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Digitizing events like Citrix Synergy has benefits, drawbacks

What does it mean to move a conference, like Citrix Synergy, online? Experts discuss how conferences are adapting to a COVID-19 world -- and what the future could bring.

Those planning technology-industry events must always be prepared for disruption. Organizers of Citrix Synergy 2020 are working to ensure the event's in-person interactions are replicated in a digital format as much as possible.

Like many companies in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Citrix Systems has moved its annual user conference onto the web. The company announced its decision in mid-March; the event was scheduled for May but has since been pushed back to this fall.

"As soon as we started to hear more and more about this virus, we knew we had to have a backup, just in case," said Mark Plocki, director of corporate events at Citrix, adding that, as discussions took place, the situation became clearer. "Of course, the right thing to do was to move our event to a virtual event."

Laura Ramos, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, said engagement was the key measurement in determining a conference's success. Given the current situation, she said, planners must consider how best to achieve that goal.

"What's the real value that people are getting out of the event?" she said. "Is there some way we can deliver that value in a digital, remote way as opposed to face-to-face?"

Web component already important

Plocki said modern event planners must always be ready to shift to a web-only event if people are unable to travel. Indeed, even in-person conferences now typically include an internet component.

Mark Plocki, director of corporate events, CitrixMark Plocki

"Of course, if you're having an in-person event, you want everyone to be there," he said. "That's not always possible, and a lot of companies will send one or two representatives. What do the other folks do?"

As such, Plocki said, many conferences now stream keynote addresses and even some sessions. Still, hosting an online-only event is different from just having components of a conference on the web; companies must work to replicate the in-person interaction that takes place in the real world.

"[With an online conference,] you can go into a virtual platform, go to a Citrix booth, click in and see the functions of products, actually talk to people [and] download white papers," he said.

Attendees to a virtual event, Plocki said, are encouraged to create their own avatars, and to build a profile with their information.

"That increases your ability to network, because people are going into the virtual site to find people," he said. "If you're giving all that information of yourself and finding others who are doing the same, you might be able to perform a connection that you would have been able to do in-person as well."

Advantages to online-only?

Indeed, Plocki said there could be some benefits to virtual conferences. When an executive gives a speech for such an event, a green screen could be used to add graphics -- furthering audience engagement.

"You actually amplify [the speech] a little more -- making it a little more exciting, giving it a little fuller environment [by adding graphics]," he said.

An online-only event, Plocki noted, also carries the possibility of attention-grabbing technology components such as virtual reality (VR) and gamification in which attendees are rewarded for taking part in different aspects of the conference.

Beyond that, attendees are more able to pick and choose the sessions that interest them, according to Plocki. He said attendees might be able to better select what content affects them in an on-demand format.

Laura Ramos, vice president and principal analyst, Forrester ResearchLaura Ramos

Ramos said the shift to online-only might compel planners, like those organizing Citrix Synergy, to realign their focus to better serve customers.

"Customers are coming to your event for some reason -- they're taking time out of their schedule to come to your event. That means there's something going on for them that they value," she said. "Shouldn't you use that opportunity to learn what's going on for them? What do they value? What are they looking at? What sort of problems do they have?"

The data an online-only conference would yield, she said, could help companies like Citrix get a sense for what attendees value.

Craig Roth, research vice president, GartnerCraig Roth

Craig Roth, research vice president at Gartner, said the COVID-19 pandemic might be an opportunity to reimagine what a virtual conference can be.

"Just like simply digitizing existing processes leads to minimal benefits," he said. "Just virtualizing the current conference format doesn't exploit the possibilities opened up by eliminating the physical walls and seats of the conference center."

Technology could enable higher production values for talks; allow more attendee control over the direction of a session through quick polls; increase collaboration with the audience on setting goals and takeaways; and deliver high-quality immersion through VR, Roth said.

The future of conferences

The uncertain nature of the pandemic means it is unclear when people will be allowed to gather en masse again. Regardless, Ramos said in-person events have been resilient over the years and would likely not fade away entirely.

"You can't replicate [in-person interaction] entirely," she said. "It's for those reasons that people like to get together in person that I think events will bounce back afterward."

Ramos said conferences are the costliest marketing endeavor of the year, especially for companies that host them.

"[Companies] always said, 'We're going to spend less next year,' and then they never do," she said.

We still, as humans, need to connect in person.
Mark PlockiDirector of corporate events, Citrix Systems

The financial crisis of 2009, Ramos said, seemed as if it would hinder business travel. Within a couple of years, though, conferences were once again a major means of delivering business announcements.

Plocki said, although web conferences would do for the moment, it is best to hold events in person.

"We still, as humans, need to connect in person," he said. "I will always have that belief, but I will be able to transition [to web-only] whenever I have to."

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