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The business conference is back. Here’s how to improve it.


(Bloomberg review) —

The pandemic has prompted a rethink of many work life practices and routines, such as working from home, meeting and interviewing online. Now, another one of those pastimes is ripe for re-evaluation: face-to-face conferencing.

What do people really want from their interactive experiences? The first glimpse of the pandemic era is that most formal presentations should simply be abolished. The sad reality is that hardly anyone is listening, or for that matter should be.

Instead, for better or worse, there is an almost endless supply of Zoom calls. Zoom will not continue to its pandemic peak. But there are reasonably accredited Zoom presentations just about every day, many of which are open to the public.

I decline almost all of these Zoom invites. Too many of them embody presentations, and I prefer more interactive modes. Also, I’m too anxious and impatient. If I go looking for intellectual material online, I much prefer YouTube, where I can stop the video whenever I want for a snack or exercise.

The next time you attend a formal presentation at a conference, ask yourself these questions: Is this better than all those Zoom calls I’m turning down? Is it better than the next best YouTube clip I could watch? For most people, the answers are obvious. Conference organizers should be prepared to pull the trigger and send the presentation into a sweet retreat.

Charismatic presentations can still be important for motivating a sales force or building unity in a crowd. But informative presentations are obsolete.

Earlier in my career, I went to presentations not to listen, but rather to meet other people interested in the subject. It made sense back then, but nowadays information technology offers superior alternatives. For example, I’ve been to conferences that have “speed dating” sessions (without the date part, to be clear, and with vaccine and testing requirements) where you meet lots of people for say two minutes, then move on to the next meeting. This should become a more regular practice. Conference organizers can also create “speed dating pools” where everyone interested in a particular topic has the opportunity to meet.

Another wonderful practice prompted by the pandemic that should be continued and even extended to all conferences: outdoor sessions, especially with group discussions.

Obviously, this won’t work in all places at all times of the year. But there should be more conferences in Arizona in the winter, say, or in Europe in May, or in San Diego pretty much any time of the year. Just kick people out and let them talk, making sure table and party assignments keep them from reuniting with old friends.

Looking back, I am amazed at how many previous conferences never considered outdoor time as a general, formalized practice. See the matter in historical and evolutionary terms. Human beings, as they have evolved over millennia, have spent an inordinate amount of time talking to each other outside. It should come as no surprise that this is what we very often want to do. The conference organizers should comply with this request.

Another pandemic lesson is that it’s good, thank you, to have fewer conferences. I know a lot of people who were “conference hungry” during the pandemic. They actually started begging for participation in these strange events. In turn, I have anecdotal evidence that conferences I have attended or hosted recently have been far more popular than previous conferences. This suggests a higher level of appreciation and enthusiasm when lectures are infrequent. Maybe it’s a better world for everyone?

Also note that the “fewer conferences” proposal is perfectly compatible with the suggestion “more conferences in pleasant places where you can sit outside”. This is bad news for those winter conferences in Chicago or Philadelphia (it means youAmerican Economic Association).

Finally, my personal pet peeve: Most conferences, even exclusive ones, serve terrible food. When I organize conferences, I hire Indian caterers to offer attendees something a little different and a little better – plus it’s cheaper and ideal for vegetarians. I am not saying that every conference should serve Indian food. But if you go to the trouble of rounding everyone up from afar, you might also consider serving them something more appetizing than rubber chicken.

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To contact the author of this story:
Tyler Cowen at [email protected]