Is the future of information security and tech conferences virtual?

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about many changes to our personal and work lives. Among the latter are the forced work from home shift and the inability to travel far and attend in-person meetings, industry-specific workshops, events and conventions.

virtual events

And while RSA Conference USA – the largest information security conference in the world – managed to take place mere weeks before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, European countries started closing borders and airlines started suspending routes and grounding planes, most infosec and tech events scheduled to take place after it were doomed.

One by one, they were postponed, canceled or went virtual. While it’s still impossible to tell whether the conferences postponed until the already-crowded (northern hemisphere) fall season will actually take place, we’ve asked some people who are involved in organizing them to give their opinion on the future of large information security and tech gatherings.

Smaller, more local in-person events

Jack Daniel, one of the co-founders of Security BSides, thinks that, long term, a lot of events will not resume and others will be scaled back.

“The economic fallout from the pandemic will limit funding for events large and small, and caution over transmission of illness will continue for a while,” he told Help Net Security.

When it comes to events that are organized under the BSides banner by different organizers in various corners of the world, he expects their number to diminish and those that do take place to be smaller.

“I think this will be true for events in general, but for BSides my hope is that it will drive focus to local events, local communities, and local opportunities – places where BSides have the most profound impact,” he added.

Michael Hiskey, Chief Strategy Officer at Data Connectors, a company that has been conducting cybersecurity conferences in cities across the US and Canada for the last 20 years or so, says they believe that, post-pandemic, conferences and trade shows will be far more “down to business.”

“Regional relationship teams, meeting directly with accounts in their area, is where the action will increasingly be,” he opined.

“For the purposes of educating cybersecurity professionals and connecting them with solutions with a presence in their region, smaller conferences will grow in their importance. They cost less, which will appeal to the bottom-line professionals, they will connect regional account executives with prospects (ask any account executive who’s had to hand off a prospect at a big trade show to the appropriate regional connection, and you’ll see the frustration), and will enable the 20% of job seekers who attend any conference to focus on the next opportunity in their area.”

The pros and cons of virtual events

While virtual events are – currently and generally – the most effective way of gathering people who are otherwise restricted from traveling, they will not become the only (or even predominant) method of conferencing, Hiskey says.

“Replacing an all-day conference with an hours-long webinar will not meet the needs of conference-goers,” he noted.

“We have found that immersive, live virtual event platforms, offer the opportunity for interacting with exhibitors, solution providers and peer-to-peer networking. Surprisingly, with respect to otherwise introverted attendees, we’ve found they’re more likely to reach out for networking than at a physical event. While the ‘happy hour’ might not be quite the same, virtual event platforms have thought through almost every facet of the physical event experience.”

Twitter discussions on what kind of virtual conferences eager attendees would prefer have brought to light disparate needs, wants and limitations.

Many say that, while working from home, attending a whole-day virtual event is nearly impossible due to more immediate and pressing obligations – both work-related and personal.

And while those who would otherwise be prevented from attending a specific conference – whether due to the lack of a visa, funds, free time, physical mobility or psychological/social capacity – have mostly welcomed the diversity of virtual event offerings, most say that the networking aspect on in-person conferences is difficult to recreate.

For one, it is difficult to replicate the serendipitous aspect of real-life introductions that happen just because someone is sitting/standing physically beside you at an after-conference party or while waiting for a talk to start.

Secondly, even if there is a virtual space (“hallway”) that simulates an informal gathering, chit-chatting and discussing things there – whether over Zoom, Twitch, Slack or chat rooms – is far more tasking than in-person.

All in all, most agree that virtual “conferences” are a good enough option when there is no other option, but that they prefer the offline versions.

As Daniel noted, people attend and participate in events for a lot of reasons, and virtual events satisfy some, but come up short for many things.

“Virtual events will never have the same impact as far as connecting people, whether for community building, or for sales and support. Virtual events also don’t have the social bonds that in-person events have,” he opined.

Things to keep in mind when switching to a virtual venue

While some organizers keep hoping the situation will return to normal soon and they will be able to reboot their events, others have decided to cut their losses here and now.

O’Reilly Media is one of the latter. In late March 2020, after having previously postponed or cancelled some of their Strata conferences, the company announced they would be closing down the live conferences portion of their business.

“Without understanding when this global health emergency may come to an end, we can’t plan for or execute on a business that will be forever changed as a result of this crisis,” Laura Baldwin, President at O’Reilly Media, explained at the time, and said that they will concentrate their efforts on delivering quality on-line events.

“We believe that global tech events are going to be permanently changed because of COVID-19. We were already seeing a trend towards larger user events for specific tools or platforms, instead of conferences that represented the full ecosystem within a technology practice area,” she told Help Net Security.

“At our own events, the fastest-growing, most popular portion of our conferences had been the two training days ahead of the events themselves. Additionally, O’Reilly started delivering on-line training events in 2016, and has worked hard to perfect the delivery and efficacy of our live-trainers. The attendance at these events has proven that this type of focused learning can be delivered online and made even better with easy access to our interactive learning platform. This has been bolstered by the accelerated rate of technology over the past few years, which means attendees find it more difficult to be out the office for a week to attend an event. People who had traditionally attended our in-person events started showing up more at our live trainings and other interactive learning events on our platform.”

Organizers of online events must not make the mistake of switching the “venue” but not the form.

As open source developer and community manager Michael Hall recently explained, there are a number of problems that have to be solved for a newly virtual event to be successful in the long run. His opinions based on experiences while helping Canonical turn the Ubuntu Developer Summit into an online affair should be required reading for organizators looking to make the switch.

Baldwin also agrees that virtual events are going to be different – and that’s ok.

“While networking may be made more difficult, there are so many aspects of in-person events that can be improved upon and we’re already starting to see that,” she noted.

“Within 10 days of cancelling our Strata Data & AI conference, we had recreated it as a two-day virtual event through our learning platform and had 4,600 registered attendees. That in itself is a huge benefit because rather than planning an event a year out to secure venue space and give speakers time to travel, we can produce more nimble, timely and relevant events. The audience can register with little lead time because there’s no need to clear their calendars for a week, organize time away from the office and families, and book travel.”

She also says that they were ultimately impressed with the audience engagement: in just the first hour of the virtual conference, they had more than 160 questions asked of the initial presenter. “There’s no opportunity for that level of engagement during an in-person session,” she added.

Lastly, she says, shorter, more focused online events should also be taken into consideration.

“We’ve been doing live events that we call ‘Meet the Experts’ through our platform long before COVID-19 was ever an issue and had great results. It’s about 15 minutes of presentation and then 45 minutes of Q&A. While not necessarily networking, it does connect technology practitioners with innovators to get a better understanding of timely topics,” she concluded.

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Is the future of information security and tech conferences virtual?