why they are resilient and what could disrupt them. Spoiler alert if you are short on time: I would not bet against a long future for association conferences. Read on to be reminded why.

Two major factors could and have derailed conferences: bad economies (see the Great Recession) and security (see the aftermath of 9-11). Had these challenging environments continued for more years, perhaps they would have broken the viability of annual conferences. Fearful people with no money stay home.

But let’s look at three major purposes conferences serve and speculate on what it might take to disrupt those purposes or at least diminish their contribution to this essential business model for associations.

1. Learning & knowledge exchange. Research suggests that despite the growth and acceptance of online learning, people of all generations still prefer the face-to-face experience. Add in the need for people to gain public recognition for their work, especially in academically-oriented fields, and you have a powerful enabler of the status quo. While I do see many attempts to design and facilitate more innovative learning experiences, panels are the zombies that refuse to die.

Possible disruption: If the underwriting employers and the conference participants themselves decide to care more about demonstrated learning outcomes, money could shift out of these events. Other media might prove to be more cost effective, especially for some types of learning.

2. Doing business. The money is in the trade show, as much if not more than, registrations. Again, we see some innovations around how customers interact with businesses in these settings, but both sellers and buyers remain complicit in continuing this bazaar experience.

Possible disruption: I’ve reviewed exhibitor surveys and they are rarely delighted with their return on investment. Specific industry conferences could be undermined if one or more major business partners decide the cost of doing business there simply isn’t worth it. That might start a stampede for the exhibit hall doors.

3. Networking and community building. Associations come to life during their conferences in a way that websites cannot deliver. People like to affiliate with others they perceive to be part of their tribe. Anthropologists can point to any number of ancient traditions that are similar—pilgrimages, market days, festivals. People welcome the chance to be together. Time and again I’ve had association members tell me how exciting it is to be in the same room with the rock stars who create the breakthroughs, set the pace and determine the direction of their field.

Possible disruption: Might telepresence and virtual reality someday deliver this sense of community and connection? These alternatives could get good enough to erode the size of the audience. However, what we are seeing instead is social media expanding the boundaries of these communities as those who cannot attend peek in through the eyes of others. They are drawn into the event’s energy through virtual means while tweeting how envious they are of those having the real experience. Good virtual reality will give these voyeurs better options for sorta being there.  

So this is my forecast for the future of association conferences: we should continue to see innovations that enliven conference experiences and return on investment; we will see some possible erosion of audiences through viable and affordable alternatives; what we won’t see is the demise of these gatherings--they serve important purposes fundamental to who we are as social beings.