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Is O’Reilly’s Exit from In-Person Conferences a Portent of Changes to Come?

COVID-19 is forcing conferences to cancel left and right, but even more notable is the announcement from O’Reilly Media that it would be closing down the in-person portion of its conference business for good.

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O’Reilly president Laura Baldwin writes:

Today, we’re sharing the news that we’ve made the very difficult decision to cancel all future O’Reilly in-person conferences and close down this portion of our business. Without understanding when this global health emergency may come to an end, we can’t plan for or execute on a business that will be forever changed as a result of this crisis. With large technology vendors moving their events completely on-line, we believe the stage is set for a new normal moving forward when it comes to in-person events.

O’Reilly is a forward-thinking business, and this is the first corporate statement I’ve seen that acknowledges that a post-coronavirus world may look quite different from what we’ve experienced in the past. The ascendance of the Internet was the downfall of many conferences, like the dearly departed Macworld, that didn’t offer enough beyond what could be gleaned online. And now, the rise of coronavirus-driven virtual events may cause many more conferences to disappear or evolve into a new form.

Beyond conferences, numerous people—and their employers—are discovering that working from home can be better in many ways. (Particularly when it’s voluntary and doesn’t involve sharing space with a spouse and restive children. We’ll get back there.) As much as personal interactions are always important, being shown that life can go on without quite so many of them might reduce wasted commute time, deadly automobile accidents, pollution-causing plane trips, and more.

It will be fascinating to see which of our assumptions about how things should be turn out to be merely the way we’ve always done them, rather than the way they could be done better for individuals, for society, and for the planet.

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Comments About Is O’Reilly’s Exit from In-Person Conferences a Portent of Changes to Come?

Notable Replies

  1. With travel costs - air, hotel and meals - conferences were always a huge investment in money & time. Attending online can help reduce expense so I might attend more events for the cost of the actual content and not the other expenses. Yeah, this puts an end to the traditional hallway conversations that formed between talks but with Twitter and all its equivalents, those conversations can happen more frequently and possibly with a larger group.

    Just like 9/11 made travel a thought process of whether to go or stay, post-COVID-19 will take a while for people to travel as freely as they once did.

  2. This is a hard call. My company is traditional in-person events and we are also moving into virtual events. One thing we see clearly already is the commitment factor. When people payed up front, booked travel, etc. they usually showed up. When they are virtual, they expect to be able to cancel the moment before the event (even after if they didn’t participate) and the show up rate is about 50%.

    I have personally see events that were once in-person go online which start out OK but quickly dwindle. The move to vibrant online communities may take a generation to change habits.

  3. While part of me applauds companies for taking risks and making large sweeping changes like this, the other part of me feels sad.

    In the case of “In-Person-Events” being replaced by “Virtual Events,” it sounds good, until you consider how many bartenders, restaurant cooks & servers, janitors, housekeepers (hotels), airline workers, taxi/uber/lyft drivers, and dozens of other services will no longer be used.

    Amazon is fantastic. I save money and time and can get virtually anything I want the next day. But I prefer to buy tech gadgets, TVs, appliances, etc. at the local Best Buy (or whatever store) if I can because I’m keeping more people employed, including the security guards who patrol the parking lot, the coffee shop & restaurant workers who have a job because of the crowds Best Buy brings to that particular corner, etc… The same goes for clothing. I would rather get it at the local mall, even if it costs me $2-$5 more + the gas money to drive to the mall.

    It’s the same for these events, plus you miss out on the “in-person” aspect of it all. I fear that the current generation is missing out on something very valuable, and they aren’t even aware of it.

  4. I don’t disagree with you, although I make more of a distinction for actual local businesses compared to national chains like Best Buy or Olive Garden. They may employ some local people, which is good, but all the rest of the money leaves the area.

  5. For Apple, my guess is that this will not be a long term strategy, as they often unveil big new products and services at the WWDC. Last year’s announcement a separate store for Watch apps, the death of iTunes, along with the debut of the snazzy and super expensive Mac Pro. Developers creating new apps, regularly updating existing apps and selling stuff within apps is why the App Store’s sales have continued to skyrocket.

    I’m not sure about O’Reilly, but I’ll bet web developers will be increasingly important to Apple in the time of Coronavirus.

  6. But only about 6000 people attend WWDC, out of 23 million developers. You have to figure that if this year’s virtual WWDC works well, Apple will be continuing to provide all the virtual features as well, even if they bring back the in-person conference next year.

  7. Boy did this topic bring back memories! I still have the T-shirts from the 1994 and 1995 KansasFest conferences in Kansas City for the Apple II. We all knew that our favorite computer’s days were numbered, but didn’t care. It was a chance to meet in person folks I had only known online, and we all had a great time. While online conferencing may be the future, it’s kind of sad too.

  8. Meeting other folks in person is such a completely different experience from meeting virtually, regardless of how advanced the technology is for the latter. Having participated in a handful of Netters Dinners during Macworld Expo in S.F. are among my all-time most favorite memories.

    Key to this is that, when you attend a meeting in person, then you’re typically immersed in a completely different environment: seeing someone in the narrow confines of a computer monitor, and only seeing their faces, is so very different from going to a conference, where you experience differents sights, smells, sounds, etc.

    Especially when visiting a conference in a city that you’re not (yet) familiar with, will provide a wealth of inspiration and will often put you in a completely different mindset from the one at home or in the office.

    Just think of the fact that your attendance is not impacted by that load of laundry that needs washing, the groceries that need to be bought, or the bed that needs to be made. Leave that to the good people at your hotel, etc., and you can fully focus on whatever new things you’re exploring, learning, experimenting with, etc., and on meeting new people who do stuff you might never have heard of.

    From a practical point of view, we have all the technology we need to run typical conferences in the virtual realm. But the experience will be desperately lacking in so many ways.

    In a way it’s just like the difference between visiting a book store and ordering a book online: the product you’ll eventually receive, is the same, but you just can’t get the bliss of discovering a title that you weren’t even looking while slowly walking along the shelves in a store with clicking the purchase button on a page that is otherwise overflowing with the mind-numbing “other stuff you might be interested in.”

  9. I guess the win-win situation is where a physical conference offered virtual attendance so everyone got what they liked or could attend in the manner they could afford.

    I agree with the others’ comments here - I did enjoy physically being at a convention and all that the environment and options allowed. But I don’t fault O’Reilly for making what is a business decision that costs exceeded revenue for their events. Apple’s WWDC will always have high attendance currently - they could probably offer 5x the tickets and still sell out. But other events are not so,lucky, and virtual presentation at least may allow the talks and content to be shared.

  10. Apple limits the availability of seats, and to date, the conferences have always sold out quickly. They also have scholarships for students and STEM members:

    It’s also one of the biggest opportunities for Apple to schmooze the big names in the press and get lots of coverage across the globe before and long after the show. IIRC, after the show there are breakout meetings and demos, including hands-on with the latest and greatest new stuff. My guess is that Apple is more than happy to loose a lot of money on the show in exchange for all the benefits it provides the company.

  11. All I’m saying, Marilyn, is that as useful as WWDC is in person, it serves a very small percentage of developers who would like to go, so the more virtual it can be, the better, even alongside an in-person conference for the few who get lucky in the lottery.

    Don’t get me wrong, folks, I enjoy conferences immensely. But for the most part for me, they’re entertainment. The question is if conferences are imparting information in person in ways that are actually better than what could be done online. (And notice that I said “could be done” and not “has been done” since I think there’s plenty of room for improvement in online environments.) Obviously, O’Reilly sees this as the future, and I suspect they see things at a deeper level than those of us who are merely attendees.

  12. I attend an annual programming conference (sadly canceled this year; it should have happened last week). While most of the presentations could be done virtually, it’s a bit harder to ask questions that way.

    I don’t mean “real” questions, but off-topic or “silly” questions. In person it’s easy over the course of the conference to catch a presenter at dinner or between sessions and ask casual things too trivial to bring up in front of others. Often these turn out to be incredibly valuable. Sometimes a “stupid” question is actually deep and approaches the topic from a perspective the presenter hadn’t considered. Beginners, for instance, are often too shy to ask something during a session, but their feedback and questions are really important. I’m not sure if that would carry over online.

    Another factor is just hanging out with other developers. At the conference I go to, you see small groups of people with laptops open sharing code, demonstration projects, getting help with tricky bugs, and so on. I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had where someone says, “Oh, I’ve got a project that does that. It’s raw and buggy, but let me show you.” And they fetch their laptop and reveal something real cool. It’s inspiring and rewarding.

    That’s the real value of the conference and I suspect that at least in this case, it will remain in-person for just the networking benefits.

  13. Actually, as somewhat of an introvert, I welcome a virtual meeting option. I don’t tend to get much out of the vaunted “face time” that people mention here.

    Also, working for a small non-profit, I would’ve had no budget to attend our software vendor’s conference if it hadn’t been changed to a virtual format.

    I don’t wish to take away the in person option if enough people are still willing to pay for it.

    However, for me, this is one way technology helps to receive the information you need or want without the hassle of going there in person. If I don’t find a session valuable in person, I either have to stay until it’s complete or I’m being disruptive to the other attendees by leaving which is bad. Leaving a virtual room is much more subtle.

    Bob C

  14. I think you have a point. Online events enable far more people to participate, even if some turn out to be no-shows. My sister works in event planning, and some upcoming events are going online, though working out the logistics is daunting. But her company is still planning in-person events in the future, COVID-19 permitting. The value of face-to-face business is hard to duplicate. Isaac Asimov envisioned in some of his novels a time, for some cultures, where people never met in person. Needless to say their sex lives suffered. Their only personal interactions were with their household robots. But the culture was stale and stratified and eventually failed.

    Still, this pandemic may permanently affect some people. New Your City, for example, has thrived on personal interactions, in densely packed neighborhoods, in shops and markets and on subways. It may take people there a while to return to “normal” as fear of personal contact subsides, if it does.

    The virtual future was moving up quickly even before the Coronavirus drove us all into isolation. In the meantime, the virtual workplace is enabling many people to continue working and many companies to remain in business. I suspect—hope—we will return to our friendly habits of hugging and shaking hands when the crisis has passed. I daresay such habits will be a celebration of survival.

  15. Adam, I’m surprised at your stance. The live events you and I used to attend, such as Macworld, were not just entertainment, and they were not just information-gathering. They were rich experiences that cannot be distilled down to a single benefit.

    Virtual events can be terrific, but they will never be the same as live events. They can’t be! It’s like saying educational television is the same as going to a live classroom with a teacher.

    In a world where being in a live, face-to-face environment is not possible, then yes, a virtual event is awesome. And yes, it’s wonderful that a virtual “television” experience is available to many more people. But don’t jade yourself with today’s cynical digital message that we can do it all online.

  16. anyone who woks there is local. Healthcare from their jobs is local. Porters who clean are local. When you write much of the money leaves the area, its not as relevant to the everyday life of the community as the money which does stay in the area. Yes, Best Buy and most other stores, sell things which are made in other countries, they are financed by banks that have no local, or even national presence, but I don’t see these things changing - no one local making TVs in sight. However having a physical store to see things in and knowledgeable sales people to help me, as well as keeping the local society going by supporting the local economy are the most important factors when making a choice as to where I should buy something. In other words, yes, not 100% of the money stays local, but whatever does is critical to the quality of life around us.

  17. In the 1980s I read analysis that locally owned store are more likely to use local suppliers than chains. So more money stays in the community and a chain might have a net result of money leaving the community. I do not know about more recent analysis of this situation.

  18. First off, I’ve been quite clear about the general value of in-person interactions. From the article:

    As much as personal interactions are always important, being shown that life can go on without quite so many of them might reduce wasted commute time, deadly automobile accidents, pollution-causing plane trips, and more.

    Second, when I said above that conferences for me are mostly entertainment, that’s overstating the case, and I should have said that they’re mostly about building relationships. I like talking with people and meeting new people and all that, but the amount of actionable information that I take away from conferences as an attendee is quite low.

    But I’m weird. I’m hardly ever the target audience for a conference. I go to MacTech Conference every year, but I’m not an IT admin. I go to ACES Conference every year, but I don’t run an Apple consultantancy. I’ve been to the last few JNUC conferences, but I’ve never used Jamf. I went to Collision in Toronto last year, but I’m not a VC. And in the past, I’ve gone to MacHack, C4, Cingleton, and other developer conferences, but I’m not a developer. The closest I ever came to finding a conference useful as an attendee was O’Reilly’s Tools of Change publishing conference, but that lasted only a couple of years and was relevant only when we were doing Take Control. Mostly, in fact, I go to conferences when I’m a speaker or acting as media.

    There have been a few conferences over the past 30 years that ended up being extremely helpful to my business thanks to the relationships made or cemented, but there was no way to predict when that would happen—it was always happenstance, not something that was planned.

    Plus, like @darwinmac, Tonya finds the whole networking aspect of conferences quite stressful, since she’s uncomfortable striking up conversations with people she doesn’t know.

    I’ve never said that in-person conferences should go away or are bad things, just that this situation will make us examine

    which of our assumptions about how things should be turn out to be merely the way we’ve always done them, rather than the way they could be done better for individuals, for society, and for the planet.

  19. And any profit stays in the community! There are lots of studies about the many and varied benefits of locally owned businesses. This article links to a bunch:

  20. Great points, Adam. I particularly agree that so much does come down to “relationships.”

    (This is a slightly uncomfortable thing for me to admit, because my mom — who spent a career as a family/marriage therapist — often told me, “David, everything is relationships. That’s what’s important.” It has only been in the past decade or so that I finally realized, “dang, my mom was right after all.”)

    Of course, I also should have noted that I am super-biased, as I am an event producer. (Which you know, but others might not.) We have been forced to take our event online this year. Quite the adventure.

  21. Yeah, mothers are often right, even if we realize that only quite a bit later. :slight_smile:

    I think I’d have a harder time developing relationships in today’s world because I detest social media, and the people who seem to be fluid about making new friends online are largely doing so in that environment. I prefer mailing lists and forums (like this) where there’s a relatively stable group. That’s what I had back in the day, and what I was able to leverage when Macworld and similar in-person events were around.

    I do feel terrible for you with Creative Pro. TidBITS is basically unaffected by all this, and my TidBITS Content Network business is fine for now, but I can imagine just how awful it would feel to be forced to cancel an in-person conference that’s a large part of your livelihood.

    Seth Godin had an insightful comment the other day. When faced with a new situation, you can react, respond, or initiate. Responding is better than just reacting, and initiating something new is even better yet. Not that it’s easy!

  22. I have actually been to a conference with Marc Z and I agree 100%.

    You can learn from a presentation but the deep creative stuff happens in face to face chats when multiple people talk about a topic. It is not even an intentional presentation of ideas but a very organic “dot connecting” exercise. As the conversation progresses more dots come to focus and lots of ideas are spawned. It is not that every dot should be connected and sometimes in these conversations you realize a dot you thought connected is actually not truly a connection.

    My son related his experience in college in a biochemistry class where the professor had his text book laminated. He would snap out a page from the ring binder and wonder the class talking about a topic. My son said some of the great revelations happened because of another students question that got unravelled on the spot by the professor AND some of the other students.

    I suppose in theory you could do the same in some sort of electronic hang out but I suspect the platform could not always achieve this face to face method of communicating.

  23. Whoa big fellas. The issue is a dire one. The issue, for me, is NOT travel costs, or conference costs, or the value of face to face interactions. The issue is SWAG! I like swag and not being able to get swag is giving me nightmares. I mean where will my wardrobe be without the fresh tee shirts I have been getting for years at shows and conferences? Does that mean I will have to be topless in a few years?

  24. I totally agree with @mstrickland and @dwstclair!

    We are struggling with the swag issue. It may sound crazy, but picking the swag and designing the artwork is one of my favorite parts of the show. I love useful swag, so we’ve done a lot of kitchen things: e.g. pint glasses, pan scrapers, and jar openers! (We still hear from attendees from years ago about how they still use those things.)

    So we’re working on a “virtual goodie bag” of stuff. It won’t be the same, but how on earth could we get physical stuff to people, especially because we often have attendees from 5 or 6 continents.

    As for making it more interesting: We are working out those details, but it’s likely that the event will rely on a combination of streaming video and Zoom meetings, plus an online forum, private pages, etc. We’ve used a platform called Pathable for many years, and now they’ve expanded that for virtual events, so we’re testing that option.

  25. Here’s the biggest negative about virtual conferences: proprietary software and privacy issues.

    For instance, I refuse to have a Google or Facebook or Instagram account… yet those are often required for a virtual connection. With all the problems Zoom has (every day there’s a new terrible story about their security problems), I wouldn’t install that if you paid me. There are a 100 other solutions from tiny companies, but no one has heard of them, and getting participants to sign up for a strange new service is a challenge.

    So then I’m stuck: either I compromise on my values or don’t participate in a conference.

    This brings up serious problems for the future: are a portion of the public going to be excluded from certain activities just because they don’t have a particular social media or conferencing app installed? Will someone fill this void with a better solution or one that works across platforms?

    I’m already infuriated with so many companies that only do things via Facebook or other media I don’t use. (What is wrong with an ordinary website?) This trend toward virtual sounds like a dangerous path.

  26. This is my biggest concern with all the sudden interest in virtual meetings, events, etc. It’s happening so quickly that I don’t feel there is proper evaluation of the privacy aspects. And the software people adopt now is likely to be harder to shift later. I just read about Jitsi earlier today which is an open source conferencing solution that doesn’t require setting up an account. I haven’t had a chance to investigate properly, but sounds interesting:

    Overall, I think there are a lot of meetings and events that could happen virtually with the right tools. Often people spend more time travelling than doing anything useful. And going to an event that then turns out to be a lot less useful than you thought it would be is even worse. But there will also always be a place for in-person meetings and events, and as others have said there are benefits from them that can’t be moved online.

  27. Indeed, although I suspect similar tradeoffs with in-person conferences exist already. For some people, going through a body scanner or being physically patted down in airport security would be compromising their values, and for others, supporting the climate change impact of airplane travel might be a significant compromise.

    That’s not to minimize your concerns or anyone else’s, just to note that others have probably had to make the opposite decision because of their equally strongly held values.

  28. Adam, you are a prime Tech journalist whose articles publicize the conference aims, announcements, etc. Heaven forbid these conferences only allowed people whose jobs were in the “targeted audience”!

  29. Oh goodness, there’s no suggestion that media would ever be banned from conferences. My point was merely that what I get out of a conference is probably very different from what someone who is in the target audience gets from it.

  30. Yesterday I thought of another in-person benefit: for a WFH hermit like me, such conferences are a major social activity. Obviously this wouldn’t apply to many, but the main conference I go to is for developers, many of whom work in solitary. Virtual conferences aren’t quite the same experience.

  31. True, Adam, there isn’t such a suggestion - yet. The concern is IF Apple, et al decide to expand the smaller sized conferences, the temptation MIGHT be there to restrict the number of slots allowed to the media. Here are a couple of questions concerning WWDC:

    In the past physical conferences, were the media slots over and above the 6000 mentioned and was the media allowed into the sessions?
    As for the new virtual conferences, will the media be allowed to attend the same (or more) freely as they were the physical conferences?

  32. Apple has only ever invited media to the keynote at WWDC, and even then, not that many people. I’ve been invited only once, back in 1997 or so, by Michael Mace, who was a VP at the time. Alas, I wasn’t able to go that year.

    I sort of doubt that virtual conferences will be all that different for the media—usually conferences very much want media to attend.

  33. There’s a very interesting article in today’s New York Times that covers the critically important health and safety elements of planning a conference during a major pandemic, including sanitation and regular disinfecting throughout each day, protective gear, social distancing, safety barriers in and between exhibits, security, etc. Locating a venue big enough to handle all the necessary distancing and barrier requirements and hotels that can be trusted to do the same are a whole other, but equally important, ball game:

    If O’Reilly and Apple choose to keep their conferences online forever after, I can understand it.

  34. Ouch. I can’t see in-person conferences happening in a big way until there’s a vaccine that everyone has. The simple problem is that most conferences aren’t absolutely essential, and too many people are going to pass because they’re not worth the risk, whatever the precautions. And with reduced attendance, the economics of the conferences start to falter in a big way.

  35. Having been to lots of conferences of all kinds, they all fall into one of three categories:

    • Celebrity meet-and-greet events. Like ComiCon (and hundreds of similar cons on smaller scales). These probably can’t be done remotely, because the whole purpose of attending is to meet famous people (or at least be in the same room where they’re talking).

    • Marketing cons. Like WWDC, MWC, NAMM, and countless others. These are primarily advertising/marketing events where industry people can get to meet vendors. Yes, there are technology sessions, but they are rehearsed presentations that could just as easily be done over conferencing.

    • Standards body meetings. Like those held by the IETF, IEEE and TIP. Real work takes place at these events - mostly in the breakout sessions, not at the staged presentations or on the convention floor. These breakouts could be done over conferencing, but there’s a loss in doing so. Most of the real work already takes place remotely (via conference calls, e-mail and web forums), but those face-to-face meetings are important avenues for brainstorming and other development work that doesn’t fit cleanly into a standardized environment.

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