For the entirety of my career in publishing, there have been regular events that punctuate regular work. For weeks or months you trudged to the company office, but then you were given a moment of freedom to meet others and to network. Suddenly, in March 2020, all those physical events ceased. Did we miss anything? Will we have these events back as before when the pandemic is over? In the last few weeks, over a year after the start of the covid-19 pandemic, various forums have started to pay attention to physical events such as conferences and exhibitions. A couple of articles on Scholarly Kitchen, on The Future of Conferences and on What a Conference should cost, have been interesting but without, I think, getting to the core issue: what are face-to-face conferences good for?

As I see it, there are three types of interaction that I have encountered at conferences and exhibitions that have not yet been replaced or substituted by online events.

  1. A chance for users (not vendors or others looking to make money out of the process) to talk about what they do. Such sessions are typically small-scale, certainly not for a plenary session at a conference. They are not a pitch, nor done with any axe to grind; they provide simply a presentation on “this is how we did it, and what worked, or what didn’t work”. The best of such sessions often emerge from a community that doesn’t often get the chance to talk in public. Some of the most successful of these sessions come from events that might not immediately seem unmissable, such as user group conferences, or practitioner events, for example the ISMTE conference for science editors.
  2. A chance to discuss with peers to get their views on some innovation, work practice, new technology. This is very unlikely to be during a presentation, but may well come from a coffee break, a dinner, or other social event positioned after such a presentation. Software tools such as SpatialChat provide I think the best chance of achieving this in online form.
  3. Finally, the trade show at its most powerful is represented by the Frankfurt Book Fair. For three days, vendors and customers can have business meetings with minimal downtime: no additional travel, and meeting the right (decision-making) people. At Frankfurt (and other similar trade shows) you can have 20 meetings, which would otherwise take you 20 or 30 weeks to organise. These are not accidental meetings; they will have been planned weeks or months in advance to ensure the most efficient use of people’s time. I remember the Dorling Kindersley stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair in the 1990s that was closed to all casual visitors. All meeting slots were booked in advance of the Fair.

The following, I believe are for the most part a waste of time:

  1. Exhibition and vendor stands at trade shows or the exhibition area at conferences, waiting for passing trade. This is a waste of resources (even though many companies are happy to pay money to demonstrate their presence at such events).
  2. The so-called “poster session” that mimics something at academic conferences. In an effort to squeeze as many speakers in as possible, the poster session is a portable graphic which presents some research in an attention-grabbing way. People can wander past the posters and engage in conversation with the researchers. This might work for research, but the serendipity makes it very unappealing for businesses. I have better things to do with my time than to wander around an exhibit hall in the hope I may encounter a relevant poster session. I am interested in the business, not the poster.
  3. Some conferences try to accommodate new technology by organising a multi-presentation session on new technology or new businesses. Each start-up company gets a few minutes to present their wares. At the end, there may be a vote from the hall for the ‘best’ idea. This format has been used by Outsell, and by the STM Association, among others. The format is never, in my opinion, successful. Startups giving an elevator pitch are one-sided. Any response from delegates usually relates to the quality of the presentation, not the viability or value of the business idea.

Good examples of conference interaction include:

  1. One of the best conferences I have attended was an event for health librarians (EAHIL). Quite a rarefied subject, you may think, but the event contained some marvellous workshops where attendees actually took part in a professional activity and then discussed the results. In the session I attended, everyone in the room dissected and critique a systematic review. We worked in groups and reported back at the end.
  2. One innovative idea at an ISKO Conference (I believe the format was introduced by Patrick Lambe) was the inverse of a presentation. A normal conference session of around an hour or two was split into several brief (five-minute) outlines of a subject. Following this quick pitch, participants could then choose to attend whichever of these subject outlines appealed to them. But instead of a talk, the session consisted just questions and answers from the audience. The whole session became far more interactive: audiences were forced to participate, and their questions guided the subject matter.
  3. One of the most remarkable, and honest, sessions I attended was by Sean Harrop of the BMJ. His talk was at a conference on metadata, and he talked about metadata disasters: things that had gone wrong as a result of poor or missing metadata. There must be 20 or more talks on success compared to every talk about failure, and yet examining why things go wrong can (as here) be very instructive. If nothing else, his honesty captured everyone’s attention.

Could any or all of this be achieved in a virtual environment? There is no reason why not, but I haven’t yet encountered any online event that provided anything like the interaction described above.