The Future of Tech Conferences Is Tech

Conferences are not keeping up with their attendees in the use of technology

I was able to attend a couple of tech conferences this fall. The first was the revived Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) in September, which was put on by Microsoft to celebrate the launch of Exchange Server 2013. The second show was Microsoft Exchange Connections, part of the larger Windows Connections event, which is collocated with DevConnections, giving IT pros and developers a full slate of sessions on a range of topics including SharePoint, Microsoft SQL Server, mobile development, cloud computing, and more.

Although these two conferences were different in focus, each being successful in its own ways, the back-to-back experiences highlighted for me a shortcoming of conferences these days, particularly tech conferences. The conferences themselves aren't keeping up with their attendees in the use of technology. Conference organizers need to get on the ball and take advantage of technology to give attendees a better conference experience.

The Wi-Fi Problem and the Multitude of Connected Devices

One of the biggest problems, and one that I've seen or heard about at just about every major conference in the past couple of years, has to be the failure of the conference Wi-Fi. If you've been to conferences recently, you know what I'm talking about: You sit down at the opening keynote, ready to log in to the conference Wi-Fi network and fire up Twitter so you can live blog, or maybe just prepare to catch up on some email during the boring bits. But you find you're unable to get on the network at all because it's already congested. Or you get on, but it's so slow as to be useless, or you get booted off.

I've spoken with conference speakers who have mentioned how disconcerting it can be to look out at an audience and see all the faces turned down toward their individual screens rather than up at the projected presentation, as if no one were paying attention. But in fact, the new reality for conference attendees in the tech space is that we're reliant on our host of connected devices; rather than not paying attention, we're actually processing multiple streams of information: the live keynote from the presenter on stage and the immediate commentary on the keynote from our colleagues and peers flowing across our screens. Some IT pros might be on call and troubleshooting problems back at their offices at the same time as well.

However, if you're left struggling for a connection, it's hard to pay attention to anything but the frustrating fight for a signal. At the recent Microsoft SharePoint Conference, Windows IT Pro SharePoint editor Caroline Marwitz reported being unable to connect to either of two conference-provided Wi-Fi networks, not to mention the dedicated press network. She also noticed that "available" networks showed many attendees were using their own mobile devices as hot spots for other devices. This method is a useful solution for some people. But as long as the mobile carriers hold the hot spot feature hostage to additional fees, a better solution would be for conference organizers to recognize the demands their attendees place on the network and have sufficient bandwidth available from the start.

While on the topic of the plethora of devices techies tend to carry, here's another tip for conference organizers: Provide power outlets in session rooms and charging stations around the conference halls. I've seen this idea in limited practice. For instance, at the recent Connections conference, there was at least one session room set up with power strips on the tables on one side of the room, and perhaps that's sufficient. If you've just come from a keynote and run your laptop battery down, sitting for an hour or so plugged in while attending a session can put you back at full power.

Or how about putting a charging station in the exhibit hall? Give the vendors a chance to pitch their products to a captive crowd waiting for their red bars to turn green. This strategy would help alleviate all the people sitting on the floor in the hallway of the conference area between sessions wherever they can find an outlet.

The Presentations

When I think of the presentations and sessions themselves, I have to wonder if there's a better, more tech-oriented method of presenting material than the PowerPoint slideshows that have become ubiquitous—although I confess I don't know what that solution might be. PowerPoint can be a useful tool, particularly coupled with live demos. But I'm sure we've all been subject to the sins of PowerPoint excess and overload that simply cause us to tune out the presenter's message.

Presenters need to design their PowerPoint presentations for projection to a large audience on a big screen, with less text and large enough text that is legible at the back of the room. Almost every conference offers the speakers' presentations for download after the fact; why not make them available at the moment? Give attendees the chance to take notes right on the presentation on their laptop or tablet, rather than taking smartphone pics of the screen or trying to remember what the speaker meant when they look at the slide deck again later.

The Mobile App

Another thing I think is essential for conferences these days is to have a good mobile app, and it should be available for free on any major mobile platform. (At TechEd 2012, Microsoft provided a conference mobile app, but only for Windows Phone. Seriously, Microsoft?) At a minimum, the app should let attendees quickly and easily pull up the conference schedule and preferably find sessions by multiple methods—current time slot, speaker, topic, and so forth.

In addition, if the conference mobile app could include calendaring and scheduling, so much the better. Recent Microsoft conferences such as MEC and TechEd have provided a web interface for scheduling; but there was no integration with a mobile app. However, Windows IT Pro technical director Sean Deuby reported that the Gartner Identity & Access Management Summit has a mobile app with just that sort of integration with their online agenda-builder. If you've taken the time before the conference to map out a schedule, you really would hope to have it available on the go when you hit the ground at the show. Kudos to Gartner for providing this feature.

A mobile app should also address the social aspects of conference attendance. A built-in Twitter stream that's tuned to any conference-appropriate hash tags is a good start. Beyond that, there might be additional methods of connecting attendees through online profiles, chat rooms on specific topics or troubleshooting, or message boards for in-person meet-ups. Conference exhibitors could be given the opportunity to sponsor these areas of the app.

The Future

In coming years, the tech conferences that are going to be successful, that are going to encourage repeat visitors, are those that can effectively implement new ways of integrating technology with the conference to give attendees the best possible experience. I've shared my thoughts about what works, what doesn't, and some promising directions conference organizers might explore. I'm curious to hear what experiences you have had and your suggestions to improve the overall conference experience through the use of better technology.

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