The Show Must Go On: How Tech Conferences Have Gone Virtual

By Russ Banham


Today’s technology user conferences draw thousands of people together to learn about new applications and upgrades, share experiences with likeminded users, and be entertained—with enough razzmatazz on display to rival Broadway.

At finance and accounting software provider BlackLine’s InTheBlack user conference in Los Angeles two years ago, 20 professional dancers were sitting in the audience, unbeknownst to the attendees next to them. As music blared from giant on-stage speakers, the dancers jumped from their seats and put on a choreographed show in the aisles that got everyone bopping along with them, including BlackLine’s founder and CEO Therese Tucker.

Although the coronavirus has impelled many tech companies to transition their annual conferences to online-only virtual events, much of the entertainment value remains, along with captivating keynote speakers, spot-on executive presentations, and hands-on learning sessions.

A multitude of people still plan to attend the events from their homes. Andres Botero, chief marketing officer at BlackLine, says the company’s InTheBlack virtual user conference in London on March 17 and 18 had more attendees than the number of users physically attending the previous year’s event in person.

“We still provided what our users have come to expect from us—corporate accounting leaders sharing best practices, domain experts responding to user questions, and one-on-one meetings in our virtual success lab,” Botero says.

Dan Preiss, Dell Technologies’ senior director of experiential marketing, notes that attendees at the 2020 Dell Technologies World virtual user conference in October can expect “an immersive opportunity that will include keynotes, breakouts, guru sessions, and live interactions with the experts.”

While the physical sense of being in an audience with others to share a range of experiences is lost, the virtual alternative can still pack an emotional wallop. As Botero says, “It’s not the big show we typically put on, but we’ve designed it to provide attendees with the same useful, memorable, and shared virtual experiences.”

Pulling Out the Stops

Nevertheless, having many of this year’s major tech conferences canceled is as painful as learning that Broadway has gone dark and the NBA season is squashed. After years of tech conferences pushing the envelope of creative possibilities, the big show surely will be missed.

At the 2019 Dell Technologies World event in Las Vegas, for instance, a miniature version of Fenway Park, home to the Boston Red Sox 2018 World Series champions, was built for the 15,000 attendees to try out their pitching skills. Meanwhile, in the Venetian’s indoor Esports Arena, Dell’s Alienware hosted a massive video game, pictured below.

“I remember standing in the back and looking at this giant space we had reimagined and thinking, No one has ever seen anything like this before,” says Preiss.

Botero feels the same way. The CMO equated his role in putting together last year’s InTheBlack to “combining the technology chops of a chief technology officer with the creative chops of a Broadway director.”

The 2019 user conference in Los Angeles featured a 1980s-themed party in the main room, where more than 2,000 attendees were encouraged to dress like characters from Back to the Future. The company also displayed a replica of the film’s iconic DeLorean time travel vehicle for photo-ops.

With many more people, Dell Technologies has pulled out all of the stops in past events. As many of the 15,000 attendees last year filed into the general session at 8:30 in the morning, a resplendently dressed DJ was hoisted into the air by a crane and played a medley of popular hits.

“The goal was to immediately get everyone out of their comfort zone and into the `Vegas experience,’ where they could escape their everyday distractions and immerse themselves into a fun learning environment,” says Preiss.

Information With a Dash of Spectacle

Today’s user conferences are the equivalent of creating a city overnight, with Austin’s annual South by Southwest conference predicted to host more than 400,000 people, prior to transitioning the physical event into a virtual experience.

“When I started in this business 31 years ago, there was a single keynote speaker, a few small session rooms, and an equally small room with a few sponsorship booths,” says Sharon Crichton, executive vice president and global head of production at Jack Morton Worldwide, a brand experience agency known for producing major tech events.

By comparison, today’s conferences, prior to COVID-19, were a multi-sensory extravaganza—the difference between watching a grainy black-and-white television show on an 18-inch box and immersing oneself in the equivalent of a live concert. “The entertainment value has skyrocketed,” says Crichton. “The opening ceremonies are especially designed to delight, surprise, and be unforgettable.”

One of the most memorable events Crichton helped stage was a retro-style, multi-player video game for DockerCon, an event conference put on 2017-2019 by Docker, a platform-as-a-service provider in the application container market. More than 5,000 attendees participated in the video game, collaborating in building an enterprise-ready app, while avoiding a host of virtual enemies like irradiated cyber squirrels.

“As they were playing, a giant glowing whale, the Docker symbol, floated across the room,” she says. “It was cool, but not cool for cool’s sake, as it all tied back to the company’s messaging, which is giving people the ability to build an enterprise app together.”

Forging a Community

A major objective of all tech-user conferences is to provide opportunities to the attendees to network, from breakout sessions where they can get a few problem-solving tips from other users to happy hours where everyone learns more about one another. Happy hour aside, the same opportunities to network and learn will be available virtually.

“Our obligation as the conference organizer is to find ways for people to forge relationships, where they can meet likeminded people at other companies that do many of the same things they do with our technology,” says Preiss.

Botero shares this view. “We have our own software experts who will sit down with users for training purposes, but ideally it’s best to learn from the users at other companies—`birds of a feather’ who use the same software.”

Attendees often exchange personal contact information at one year’s event and make plans to meet up at the next year’s conference, even if it’s not person like this year’s Dell Technologies World. In between conferences, they commingle on user networks, asking questions of each other to solve a particular software problem or to find ways to do more with the tools they have.

Having such virtual communities in place is the silver lining for the many tech companies compelled by the coronavirus to cancel or postpone their conferences. As Botero put it, “They already appreciate the value of gathering together as a community in an online environment, so moving to an online conference is a natural extension.”

With so many sporting events, schools, and Broadway shows pulling the curtain down in recent weeks, the old adage “the show much go on” still resounds for tech users.

Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated financial journalist and best-selling author.

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