By John San Filippo
As I sit here in my room at the Hilton Salt Lake City Center, it literally seems like years since I last attended a live, in-person conference. Yet it was just February of 2020 that I attended the CUNA Governmental Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C. I took time out of one of the days there to watch the memorial for Kobe Bryant. I’m a Los Angeles Laker fan so, of course, I felt at the time that 2020 couldn’t possibly get any worse.
Then it did.
Shortly after I got home to San Diego, the Covid-19 pandemic began sweeping the globe. The whole world – except for Walmart – shut down and time itself seemed to grind to a halt. One by one, conferences large and small began the process of either total cancellation or conversion to a virtual event.
This was tough on fintech vendors especially. I work with a lot of them and a good many rely on face-to-face interactions at conferences as a primary marketing tool. Sure, many of these virtual conferences included virtual exhibit halls where vendors could set up their virtual booths. Unfortunately, based on what I’ve heard from a wide range of vendors, these virtual exhibit halls were in reality one big, collective bust.
Nobody is really to blame for that. If you’re a credit union executive attending a live conference and you have a break between sessions, for example, the most productive way to fill that time is with a visit to the exhibit hall, where you can meet some new friends and find out what’s hot in technology right now. However, if you’re attending a virtual conference and you have a break between sessions, there are probably a dozen or more pressing items on your desk that require your attention much more urgently than a visit to the virtual exhibit hall. It’s a simple matter of priorities.
So it was with great delight that I found myself here in Salt Lake City amongst friends and colleagues. Prodigy always hosts a good show and this one was no different, starting with an exceptional presentation on the challenges ahead from CEO Amber Harsin, COO Karey Neal and CFO Bryant Solomon.
But some things were different.
For example, Prodigy hosted this event as a hybrid conference. In other words, the camera was rolling and those who wanted could attend via Zoom. I’m not sure how many people Zoomed in, but I’ll find out.
I talked with Brant Hicks, CEO of Great River FCU, at breakfast on Monday about in-person versus virtual conferences. Like me, he was happy to be back interacting in-person with friends and colleagues, but he said he hopes the hybrid model of conferences is here to stay.
While nothing can replace the in-person experience, he rightly pointed out that the hybrid model allows more employees to attend these events virtually and take advantage of the educational opportunities they offer. There’s no way to cost-justify sending five or 10 employees to a live event, but having them sit in on a virtual event and reaping many of the same benefits is another matter.
What will be the new normal for conferences? I guess I’ll find out soon enough. I’m scheduled to attend the Corelation annual conference next week, Money20/20 in October and, of course, GAC next February. I have my fingers crossed.