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Big tech conferences are coming back, but smaller ones see a different path

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By Jon Swartz

The (big tech) show will go on, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to make in-person events a rarity.

The biggest of the big U.S. tech conferences offered vivid proof Wednesday, when the Consumer Technology Association said its annual mega-event, CES, would allow vaccinated people to attend in Las Vegas in January. A vast majority of the more than 1,000 companies who plan to attend CES, the Super Bowl of U.S. tech shows, wanted “a live environment” to do business face to face, Jean Foster, senior vice president of marketing and communications at the Consumer Technology Association, told MarketWatch on Tuesday.

Some of the biggest conferences planned for the typical fall and winter season for the shows are pressing forward with hybrid events — a digital component running in tandem with in-person programs — despite a jump in COVID cases and hospitalizations, while smaller events are being scaled back to virtual-only get-togethers. Amazon.com Inc. /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN +1.11% and Splunk Inc. SPLK revealed to MarketWatch that they plan to proceed with large tech conferences with some in-person attendance this year despite the delta variant all but wiping out smaller tech gatherings of developers and customers. The Global Semiconductor Alliance also plans two in-person conferences in the San Francisco Bay Area in September, according to a spokesperson.

Tech conferences remain a vital part of the industry’s ecosystem, with large conferences like CES offering a setting for partner companies to make deals and plan for the coming year. Foster said executives, on average, hold 30 meetings during CES, suggesting that a digital event would not have offered that opportunity.

Individual companies also hold conferences as a way to bring users and developers of their products together to learn, socialize, and do deals. Two of the largest are Salesforce.com Inc.’s CRM Dreamforce and Oracle OpenWorld. Salesforce pointed to the Dreamforce web site that refers to an “in-person experience” during the September event. Oracle did not respond.

See also: Big Tech is suffering from a ‘Great Resignation’ of workers, who say ‘It’s a good time to leave’

Twilio Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205796518/composite TWLO +1.18% had big plans in October for its Signal conference at Moscone Center, the venerable hub of tech trade shows for decades in San Francisco. Then the delta variant hit, and a planned hybrid presentation of the show was scaled back. It is now all-virtual, with the exception of the keynote speech and some small VIP group events in San Francisco.

“We had really wanted to maintain the joy of going virtual,” Leslie Henthorn, vice president of worldwide field marketing and events at Twilio, told MarketWatch. Eventually, Twilio hopes to return to a more traditional tech show as health and safety protocols allow, she said. “That is the hope, but I’m not sure it will be the old experience,” Henthorn said. “There are examples of virtual that can be more compelling from home.”

Several others — Box Inc. /zigman2/quotes/208773138/composite BOX +0.35% , Okta Inc. /zigman2/quotes/210420951/composite OKTA +1.53% , Zendesk Inc. /zigman2/quotes/209571012/composite ZEN +1.06% , Lenovo Group /zigman2/quotes/205368244/delayed HK:992 +1.93% , and Sumo Logic Inc. /zigman2/quotes/220991529/composite SUMO +0.66% — are sticking with virtual models. Qualcomm Inc. /zigman2/quotes/206679220/composite QCOM -0.60% is still pondering what it plans to do in late November and early December for its developer conference in Hawaii.

The same is true in New York, where digital-marketing company Tinuiti backed out of hosting a planned in-person conference in late September because of health issues and opted instead to make it an all-virtual show next month. “As we got closer to the event, people started to adjust plans,” Dalton Dorne, Tinuiti’s chief marketing officer, told MarketWatch.

As recently as this summer, with COVID cases dropping and vaccinations rising, Tinuiti intended to press ahead with a Sept. 30 hybrid event in New York. Attendees would have been required to show proof of vaccination. On Aug. 9, however, Tinuiti reversed course because of swelling delta numbers, New York regulations, and CDC guidance.

“Smaller, more intimate events could gain traction — so people can avoid super-spreader events,” Dorne said. “It was the right thing to do. Maybe we do something smaller for the tri-state area.”

Virtual will remain an element because tech companies have learned that they can draw more people online. At its  Global Summit in April show in April, Juniper Networks Inc. /zigman2/quotes/207361368/composite JNPR +0.58% drew 12,000 to 13,000 — more than twice the in-person attendance of its November 2019 show in Las Vegas and two others that year.

From May 2020: Tech conferences are going virtual, and it feels like Netflix content on demand

“I don’t know the desire of people to get together indoors for hours, with masks,” Juniper’s Chief Marketing Officer Mike Marcellin told MarketWatch. The maker of computer-networking products, which held a virtual version of its global user conference in April 2021, plans to do the same with localized events this year and continues to mull what it will do in spring 2022.

September typically is the heart of tech developer season. But the pandemic forced a pause in 2020 with virtual versions instead. With vaccinations at a high rate in Northern California and New York, however, companies like Twilio and Tinuiti thought it was possible to put on hybrid shows this year. A surge in delta changed all that, prompting strict indoor guidelines from health officials in San Francisco and New York.

CES’s move to require vaccination could lead to similar decisions at other major conferences, especially those ticketed for Las Vegas. Amazon and Splunk confirmed last week that they still plan to hold their Re:Invent and .conf21 conferences, respectively, in Las Vegas. Splunk requires attendees provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. As of this week, Amazon is not requiring vaccination proof at Re:Invent.

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