Conference technology is evolving rapidly, but what do delegates and presenters really want and what does the future look like? 

    Many organisations and conference organisers had been considering the option of virtual conferences when travel restrictions and the need for social distancing took away their choice. As a result of COVID-19 lockdowns, conference technology evolved rapidly to provide a wider and more efficient range of tools for online conferences.

    “These introduced a number of benefits,” says Isabella Villani GAICD, managing director and founder of Exceed Global business management consultancy, a keynote speaker and a member of several boards. “Experts from around the world can share their knowledge without having to travel. Organisations can be spared the cost of travel and accommodation, and attendees lose less time out of their working week.”

    Carolyn Miller GAICD, director and founder of the Honeycomb Effect and non-executive director of Tourism Tasmania and NSW fresh produce advocacy Freshmark, is also a keynote speaker. She appreciates the way technology can create an instantaneous record so that questions and themes can be reviewed after a conference.

    “Technology encourages engagement from shareholders and stakeholders,” says Miller. “Tech tools create a much more effective and reliable way of getting feedback, and not just from the traditionally more vocal people in the room. It’s a more democratic approach that means voting, comments and feedback are accessible to all, overcoming the barriers of location — or even a fear of public speaking — in getting responses. On the downside, it does also mean that less well- considered points of view, unconstructive feedback and even potential abuse can be relayed more easily. If social media has taught us anything, it’s that people do not become nicer, more polite, more considered or more articulate in a digital environment.”

    Innovation fatigue

    Miller is less impressed by the proliferation of event apps. “As an attendee, I just hate that there’s no clear market-leading app yet and virtually every conference uses something different,” says Miller. “We have to download a new app, learn the new interface and adjust to a new process at just about every conference. Innovation fatigue is a real thing, especially among people over 40, so I hope we’ll soon see a clear market leader with most conferences using the same tech.”

    Technology has been streamlining event management for some time. “One example is printing name badges on demand, and most organisers have been doing that for five or six years now,” says Denise Broeren, a director of Think Business Events. “This introduced a number of benefits, including greater accuracy, faster registration and the flexibility to make last-minute changes. Adding features like barcodes or QR codes can also improve security by tracking attendance and controlling access.”

    Artificial intelligence is now emerging as a major trend. “Already, AI technology can use machine learning algorithms to streamline things like venue selection, event schedules and event platform settings for virtual events,” says Broeren.

    However, as yet, conference technology hasn’t shaped the way Miller compiles or delivers her presentations. “I feel there is more opportunity for speakers to understand which technology is being used,” she says. “Sometimes, I only find out on the day, so my presentations aren’t necessarily tailored to optimise the tech experience.”

    The influence of ESG

    ESG and climate considerations are also impacting the way conferences are planned, presented, and attended.

    “To reduce travel-related emissions, many conferences are moving towards virtual or hybrid models,” says Professor Rocky Scopelliti GAICD — futurist, director and keynote speaker, whose books include The Conscious Code: Decoding the Implications of Artificial Consciousness. “Some conference organisers are incorporating carbon- offsetting initiatives, where the carbon emissions from the event are calculated and offset through various environmental projects.”

    For in-person events, he has noted an increased preference for venues that adhere to sustainable practices. “This includes energy efficient facilities, waste reduction measures and sourcing local and sustainable food and materials,” he says. “Digital tools such as digital registration, e-materials and apps for networking and event navigation are being used to minimise paper usage and waste.”

    Even business cards are becoming a thing of the past. “People are more likely to stalk you on LinkedIn and try to connect that way,” says Villani. “These days, you need a polished LinkedIn profile because this is usually the first place people go to find out about you and possibly network with you. Your profile represents your personal brand.”

    The appeal of human contact

    While organisations can save on time and travel, the technology itself comes at considerable cost. A quality experience for both in-person and remote attendees requires audiovisual equipment, the event app, live streaming, recording and editing, as well as technical support during the event. There’s also a chance something will go wrong.

    “I was once keynote at a virtual conference where the technology crashed five minutes into my presentation,” says Villani. “Participants could hear me, but their screens were blank — and no-one realised until one of them sent a text to the organiser. The problem couldn’t be fixed, but at least I knew then I needed to adapt my presentation to voice-only. It’s easy to take technology for granted and it’s good to be prepared for the worst.”

    Many conference attendees prefer a face-to- face experience. “As a speaker, I feel people really crave personal interaction,” says Villani. “Tech has made it much easier for people to engage with me before a presentation, but many of them are really keen to continue the discussion in person.”

    Broeren has also seen a real push to get back to a human connection. “Since COVID-19, our clients have been moving away from virtual speakers,” she says. “People don’t want to attend a conference to see a speaker on a screen.”

    Scopelliti agrees that lack of face-to-face engagement can sometimes hinder the depth and quality of discussions. “The move towards more sustainable conferencing presents both challenges and opportunities,” he says. “It requires a balance between reducing environmental impact and maintaining the networking and collaborative benefits of traditional in-person events.”

    Taking transformation into the boardroom

    Scopelliti has found that board members adapt to conference technology with varying degrees of enthusiasm and efficiency.

    “Many directors, particularly those in sectors where digital transformation is pivotal, embraced these technologies swiftly,” he says. “Others find them challenging, which can stem from a lack of familiarity with digital tools, potential security concerns and the impersonal nature of virtual interactions.”

    He believes for directors to fully benefit from new conference technology, ongoing education and support are crucial. However, access to these varies greatly. “While some organisations have robust training programs and IT support to help their directors adapt, others may lack the resources or the initiative to provide them — for example, where directors are geographically dispersed,” he says. “This disparity can significantly impact the effectiveness with which directors can leverage these tools as both speakers and attendees.”

    Scopelliti is also of the opinion that emerging technologies have broader implications for business strategy, leadership and governance. “The adaptation of new technologies in conferences reflects a broader trend in digital transformation that boards must oversee in their companies,” he says. “Directors can draw parallels and learnings from these technology integrations to guide digital strategies within their own organisations.”

    Conferences of the future

    Futurist Rocky Scopelliti shares his vision of the technology to come.

    Internet of Senses (IoS)

    IoS extends the Internet of Things (IoT) to include technologies that can stimulate our senses, including touch, taste and smell, even our emotions. This will lead to highly experiential, immersive conference environments.

    • Multisensory immersion rooms: Attendees can not only see and hear presentations, but also feel, smell and taste elements relevant to the topic.
    • Haptic feedback and virtual handshakes: Participants wearing smart gloves or suits could experience the sensation of a handshake or a pat on the back when a fellow attendee joins remotely.
    • Taste-and-smell broadcasting: Devices able to recreate tastes and smells could take culinary sessions or wine- tasting events to a global audience.
    • Emotionally responsive presentations: If the audience shows signs of confusion or lack of interest, the speaker’s AI assistant could suggest modifications to the content or presentation style to make the session more engaging and effective.

    VR and AR integration

    Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) would enable attendees to enter completely simulated environments or overlay digital information onto the physical world.

    • Digital twin and holographic technologies: Integrating digital twin and holographic technologies into conferences will make them even more interactive, immersive and impactful.
    • Venue replication: Conferences could create digital twins of physical venues, allowing remote attendees to navigate a virtual replica of the event space. This would enable them to virtually visit booths, network in lounges or sit in auditoriums, mirroring the physical experience.
    • Holographic speakers and panels: Keynote speakers or panellists could be projected as holograms, either on stage or at attendees’ remote locations.
    • Interactive holographic sessions: Attendees could, for example, manipulate holographic models or data visualisations in collaborative workshops, making complex data or concepts easier to comprehend and discuss.

    This special feature first appeared under the headline 'Conferences of Tomorrow’ in the February 2024 issue of Company Director magazine.

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