Hopin, another startup that came out of stealth a few weeks ago, takes a similar approach to virtual conferencing. The platform combines livestreamed presentations with virtual networking, including a ChatRoulette-style feature for meeting other attendees. Most of the networking at conferences happens during unscheduled time, when people are milling about or hanging around the hotel bar. “That’s why people go to events; it’s not for livestreaming,” Hopin’s founder, Johnny Boufarhat, told Crunchbase News. “You go physically to network with people, to interact with people. And that’s what we solve.”
Moving conferences online can solve other problems, too: It reduces travel costs, environmental pollution, and accessibility concerns. Cutting out the in-person costs can also significantly reduce the price of admission and lets conference organizers invest more of their budget into speakers. For many conferences, Qu says, “around 20 percent is spent on the venue, 20 percent on food and beverages, and almost 20 percent is on equipment.” Most budgets she looked at had left conference organizers with less than 5 percent of their budget for program design and speaker fees.
The idea isn’t to make conferences free or accessible to everyone: some friction, Qu says, ensures that the relevant people show up and actually participate. But because conference organizers don’t have to worry about filling a big venue, in theory they can spend more on paying speakers’ fees and can create more-focused events. Qu has already seen people using Run the World to organize super-niche conferences, like an event for coaching engineers on how to date. It had 40 attendees. “If you no longer need to sign a venue lease 10 months before the conference and hire 30 people to work on that for a half a year, then it makes more sense to do these,” says Qu. “You don’t need to wait until 100,000 people show up to make it happen.”
Still, virtual conference platforms haven’t found much traction. David Pearlman, who researches travel and tourism at the University of New Orleans, wrote a paper a decade ago about the promise of virtual reality for the conference industry. Back then, he thought virtual conferences had a good shot at becoming the industry standard. But they haven’t really picked up momentum. “If anything, they’ve died back,” he says.
That’s partly because most people don’t own virtual reality headsets. But Pearlman says it’s also because meeting people as an avatar remains awkward, and digital platforms have struggled to re-create serendipitous encounters. Linden Lab, the maker of Second Life, has been trying to solve this with a virtual reality event space called Sansar, launched in 2017. Participants can log on to chat with each other from around the world or attend live concerts in VR. These aren’t simply livestreams–they’re events designed to foster person-to-person interaction. (The company’s pitch for its concerts: “Meet friends, cop merch, snap selfies. Show off your best moves and emotes: the floss, the shoot, the shiggy, whatever.”) Recently, Sansar introduced a virtual conference stage too, but it hasn’t taken off.
As more conferences get canceled or moved online, organizers could have a chance to explore these emerging platforms as an alternative to the boring old webinar. Qu says Run the World will waive fees for conference organizers who have had to cancel due to the coronavirus. But that’s unlikely to create a sea change, says Amy Calvert, CEO of the Events Industry Council, a trade group.
The coronavirus outbreak isn’t the first time major conferences have been forced to move online. “There are wildfires; there’s what happened in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina,” says Calvert. None of those events have spurred an industrywide shift toward digital conferences, she says, because attendees simply don’t get the same value. “The virtual elements are never going to replace the face-to-face meetings, because people want to connect and build those relationships and foster those networks.”