A Demise or Rethink for Learning Conferences_Changes Are Coming
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Survival Plans For Industry Conferences

Due to COVID-19, life fundamentally changed overnight for every person on earth. There are those who'll only see tragedy and despair; however, the future looks very bright on the other side of this event. Even so, it's easy to get absorbed into the bleakness of the moment. Tragedies and setbacks are nothing new for modern humans. Ironically, these tragedies always set the stage for humans and societies to become more innovative, creative, and at the very least, shake out built-up complacency. Many positive changes within the learning space will come about because of this collective moment. I, however, have already witnessed and was part of one exceptional moment that I expect will bring the needed change to the future of learning conferences (and possibly all conferences). Here's the inspiration for this revelation.

Learning Conference Reinvented

Learning colleague Clint Clarkson (@ClintClarkson on Twitter) invited me to speak at the Alchemy Lab Digital Learning Conference this past May 9th and 10th (I presented on May 9th). Why was this a big deal? Obviously, COVID-19 caused every conference organizer to cancel their in-person conferences. Consequently, a gap grew in this space with nothing substantive to fill it adequately. Granted, there have been random webinars and cobbled series of online events, but nothing really satisfying enough to fill the in-person conference gap.

Clint and a merry band of committed volunteers were inspired to do something to fill the conference learning gap and to equally inspire others in the learning space. This is how the Alchemy Lab Digital Learning Conference was born. But this was more than just another learning conference. It brought together wonderful and recognized learning experts (including yours truly, BizLearningDude) to volunteer their time and share their knowledge with others. But wait, there's more! It was free! And that's not all, it raised $4,000 from participant donations for various food banks. It was also supported by several generous learning companies and organizations, including Brandon Hall Group, Neovation, and Learning Pool.

What was the total registration? Get this, close to 1700 people registered—more than some well-established conferences. I know, you're saying it's easy to attract people to a free conference. To some extent this is true, and I'd agree if it were only a few hundred registrations. I'd also agree if there wasn't a decline in overall conference attendance. But 1700 people registering for an unknown and unproven virtual conference held on a weekend is something completely different. It proves the conventional conference approach is dying and reflects people wanting something new and fresh.

A New Learning Future

This raises several questions about the future of learning conferences (or any conference), specifically conventional in-person ones:

  • Why should participants have to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to attend a conference?
  • Why should participants pay a significant expense to travel to one?
  • How will organizers attract speakers, especially international ones, to present? Or will these speakers even want to travel or be allowed to cross borders?
  • And for eLearning conferences, why are they not conducted actually using the technology many experts use and promote? Would this not make more sense?
  • Also, consider the enormity of effort to organize a conference year after year? The planning. The logistics. The financial overhead. Going online would reduce and possibly eliminate these issues and significantly increase profitability.

Ah yes, the question of revenue and profits! I did mention that the Alchemy LD conference was free. I also mentioned that much of the overhead and fixed costs would significantly decrease. The conference, even online, must make some revenue. This is easily accomplished by applying existing web-based business models, such as raising revenues by attracting sponsors (recall Brandon Hall Group, Neovation, and Learning Pool sponsoring the Alchemy conference?) and offering advertising, marketing, and exclusive vendor meeting opportunities with qualified participants. An online conference can even set up a virtual tradeshow, leading to higher revenue resulting in significantly higher profits because of reduced overhead.

Solving declining conference attendance and participant fatigue is necessary. The primary goal of organizations promoting learning is to democratize learning, making it accessible to everyone. Organizers can reduce yearly planning and logistic functions for in-person conferences while immediately increasing revenue and profits. Employers would also more than welcome allowing their staff to attend a virtual conference since they'll no longer incur significant travel costs and conference registration fees.

Granted, there'll always be a need and want for in-person conferences but the larger and well-established learning conferences, such as the ATD International Conference and Expo, would fill this need. But let's be frank, there are currently too many learning conferences and the space is highly fragmented. Those smaller and more vulnerable conferences will either adapt to an online reality or continue to struggle to attract paying participants and, unfortunately, eventually meet their demise.

Living In A New World

We're all living in an uncertain reality. But there will be a bright side and positive outcome when this passes. It will be different, and it will be innovative, however, it will never be what it once was. You'll either be an innovator and adapt or be left behind. Humans are built for this and do it very well. Learning is central to this trait so take pride in what you do. You're essential in helping people get through tough situations and solve problems. Realize your value isn't only in the learning you produce but in how you're able to deploy it effectively to everyone, especially in times like these.

I want to extend my knowledge and expertise to anyone who requires it without obligation. Should you require support, guidance, counsel, or simply just want someone to lend an ear please don't hesitate to contact me through Twitter. My handle is BizLearningDude.

Please share your thoughts and feedback. We’d enjoy hearing about your efforts. And who knows, it may be the topic of our next eLearning Industry article. Also, please check out our LinkedIn Learning courses to learn more about developing your business credibility for your learning efforts. Please share your thoughts and remember #alwaysbelearning!

Please be safe and please stay healthy.

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