The Future of Conferences

sports-conferenceLast week, Hashtag Sports presented the first edition of the #SportsConf.  It was a long day – 11 hours – of presentations and discussions, primarily using the Google Hangout platform.  The purpose of this post is not to review/critique the content provided at the event. Instead, this post is an attempt to look at the macro-changes that are occurring in the conference industry broadly and the sports conference landscape specifically.

Here is a quick look at four themes that are driving change in the conference landscape.

Technology:  Obviously the increased use of Hangouts and Skype/Facetime has made more consumers of content more comfortable with these delivery methods.  And this change is key.  As more conferences move to this format, it opens up the possibility of both attendees and speakers staying in their office, yet benefiting from the conference experience.

Dollars: Directly related to changes in technology and widespread acceptance of online delivery is the question of cost.  Will firms continue to underwrite the cost of sending employees to conferences if there are viable alternatives available at low cost (or free like #SportsConf)? And if a person wants to “cherry-pick” just a session or two, they could “attend” dozens of conferences per year.

On the other side of the equation, what of the sponsors/exhibitors who count on the access to attendees that drive their businesses?  As virtual conferencing increases how willing are they to spend dollars as sponsors without the face-to-face contact with attendees that they crave?

Networking: If there is an easy justification for the time and expense associated with conference travel, it is the face-to-face networking opportunities.  I know I’ve benefited from meeting and subsequently developing relationships with colleagues, members of the media and others in the last 15 years that began at conferences.  I write for in part because of meeting in person with Russell Scibetti at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (SSAC) last year.  Can virtual conferences replace the handshake and trust built at a conference?

Content: Finally, there is the matter of content.  Hangouts and other streaming video-conferencing platforms allow for the capture of presentations.  You can watch all of the #SportsConf content on YouTube.  So it was  possible to not even be available at the time/date the event was scheduled and still be able to access the conference content.  The MIT Sloan Sports Conference, while a traditional in-person event, makes all of their content available on line a few weeks after the event.  For instance, you can access my 2011 and 2013 Evolution of Sport talks here.

The future is sure to see much upheaval in this space.  Mega-conferences like SSAC and SEAT can still command premium pricing in 2014, but will there be attrition as upstart events develop over time?  At the other end of the sports business spectrum, will conference themes become even more specialized as the cost of running the events falls and congregating niche audiences on hyper specific topics becomes seen as more valuable that large, lumbering conferences with multiple themes/tracks?

One other future possibility is that conferences will move away from “presentations” and just revolve around panel discussions and Q&A.  Social media guru Gary Vaynerchuk raises this possibility here.  In brief, his theory is that he has enough content available through YouTube, books, social media engagement that he should not spend the audience’s valuable time recapping existing content.  But rather more value will be created by going right to Q&A to customize the content for that audience.

And will there be new entrants in the space?  Ten years ago the mega-conferences mentioned above did not exist!  So it seems likely that with low barriers to entry, new sports businesses conferences will appear – and some will fail and some will succeed.  Thus, this is an important part of the industry to monitor in the years to come.