The more we get the less we want
Attending CAD conferences in-person is a costly affair. There is the $$$-cost, which can amount to thousands of dollars for something lasting just a couple of days; and there is the time-cost of being away from productive work. Never mind the cost to the body from jet lag (twice, once each way!), food poisoning (happened to me at a hotel in Disney World), trudging for miles from hotel room to conference center, whether within a Las Vegas monster hotel or in new city, losing a laptop (in Stockholm), waiting days on lost luggage (by Lufthansa and twice by Air Canada), or ending up with a bad cold partway through (in Rome).
I do love the travel, so don’t get me wrong. I’ve been so excited arriving at places I never would have gotten to in my life, ever!, from Novosibirsk in the far east, Beijing to the furthest west (just a multi-hour airport stopover), and to Christchurch to the farthest south -- never mind going multiple times to city favorites like Ghent, Prague, Boston, and Leiden. Free travel is, for me as a free-lance writer, the only benefit I get with the job.
So it was with some relief that conferences went online due to coronavirus. I could attend in the comfort of my housecoat, replay parts, and take in conferences that I would otherwise never have been invited to. All for free.
Solidworks ceo Gian Paolo Bassi on the virtual stage
Too Much Cake
But some weeks, there can be four online conferences in three days. Others end up being utter wastes of time; I am, after all, looking for new information, not being told how awesome the now-old software is. It’s unhelpful when online conferences make signing up unusually difficult, and when finding specific events is even more difficult.
On the plus side, production quality has improved since last year, as CAD vendors move from setting up temporary quarters to thinking that perhaps this is the new new. The best ones spend a bit extra to add captioning. In any case, getting away from the physical saves CAD firms a heck of a lot of money, as most in-person conferences (as I understand it) are big-time money losers.
It’s been long two years since I last flew to an in-person conference in a faraway city (Graebert's in Berlin, as it happens). And now I am getting online conference burnout.
I haven’t gotten around to watching the keynotes from Autodesk University 2021, and I still want to make time for the AllPlan launch from last week, but so far no go.
Users might be agreeing with me, judging from this snippet I found at CIMdata:
"...with free registration to AU’s virtual live content and streaming sessions they expected over 100,000 global participants. According to Autodesk, the first three days attendees watched more than 51,000 hours of content."
That expected hundred thousand-plus is a number Autodesk also used for last year’s event. But this year only 51,000 hours were watched during the conference’s three days; the switch in statistic is in itself interesting. The key is the average number of hours an attendee watches:
- If it’s 1 hour a day, then 17,000 were online
- If Autodesk had the full 100,000, then each watched just 10.2 minutes each conference day
In some ways, having tutorial sessions during an online conference are, in my mind, an artifact, a relic, really, from the in-person events where users sat at computers in a conference banquet room and got in-person help. There is nothing in online conference tutorials that can’t be duplicated by uploads to YouTube.
Open Design Alliance recording its online conference
What We Want and What You Can Skip
So here is in my mind what an online conference needs:
- Keynote address during which the CEO talks a bit (please, only a bit!) about the last year, and then introduces plans for the future
- Demos of the newest software release(s)
- Reports from customers who solved actual problems with the software
- L-o-n-g Q and A from the audience
- It runs for just an hour or two hour, or an hour a day over a couple of days
What online conferences don’t need:
- Long speeches extolling the company; we are already watching, we don’t need to be convinced
- Virtue signaling. For instance, just the fact you are holding a conference shows you don’t care about the environment, no matter how many green lasers light up your virtual stage
- Tutorials. They continue to take place only at online conferences with "we've always done it this way" thinking
- Lasting all day for several days. If you can't say all of it in a couple of hours, you need to hire new script writers
Live or canned? Half and half, I suggest: pre-recorded presentations with live Q&A. One vendor went too far, with a prerecorded Q&A worded to sound like it was live.
What CAD Editors Think
When I expressed my burnout to other CAD editors, they responded like this.
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Editor 1: I sign up for them, but only for the access to replay, if I find out they said something I actually need to know about.
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Editor 2: I find myself accessing the replay most of the time, because I can skip the self-congratulatory talks and irrelevant parts.
The reality is, I only have so many hours in a day to write, interview people, and produce articles so I can't endure hour-long virtual meetings to find 10 to 15 mins of newsworthy bits.
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Editor 3: There’s lots of verbiage. The skill is finding people with something interesting to say. AU this year was quite bad for finding anything of interest.
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Editor 4: IMHO, online conferences are pointless. It was something companies needed to do to stay in the news, and for people to tell their bosses that they were doing something worthwhile when working from home. Not anymore.
The quality of leads you get is pathetic. Anyone can show up. People don’t need to take the trouble of actually setting their work aside, travel to a place, and spend the time productively so as to make the trouble worth it.
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Editor 5: I agree with the consensus, I much prefer to catch the replay so I can start, stop, return, etc. I'm often embarrassed at how long it takes me to get to it, though.
I wouldn't say that I'm burned out on virtual conferences. Companies had to cut to the meat, and I have the choice to choose which sessions I attend, with no pressure or guilt.
I honestly can't imagine companies used to ask us to give up days of our time for what information could be delivered in a few hour-long meetings (1 hour-long meeting is often the case).
I do miss the additional insight that comes from meeting colleagues, talking to different people than those who may have been scheduled, etc. And, of course, finding companies on the show floor. I plan to accept fewer in-person meeting invitations in the future.
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In conclusion, let me emphasize: My favorites are always the small conferences, whether in-person or online.
For most (at least for non-media, but I suspect also for media) attendees the real value of conferences is the networking and informal discussions that take place during and outside the conference. After attending dozens of AU and a few other CAD conferences for many years in different capacities, it became clear to me that the best conferences are:
a) in-person, with at least one or more organized social event
b) small enough that individuals don't get lost in the crowd
c) with wide coverage area (i.e. national or worldwide, not local)
d) including vendors and their cool new tech (plus free swag)
It surely is not easy (nor inexpensive), but if I was running a CAD company I would pounce on the opportunity that has been created by the pandemic and try to capitalize on the natural human hunger for fellowship.
Posted by: Owen Wengerd | Oct 25, 2021 at 09:22 AM
I suspect the difference between small conferences (which we like) and monster conferences (which we don't) is that it's the staff of the small company that puts together the small conference and who are in touch with the needs of users.
I've had organizers of small conferences ask me what I would like to see.
The giant conferences put on by giant companies are, I am guessing, organized by marketing departments, whose day job is to promote the company. Hence the disconnect.
Posted by: Ralph Grabowski | Oct 25, 2021 at 09:30 AM