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The business convention is back. Here’s how to make it better.

(Bloomberg opinion) —

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

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

Instead, there’s a nearly unlimited supply of Zoom calls, for better or worse. Zoom will not continue at the peak of its pandemic. But there are reasonably certified Zoom presentations almost every day, many of them open to the public.

I turn down almost all of these Zoom invites. A lot of them include presentations, and I prefer the more interactive mode. In addition, I am very antsy and impatient. If I’m going online for intellectual stuff, I much prefer YouTube, where I can pause the video whenever I want to snack or exercise.

The next time you’re attending a formal presentation at a conference, ask yourself these questions: Is it better than all the Zoom calls I’ve been turning down? Is it better than the next best YouTube clip I’m watching? For most people, the answers are obvious. Conference organizers need to be prepared to pull the trigger and bring the presentation into a benign retirement.

Charismatic presentations can still be important for motivating a sales force or creating crowd unity. But informational presentations are obsolete.

Earlier in my career, I went to productions not to listen, but to meet other people interested in the topic. It was understandable at the time, but these days information technology offers a better option. 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 with multiple people for two minutes and then the next go to the meeting. This should become a more regular practice. Conference organizers can also create “speed dating pools” where everyone interested in a particular subject area has a chance to meet.

Another wonderful exercise inspired by the pandemic that should be continued and really extended to all conferences: external sessions, especially with group discussions.

Obviously this will not work in all areas at all times of the year. But there should be more conventions in Arizona in winter, or in Europe in May, or in San Diego at any other time of year. Simply put people outside and let them talk, making sure that tables and group assignments keep them from clustering with their previous friends.

Looking back, I wonder how many earlier conventions never considered external time as a common, formal practice. Look at the matter from a historical, evolutionary point of view. Humans, as they have evolved over the millennia, have spent a great deal of time talking to each other outside. It’s hardly a surprise that this is what we often want to do. Conference organizers should heed that demand.

Another epistemic lesson is that it’s okay, thank goodness, to have fewer conventions. I know many people who were “conference-hungry” during the pandemic. They really began to yearn for presence in these strange events. In turn, I have anecdotal evidence that the conferences I have recently attended or organized are far more popular than previous such conferences. This suggests a high level of appreciation and enthusiasm when conventions are rare. Maybe this world is better for everyone?

Also note that the “less conferences” proposition is highly consistent with the “more conferences in nice places where you can sit outside” suggestion. That’s bad news for midnight conventions in Chicago or Philadelphia (that means you, American Economic Association).

Finally, my personal pet peeve: Most conventions, even exclusive ones, serve awesome food. When I organize conferences, I hire Indian caterers to give attendees something different and a little better – plus it’s cheap and great for vegetarians. I am not saying that Indian food should be served at every convention. But if you’re having trouble gathering everyone from afar, you might also consider serving them something tastier than rubber chicken.

Related to Bloomberg opinion:

To contact the author of this story:
tyler cowen [email protected]

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