Conferences are largely on hold right now. We couldn’t travel if we wanted to, and a few days of mingling in close confinement breaks far too many of the current rules governing our lives. At some point, however, trade shows, travel fairs and investment forums will be back in one form or another, so thought that now might a good time to find out exactly what industry executives think about conferences – what they like, why they attend, what they’d change, and how they think the future might look.

We conducted a recent survey of senior figures, of whom two-thirds were based in Southeast Asia, and four-fifths were male. A wide range of nationalities were represented, along with a variety of management positions. Almost half were aged over 50, as would be expected in line with the seniority of their roles.

Starting with attendance, all the respondents attended multiple conferences per year, with 25% participating in 6-10 events, and a further 37.5% attending 4-5 events. More than 40% of respondents spend more than 7 days a year at conferences, and this increases to 45% if the travel time is taken into account. Investment conferences are attended by 84% of the respondents, while forums attract 71%, and trade shows 40%.

It is commonplace for people to travel to conferences alone, with 41% reporting being the only representative of their company in attendance. A further 37% are accompanied by one other person, so large delegations are clearly not the norm.

With the facts out of the way, the lessons for conference organizers follow. The main reasons for attendance cited by respondents were the desire to meet potential clients (47%) and to promote their own businesses (22%), while more than 80% reported having closed deals during the past twelve months as a direct result of conference attendance. When asked to list the factors which appeal most about conferences, 84% said networking, while lagging far behind were securing new business (31%) and learning new things (28%). Meanwhile, 35% listed financial cost, and 34% cited time cost as the main drawbacks to conference attendance.

In line with the goal of meeting new clients, the factor rated by far the most important by a majority of respondents when choosing to attend a conference was the list of other attendees, with content and speakers also frequently mentioned. Among factors mentioned as least significant, price topped the list, suggesting that if a conference meets the aim of generating new business, the cost can be less of an issue.

With content considered relatively important, the clear favorites were research and surveys (62%), debates (56%) and panel discussions (47%). This marked a very clear divide from technological presentations of new tools or services (3%), individual speakers (3%), or case studies (3%).

Going into more detail, one recurring theme is a desire to see presenters who “share, not sell”. A chance to see the big picture is also appreciated, since it provides ideas on strategic responses. This of course closely matches the preference for avoiding narrowly-focused case studies. Leading economists, those with a focus on the future, and those involved in bringing about change are seen as particularly appealing. To give credit to one individual, it is clear that the trends and data-focused presentations of Jesper Palmqvist of STR are widely appreciated. Most interesting, however, is the frequent suggestion that speakers and participants from other fields can make valuable contributions, both in terms of offering a different perspective, and also bringing insights from potentially novel and interesting backgrounds.

In general, there is a strong preference for hearing new speakers (34%) over the familiar names (3%), although 56% expressed a preference for having a mix of the old and the new, presumably so as not to exclude Jesper.

Among conferences mentioned as being particular favorites, the HICAP events in Hong Kong and Singapore tick many of the boxes for quality of content and attendees, as well as organization, accommodation, and general convenience. However, three quarters of respondents said they much preferred conferences to be held in different cities rather than returning to the same venue every year. Perhaps it is time for one of the two annual HICAP events to hit the road?

As far as other changes are concerned, 68% of respondents took the view that organizers are not doing enough to be green and sustainable. One suggestion was to cut down on all the printed material that gets handed out (78%). This might be no great loss given that 76% of respondents have no interest in taking home any of the various bags and brochures on offer. Food waste was cited by 53% as another area where improvements could be made at conferences, while a quarter also mentioned the possibility of at least reusing lanyards.

One conference change which may take hold as a consequence of COVID-19 is the possibility of holding events online. The technology exists, so it is surely now or never – although the smart money seems to be backing never.

The question of whether conferences can effectively be held online found 56% saying no, 19% saying yes, and 22% unsure. The consensus appears to be that conferences might work online in terms of content presentation, learning, and knowledge sharing – but would fail on the networking front. This is a significant drawback given the fact that networking is probably the key underlying reason driving attendance in the first place. One caveat is that a majority of respondents were members of a generation which may not be as comfortable with the technology as the executives of the future, and 38% (twice as many as those who said it might work) said they personally were willing to give online conferences a try, especially if their IT departments could iron out the wrinkles.

While many conferences have simply been cancelled or postponed, one event that will be welcoming online delegates is the Arabian Travel Market, Dubai, on June 1-3. This virtual conference promises all the usual content in the form of webinars, conference sessions, roundtables, and speed networking, and makes a point of promising to facilitate business connections – all without the need to actually visit Dubai. Whether this is just a one-off, or a model that’s here to stay, remains to be seen. In either case, conference organizers would do well to pay close attention, because the final lesson from our recent study was that just 9% of respondents felt that their business would be negatively affected if they simply did not attend these events at all.