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Community is great, so long as events don’t get lost in the mix

One of the peculiarities of the internet is how it has connected individuals across previously unimaginable orbits, while simultaneously leading people to lead more atomised, separated lives. This tension has forced us to rethink what we mean by community and what we have gained and lost in relation to it. What does it mean when we fail to look up and acknowledge our neighbour because we were too busy liking what someone tweeted on the other side of the world?

Right now, the meetings industry is alight with talk of community.

On one level this is a response to the pandemic and the depredations of lockdown. The industry, as part of the healing process, has tasked itself with bringing people together in a more meaningful and enduring way. As IMEX CEO Carina Bauer said on the recent launch of IMEX BuzzHub – a series of online educational and networking events leading up to IMEX America – “We are trying to help people reconnect with people who they may have lost touch with, on a more personal level, to give them the opportunity to have that sense of community and connection again.”

But there is more to it than that. Because what IMEX, and other event owners are now doing, is building an online community around a physical event, both to enhance and inform that event and strengthen their own ties with the market they serve – in this case the meetings and events industry. IMEX, like others, is effectively extending the reach and lifecycle of a physical event, trying to create something more fluid and dynamic that will ultimately better serve the needs of their delegates. IMEX BuzzHub is not just about learning and networking. It is also about community – creating a buzz.

Associations have been grappling with how they can use the internet to better engage their members and release their events from the confines of the convention centre, too. Many now start the ball rolling online months in advance of their in-person event, through social media campaigns, for example, or on bespoke community platforms. But for many organisations, lockdown – and the enforced shift to meeting virtually – acted as a wake-up call to the possibilities of online engagement and what an ‘event’ could or should look like in 2021.

…isn’t there a danger that the more we finesse the in-person conference experience online, the more we detract from what makes an in-person event so special?

As Mathijs Vleeming, Strategic Consultant at Open Social, wrote in AMI recently: “In the online world, different rules of time and place apply. Here, we have the opportunity to keep people connected and engaged between live, or ‘time-based’, events. And in doing so, we increase the value – and extend the lifecycle – of the content. We can keep the conversation going in a seamless way”.

This fusing of event and community is exciting. But let us not forget that events and communities serve different purposes. While using community to extend the lifecycle of an event can make sense, the fact that conferences start and finish at certain points on the calendar is not simply because, ‘they didn’t invent the internet yet’.

The time constraints of conferences are not just a matter of logistics, they perform their own special function. The ticking clock creates an energy and a sense of purpose. Knowing that a conference is not going to last forever helps to focus minds and get things done. What is more, the fleetingness of a ‘time-based event’ – married to a sense of place – creates its own camaraderie and community.

Something else to think about: much of the activity around extending the lifecycle of events seems to be around facilitating ‘better’ networking. Using data and algorithms to help people connect with the right people ahead of an in-person event. Again, nothing ostensibly wrong with that. But isn’t there a danger that the more we finesse the in-person conference experience online, the more we detract from what makes an in-person event so special? Isn’t the chance to make new and unexpected contacts one of the benefits of attending a conference? If we already know precisely who we are going to see – and when – isn’t there a danger that the whole experience becomes a little staid? Or worse still, pointless? What’s stopping people just ‘getting a (Zoom) room’ on their own?

These are interesting times for event organisers and owners and I’ve no doubt the upshot will be more engaging, purposeful, and dynamic meeting experiences. But in our rush to embrace the new, let’s remember why we attend conferences and events in the first place – and ensure that’s not lost in the mix.

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