Web Summit convened in Lisbon, Portugal, in early November, looking much like it had before the pandemic. The tech conference was held, as it usually is, on numerous stages in and around a giant arena. It took me a solid 20 minutes to walk from one end of the conference to the other, trying to wade through myriad company booths and demonstrations. Some 70,000 people milled throughout the space, wearing wristbands and badges, but few masks.
Many of the attendees spend the majority of their time working from home, and they use events like conferences as a way to get the professional interactions they’re missing. For them, work is for home, where people can concentrate. Conferences are for networking, socializing with colleagues or peers in your field, and getting experiences you can’t get working remotely. They see conferences as supplementing their ability to work from home: Hanging out with colleagues and clients in person a few times a year can be enough to carry them through months on end of video calls.
I’m also a remote worker, and I went to Lisbon to moderate a couple of panels and to try to figure out why people like me are leaving the comfort of their homes to travel across the ocean to an in-person conference when there’s still a pandemic going on. (Web Summit paid for my plane ticket and hotel, while Vox was on the hook for incidentals.) A number of people I spoke to at the event told me they were using conferences like this, as well as offsites and regular travel, as occasions to convene teams and even whole companies, since they don’t see each other as often while working from home.
“We took all of the money we saved on offices and we poured it into travel,” said Martin Mao, CEO and founder of software intelligence company Chronosphere, who uses those funds to get its 250 global employees together for conferences and quarterly reviews, as well as socializing. “We try to jam pack that into a few days, then everybody goes and does their work.”
The last time I’d been at Web Summit was in 2019, when it didn’t feel alarming to be around 70,000 other humans in real life. Aside from a smattering of masks, it didn’t look that visibly different.
What had changed was the emphasis. While the speakers (and moderators!) were still important, the summit leaned in to the more social and experiential aspects of the conference. There were updated versions of the familiar Food Summit (essentially a giant food court but held outside with 85 food trucks) and Night Summit (after-hours drinking and networking events held at trendy nightlife spots around the city). This wasn’t the first time they’d had these events, but this year these events were bigger and more prominent.
A similar thing has been happening at other conferences as well — at other giant tech conferences like SXSW, at smaller thought-leader events like Aspen Ideas Festival, and at sales conferences like Outreach Unleash and Seismic Shift. In addition to world-class speakers, conferences are touting their tropical climates, water sports, and wine tastings. They’re also being careful to orchestrate intimate in-person interactions they don’t feel can be replicated online. According to Kitty Boone, vice president of the Aspen Institute’s Public Programs and executive director of its Aspen Ideas Festival, the goal is to make it “something that they don’t feel they can miss.”
Like many things, the trend of turning conferences into immersive, interactive social events — rather than just ones where people passively receive information — existed before the pandemic. But the pandemic accelerated it, and as companies let workers choose where they work, those qualities are becoming more sought after.
“The main driver to come here was to connect with people and know what was happening in my world,” Jorge Dias, a mobile content manager at telecom Altice, told me while eating a food truck lunch outside at Web Summit.
This is all good news for the trillion-dollar business events industry and for business travel in general, which, unlike restaurants, concerts, and leisure travel, has far from recovered from the pandemic. Global conference attendance is at just half what it was in 2019, according to data provided by demand intelligence company PredictHQ. Business group travel spending, which includes spending on meetings and events like conferences, is at 68 percent of 2019’s level domestically and 50 percent internationally, according to data from the US Travel Association.
“Companies need tentpole moments to gather together in the real world,” its founder Paddy Cosgrave, who also works remotely, told me in Lisbon. Along those lines, Web Summit’s biggest sales growth has been in group bookings — teams or whole companies, rather than individuals, buying tickets.
Conferences, company offsites, and other team travel are helping to fill a void left by the office and meeting people’s need for in-person collaboration and relationship building — all without having to go to the office.
“I actually think that conferences can be a solution to work from home,” Melanie Brucks, business marketing professor at Columbia Business School, told Recode.
With just under half of Americans expected to continue working from home at least some of the time (that rate is higher for people with bachelor’s degrees), their need for connection could provide the business travel industry some succor and suggest that better days are coming, even if things don’t go back to how they used to be.
As an economic downturn has companies cutting spending, the conference and travel industry faces even more challenges — as well as a chance to make conferences better. And the conferences that have already come back in person are showing the way.
The return of in-person conferences
The return to in-person conferences this year is highlighting some of the shortcomings of virtual ones — and of virtual work in general.
About a quarter of the conferences that Encore, an international event production company, worked on in 2022 were in person, according to Anthony Vade, event experience strategy director. That’s up from very few the past two years. Next year, he says, it looks like more than 80 percent will be in person.
While plenty of events were held virtually over the past couple of years, many felt they just weren’t the same. It was tempting to try and multitask and do something else when sitting in front of a computer. And even when conferences broke people into smaller groups online, it was difficult to create the intimacy and candor of talking with people you bump into at conferences. Also, after being on video calls all day, people craved a change of pace.
The rapid shift back is in some ways a pretty obvious indicator of human nature, says Hugh Forrest, co-president and chief programming officer of SXSW.
“So much of our event celebrates technology, celebrates new advancements or innovations in social media, and yet we always find that the most impactful connection is the same connection we’ve had for thousands of years: It’s the face-to-face connection,” Forrest explained.
The thirst for in-person events also demonstrates that people are missing something when they work from home.
“What we find is that people are less creative and generative when they’re interacting virtually,” Brucks, the Columbia professor, said, noting that simple instruction and, frankly, most day-to-day office tasks work just fine online.
Meanwhile, however, people aren’t growing their professional networks as much when working remotely. That means fewer weak ties — the relationships you have with acquaintances outside of your work or social group that have proved incredibly important for things like finding a new job or even just new ideas.
Conferences that encourage people to come up with new ideas, collaborate, and socialize could be effective ways to address remote work’s shortcomings without having people go to the office regularly. And a little goes a long way, according to Brucks, who said things like conferences and “innovation weeks” could scratch some of remote work’s itches.
“This is about really leveraging the things we need to do in person,” she added. “That allows us to not be in person for a lot of the rest of the time because we’re getting these tasks done in these really efficient one-week opportunities.”
Still, people treat their time as more precious than they did pre-pandemic, so conferences and companies will have to go the extra mile to get them out of the house. It’s one of the reasons you’re seeing so much push-back from rank-and-file employees on returning to the office: Bosses haven’t really figured out a good reason for people to be there. Workers are returning to offices only to find themselves spending their whole day at their computers, only now with the added drawback of a commute.
So if conferences are going to recover, they’re going to have to make their events something you can’t get online.
How conferences are trying to be more than conferences
The basic premise of most conferences, it seems, has remained the same: People sit in seats and listen to speakers talk onstage. But now conference organizers are leaning into aspects of the event that aren’t as easily broadcast online. Namely, they’re focusing on socialization and experiences.
The Aspen Institute’s flagship Ideas Festival is focusing on more breakout sessions, workshops, and hands-on field trips where people can connect over shared experiences. Last summer, they brought eventgoers to take samples of microplastics in a nearby river and to see regeneration happening after wildfires, as part of the conference’s larger discussion about climate. The idea was to show them how even a pristine-seeming environment wasn’t immune to pollution and climate change.
Seismic Shift, a small conference held in San Diego for users of its sales software, divided conferencegoers’ time between speakers and activities, like standup paddleboarding, yoga, and hanging out at a bar serving green juice. Lawn games and picnic tables were set up outside the conference as a way to get people to mingle over meals.
Outreach, a sales platform, has been holding smaller community-oriented conferences while its big user conference, Unleash, was on hold (it’s scheduled to return next fall). At these, the company has been experimenting with ways to keep the audience engaged and connecting with each other so that conferencegoers internalize the content in their “mind and body,” Outreach CMO Melton Littlepage said. The company kicked off a women-in-sales event in a wine cave that “was echoey and boomy so everybody had to get really close together at tables,” he said. The wine helped the conversation, too. At another mini-event, they used QR codes so that conferencegoers could vote on a survey while the emcee discussed the live results onstage. Seating at small round tables was intended to get people talking to their neighbors.
“We’re planning these moments when something happens and gives you something to talk about with the next person,” Littlepage said.
Conferences are also capitalizing on an unfortunately named trend called “bleisure,” in which people are tacking vacations onto work trips. That’s why many conferences are locating themselves in so-called destination cities, if they hadn’t already. It helps if those places are warm and sunny. So it’s very possible that Web Summit’s continued massive attendance has to do with it being held in Lisbon, which is known for great cuisine and T-shirt weather while the rest of Europe and North America don puffy jackets.
SXSW’s Forrest says that Austin’s warm weather in March is one of the reasons the event has thrived.
“If you’re coming from upstate New York or Chicago or whatever, and you’re still in the throes of winter, and you come and it’s 80 degrees, that’s a huge part of the experience,” he said. “That’s one more asset of why people want to go.”
Columbia’s Brucks, who had just returned from a conference in Denver, said the attendees were abuzz about the next conference, by the Society for Consumer Psychology, which is being held in Puerto Rico this spring.
“You’re more likely to remember the experience if it’s something that was fun,” she said.