A typical work year would involve my attending maybe six to eight conferences in person and speaking at quite a few of them. A few years ago, I stopped raiding random booths at the exhibitions usually associated with these for t-shirts for the simple reason that I had too many of them. That's not to say that I wouldn't accept one here or there if it was particularly nice, or an open source project which I esteemed particularly, for instance. Or ones which I thought my kids would like—they're not "cool" but are at least useful for sleepwear, apparently. I also picked up a lot of pens and enough notebooks to keep me going for a while.
And then, at the beginning of 2020, the pandemic hit, I left San Francisco, where I'd been attending meetings co-located with RSA North America (my employer at the time made the somewhat prescient decision not to allow us to go to the main conference), and I've not attended any in-person conferences since.
There are some good things about this, the most obvious being less travel, though, of late, my family has been dropping an increasing number of not-so-subtle hints about how it would be good if I let them alone for a few days so they can eat food I don't like (pizza and macaroni cheese, mainly) and watch films that I don't enjoy (largely, but not exclusively, romcoms on Disney+). The downsides are manifold. Having to buy my own t-shirts and notebooks, obviously, though it turns out that I'd squirreled away enough pens for the duration. It also turned out that the move to USB-C connectors hadn't sufficiently hit the conference swag industry by the end of 2019 for me to have enough of those to keep me going, so I've had to purchase some of those. That's the silly, minor stuff, though—what about areas where there's real impact?
Virtual conferences aren't honestly too bad, and the technology has definitely improved over the past few months. I've attended some very good sessions online (and given my share of sessions and panels, whose quality I won't presume to judge), but I've realised that I'm much more likely to attend borderline-interesting talks not on my main list of "must-sees" (some of which turn out to be very valuable) if I've actually traveled to get to a venue. The same goes for attention. I'm much less likely to be checking email, writing emails, and responding to chat messages in an in-person conference than a virtual one. It's partly about the venue, moving between rooms, and not bothering to get my laptop out all the time—not to mention the politeness factor of giving your attention to the speaker(s) or panellists. When I'm sitting at my desk at home, none of these is relevant, and the pull of the laptop (which is open anyway to watch the session) is generally irresistible.
Two areas that have really suffered, though, are the booth experience and the "hallway track." I've had some very fruitful conversations, both from dropping by booths (sometimes mainly for a t-shirt—see above) or from staffing a booth and meeting those who visit. I've yet to attend any virtual conferences where the booth experience has worked, particularly for small projects and organisations. Online chat isn't the same, and the serendipitous aspect of wandering past a booth and seeing something you'd like to talk about is pretty much entirely missing if you have to navigate a set of webpages of menu options with actual intent.
The hallway track is meeting people outside a conference's main sessions, either people you know already or as conversations spill out of sessions you've been attending. Knots of people asking questions of presenters or panellists can reveal shared interests, opposing but thought-provoking points of view, or just similar approaches to a topic which can lead to valuable professional relationships and even long-term friendships. I'm not a particularly gregarious person—particularly if I'm tired and jetlagged—but I really enjoy catching up with colleagues and friends over a drink or a meal from time to time. While that's often difficult given the distributed nature of the companies and industries I've been involved with, conferences have presented great opportunities to meet up, have a chinwag and discuss the latest tech trends, mergers and acquisitions, and fashion failures of our fellow attendees. This is what I miss most: I can buy my own t-shirts, but friendships need nurturing. And I hope that we can safely start attending conferences again so that I can meet up with friends and share a drink. I just hope I'm not the one making the fashion mistakes (this time).
This article was originally published on Alice, Eve, and Bob and is reprinted with the author's permission.