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The Business Conference Is Back. Here’s How to Make It Better.

SUN VALLEY, IDAHO - JULY 07: (L-R) Meg Hock, John Hock, Chief Investment Officer of Altrinsic Global Advisors, and CEO of SoFI Bank Anthony Noto walk with to lunch with other attendees at the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference on July 07, 2021 in Sun Valley, Idaho. After a year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s most wealthy and powerful businesspeople from the media, finance, and technology worlds will converge at the Sun Valley Resort for the exclusive week-long conference. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
SUN VALLEY, IDAHO - JULY 07: (L-R) Meg Hock, John Hock, Chief Investment Officer of Altrinsic Global Advisors, and CEO of SoFI Bank Anthony Noto walk with to lunch with other attendees at the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference on July 07, 2021 in Sun Valley, Idaho. After a year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s most wealthy and powerful businesspeople from the media, finance, and technology worlds will converge at the Sun Valley Resort for the exclusive week-long conference. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images) (Photographer: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images North America)
Comment

The pandemic has prompted a rethinking of many practices and routines of professional life, such as working from home, meetings and interviewing online. Now another such pastime is ripe for a reassessment: the face-to-face conference.

What do people actually want from their interactive experiences? The first insight from 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 a near-infinite supply of Zoom calls. Zoom will not continue at its pandemic peak. But there are reasonably credentialed Zoom presentations just about every day, many of them open to the public.

I turn down almost all of these Zoom invitations. Too many of them embody presentations, and I prefer more interactive modes. Furthermore, I am too antsy and impatient. If I am going to go online for intellectual material, I much prefer YouTube, where I can stop the video whenever I want for a snack or exercise.

The next time you are attending a formal presentation at a conference, ask yourself these questions: Is this better than all of those Zoom calls I am turning down? Is this better than the next best YouTube clip I might be watching? For most people, the answers are obvious. Conference organizers need to be willing to pull the trigger and usher the presentation into a gentle retirement.

Charismatic presentations still can be important to motivate a sales force or to build the unity of a crowd. But informational presentations are obsolete.

Earlier in my career, I went to presentations not to listen, but rather to meet the other people interested in the topic. That made sense at the time, but these days information technology provides superior alternatives. For instance, I have been to conferences that have “speed dating” sessions (without the date part, to be clear, and with vaccine and testing requirements) where you meet many people for say two minutes and then move on to the next meeting. This should become a more regular practice. Conference organizers also can create “speed dating pools” where everyone interested in a particular topic area has a chance to meet.

Another marvelous practice prompted by the pandemic that should be continued and indeed extended at all conferences: outside sessions, especially with group discussions.

Obviously this won’t work in all locales 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 just about any time of the year. Just put people outside and let them talk, making sure that table and group assignments keep them from clustering with their previous friends.

Looking back, it amazes me how many earlier conferences never considered outside time as a general, formalized practice. View the matter in historical, evolutionary terms. Human beings, as they have evolved over the millennia, have spent an inordinate amount of time talking to each other outside. It should hardly come as a surprise that this is what we very often want to do. Conference organizers should pander to that demand.

Another pandemic lesson is that it is fine, thank you, to have fewer conferences. I know many people who were “conference-starved” during the pandemic. They actually began to crave attendance at these strange events. In turn, I have anecdotal evidence that conferences I have attended or organized recently have been far more popular than past such conferences. That suggests a higher level of appreciation and enthusiasm when conferences are scarce. Maybe that is a better world for everyone?

Also note that the “fewer conferences” proposal is highly compatible with “more conferences in nice places where you can sit outside” suggestion. That’s bad news for those midwinter conferences in Chicago or Philadelphia (this means you, American Economic Association).

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

Related at Bloomberg Opinion:

• What’s the Point of the Office Again?: Sarah Green Carmichael

• It Really Is Back to the Office This Time: Lionel Laurent

• Who Will Win the Great Return-to-the-Office Face-Off?: Adrian Woolridge

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”

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