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Conferences go online amid coronavirus fears—minus the hallway schmoozing

March 10, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

Nearly 200 major conferences, ranging in focus from tech to art to retail, have been canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus, but some of them will still take place online.

Google Cloud Next 2020, scheduled for April 6 to April 8 in San Francisco, will now, instead, be livestreamed. More than 30,000 people attended last year’s installment.

Meanwhile, Collision, another technology conference that is big among start-ups, was to be held in Toronto from June 22 to 25, with 33,000 expected attendees. But it was cancelled last Friday, and will now be held entirely online during the same dates, with speakers and attendees participating from around the world.

“When it comes to tech conferences, I think the challenges are a large portion of attendees are startups,” says Paddy Cosgrave, CEO of Web Summit, the company that organizes Collision. “These are major moments for these companies. If that opportunity goes away entirely, Microsoft and Google are going to be fine, but there are going to be tens of thousands of startups where the next few months are going to be a storm.”

The shift to online comes at a tremendous cost to conferences, such as Web Summit, that make a profit by selling sponsorships and exhibitor floor space to companies, as well as attendee tickets. While conferences are ostensibly about the talks onstage, attendees often really go for the business networking in the hallways.

The challenge with streamed conferences will be making the chit chat possible online. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

“It won’t be a substitute. It will be far from perfect, but the key challenge is networking,” Cosgrave says. “It’s not streaming a talk.”

Streamed conferences aren’t an entirely new concept. For years, a number of companies have made live online video of in-person events available, such as Apple, Google, and Facebook. Fortune also generally streams main stage sessions at its conferences.

The difference this time is the number of conferences that have little choice but to stream, other than entirely cancel. And there is no in-person event to serve as the foundation.

Collision’s ticket holders can view the online conference this year for free and can transfer their paid ticket——admission started at $475—to next year’s conference. They can also ask for a refund between now and up to 30 days after the online conference.

So far, Web Summit says more than 200 of its speakers, including some who couldn’t make the offline conference, have committed to participate in what’s “Collision From Home.”

Meanwhile, some companies like Facebook are going with a hybrid approach to their conferences. Last month, the social networking giant cancelled its annual developer conference, F8, which was to have taken place on May 5 and 6 in San Jose, Calif. Instead, it will be “replaced” by  locally hosted events, videos and live-streamed content,” according to a statement from Facebook that provided no additional details.

Other companies are still working on their plans. Google, for instance, has hinted that its now cancelled I/O developer conference, which had been scheduled for May 12 to 14 in Mountain View, Calif., would now be online. It plans to refund the $1,150 ticket price for the thousands of developers who bought them.

“Over the coming weeks, we will explore other ways to evolve Google I/O to best connect with our developer community,” the Google I/O website says.

Apple has not yet said whether it still plans to hold its annual Worldwide Developer Conference. Dates for the conference, which typically takes place in June, have not yet been announced.

Of course, many conferences have simply canceled their events outright without shifting online. Mobile World Congress, the huge mobile trade show in Barcelona, was scuttled in February after big corporate names, such as LG, Sony, and Intel pulled out because of coronavirus. GSMA, the trade group that operates the annual event, said MWC would return to Barcelona next year.

The organizers of SXSW, the annual interactive, music and film festival in Austin, on Friday canceled their event, just two days before more than 70,000 attendees were to gather from March 8 to 17. Like Mobile World Congress, SXSW’s organizers decided against streaming.

But some SXSW attendees are taking things into their own hands by planning to use online video conferencing service Zoom to hold meetings between founders and potential investors, or to share the in-person talks they had planned to give onstage, to an online audience.

“I bet I can also round up a few other investors willing to take some Zoom calls with the abandoned warriors of SXSW 2020,” tweeted Billy Draper, an investor with Draper Associates, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm.

Cosgrave says he thinks the widespread conference cancellations this year will change the future model for technology conferences, with more conferences offering online streaming in the future.

Says Cosgrave, “When we do get this thing under control, it’s just a question of time, I think it is going to create a hybrid future where an increasing number of people will decide to attend conferences online from home or their offices.”

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