The Evolution of Conventions: Virtual and Hybrid events.
In advance, I know that a lot of what I'm going to say now is going to cause people to argue with me, I'm fine with that, and if anything, I'll welcome well reasoned points made to the contrary
It’s been an interesting couple of years for most conventions, we went from being the sort of place where everyone went to have a good time to being the least likely place that anyone would want to go to, and while we thought it might be over within a year, here we are bordering on the two years since it all began, and still we have no real confirmation when it’s all going to be lifted.
In all, it’s been a bit miserable and more than a bit worrying for everyone, but for those of us who make their livelihoods holding events that people go to, it’s become both an opportunity and a challenge.
Let’s talk about the opportunity, Virtual Environments.
On the surface of it, this should be a no brainer, Virtual Environments and Virtual conventions provided space for everyone to go to and things for everyone to do while we were all locked up and unable to do anything else.
Did they replace Physical conventions? Of course not.
Will they replace Physical conventions? Of course not.
But what’s their place in things now?
What Virtual Environments did do was show that it’s possible to hold events so that anyone in the world can attend, often for a reduced rate or for free. These shows aren’t as involved as in person shows, they generally need less volunteers, but they can still provide an excellent source of entertainment and are limited only by technology in who you can get to appear at them. It’s possible to have people in several different time zones all appearing on the screen at the same time and answering questions and talking with each other in real time.
What they don’t do is provide the human contact that many people go to conventions to experience. It’s good to see your friends on a zoom call, it’s good to check in and know that they’re well, but for most people, checking in isn’t the same as rubbing noses, handshakes, or in my case, squeezing so hard they think their lungs are coming out whilst simultaneously pounding their back hard enough that they think you’re trying to dislodge whatever they last ate. When conventions started up again, there was, understandably, a great fear that going back into contact with people (and so many people at the same time) was going to be a disaster, every event would become a superspreader, millions of people would catch the virus and be hospitalised or worse, and we’d be right back where we started within a few weeks.
All the precautions than we had to take coupled with strict rules that were absolutely enforced to the letter meant that there were very few cases of Covid from those first conventions, and while I’m sure that some events caused more spreading than others (looking at the ones where everyone was shouting, getting drunk, and not wearing any masks here), the overall increase in cases wasn’t enough to bring lockdowns back into place.
I know, there’ll be lots of people saying that that was more to do with governments not paying as much attention as they should, but nonetheless, events stayed available, and while attendances were down (averaging 50% of what their last totals were), the actual amount spent at those conventions was comparable with the 2019 versions of those events.
But I digress
Virtual environments have changed the playing field irrevocably, and with it now being proven that they can be done, a greater number of people (particularly those who cannot travel or those who have greater vulnerability to covid) are looking forwards to more events having a virtual element of some sort, to the point at which several of the conventions that I work for and with are being put under pressure to include a side order of virtual events to run alongside their in person events. Either that, or include a way for people to view panels, participate in things, and be there with everyone else, if only as a cyber manifestation.
This brings us to the challenge: Hybrid events
Part Physical, Part Virtual, all awesome.
This is the myth that people believe, that you can be sitting in one panel whilst having your headphones in one ear and watching another panel on your phone at the same time. That you can have all the content that was recorded, all the panels, and watch them later. That you can literally have your cake and eat the rest of the cake afterwards, and that you can do it all for the same price the convention was always going to be.
And that’s where the myth fails…
Hybrid conventions don’t cost the same as Physical conventions, and they don’t cost the same as Virtual conventions, they cost at least the same as both put together, and often, more than that.
There are a number of things that many who don’t run conventions may not have considered about this, the first of which is the cost for providing a virtual element to a convention. Not just the monetary cost, but also the cost in people and the time required to set things up in advance. In an ideal world, hotels and conventions centres wouldn’t charge a fortune for stable and secure wifi, and even more for hard wired connections, but most of these places are run by business people, who, being honest, don’t give anything away for free when there’s a chance that they can make a lot more money by selling it.
There’s a lot of people out there saying that it doesn’t take much data to run a zoom call…
You’re right, it doesn’t…
And if all you were doing was running a Zoom room off your fibre optic non-shared internet at home, that wouldn’t be a problem.
However; when you’re using wifi that’s generally available, everyone gets on it, so what you thought you had, you’ll probably have between 1/100th and 1/1000th of, if you’re at one of the larger conventions, you might have 1/20000th of it, and no matter how little data it takes, it takes more than that, you'll get more function out of a 14.4 modem than you will most convention centres wifi when everyone is in the building.
Then there’s the people.
Every virtual event needs someone to run it, and that’s not just get it going and then check in on it every few minutes to make sure everything’s going fine, as it would be at a physical convention. That’s sit on it and make sure that all the people on the presentation are still there, troubleshoot all the issues that might be occurring, watch the audience, block anyone’s who decided to moon the camera, destroy all porn spam bots that show up mid stream, and ensure that all the questions and answers are being put up in as close to real time as possible. If you’re at an in person event and the group watching is small enough, you can watch both physical attendees and virtual, but in any larger event, you need one for each.
As a result, you’ve got increased monetary cost and increased volunteer time required, and if you like to make sure that your volunteers are well compensated for their time (as it should be), then you have to take that into account. That person sat at the back of the room on a laptop with headphones in typing to all the virtual attendees is doing the same work as the person watching the panel room, and they should be compensated equally.
But I hear the lament already rising, the Internet is free! Everything on the Internet is free, I can go get any book or film I want right now for free, I can get everything for free, it’s the Internet, it’s free!
Oh I know what you’re thinking, does anyone believe that? Really?
Well, maybe not you, dear reader, but the first question you get as a conrunner is “Why do I have to pay to access the online content, I’m not physically at your convention, and you can just put it on your website.”.
Here’s the reality, it may not cost anything for people to download it or pirate it, but it sure as hell cost something to produce and put up there in the first place, and conventions are no different.
Take a look at the image at the top of this article:
A physical convention could run that with one person watching the room and the presenter clicking to move their own slides on.
A virtual convention could run that with the presenters own camera and a series of slides, one person needed from the convention to monitor the chat and make sure the connection is stable.
A Hybrid convention would need one person watching the room, one person keeping a camera on the presenter as they moved about, and one person monitoring the chat and virtual attendants.
And that brings me to the point that’s going to cause most consternation.
All hotels operate on being paid. Many hotels, if you’re going to offer them guaranteed minimum levels of food and beverage spend, minimum numbers of room nights being used, and minimum guaranteed overall spends, will give you the convention space for free. But that requires that you get that many people through the door, and that that many people all want to eat and drink there, and that that many people want to stay the night,
Less people will attend physically if they can get all the content online, the people who will attend will be the ones who want the human contact and are willing to take the risks associated with attending a physical convention. If you don’t make the minimum spends, the hire rates for the hotel rooms alone are usually enough to bankrupt a lot of conventions. The combination of lower numbers attending and higher costs all around make most Hybrid conventions an untenable prospect for everything but already established cons with a solid following who, for the most part, still want to attend in person or who will be happy to pay to support the convention in running things virtually.
What does this have to do with the Evolution of Conventions?
Times can, and indeed must, change. The technology has not yet evolved to the point where large scale events can be streamed out without significant cost in both onsite tech and volunteers, not to mention the cost of ensuring stable data. Many conventions in the UK work together to share equipment and software to each other, ensuring that the money one of them has spent will be well used by not just them but by other conventions as well. The more we run events that have a virtual element to them, the more we will find ways to get virtual content out there, and the more we will have those elements available to everyone.
Many years ago, there simply wasn’t the array of technology available to advertise events far enough in advance that people could make plans, you either knew about the convention or you didn’t. Now it’s possible to advertise something online for free and build an interest long before you actually start the convention.
It’s not just that we want to find a way to do it, we need to find a way to do it.
The current generation of conrunners has knowledge of technology, but for the most part, we didn’t grow up with what we have now. The next generation will all be digital natives, most of them don’t remember a time when the internet didn’t exist, and with that, so too will come the advances that we need to make, and that’s where this particular evolution goes. New minds, new ideas, and things that maybe my generation and above won’t think of. We need those new ideas, we need that fresh mindset, and we need to be able to give the guidance we have, the lessons we've learned in the world that we have, before it's too late to pass them all on.
Maybe we’ll get it right, maybe there’ll need to be some adjustments with what we do this year, but we’ll keep trying until we get it right, and while we’re doing that, we’ll be watching other conventions, just as they’ll be watching us, and between us.
We’ll make something better.
Anyone wanting to learn how to run conventions, particularly (but not limited to) the generations that came after X, get in touch, we're going to be working with a number of conventions in the near future to bring people in to all sorts of different events.
Tomorrow: The Evolution of Conventions Part 2: What effect the pandemic had on in person events and how things have changed.