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Companies plan for alternatives to live tech conferences

The coronavirus has thrown tech conferences and vendors' product launch schedules into question. Some suggest live tech shows will be heavily scaled down even after the pandemic.

The spate of conference cancellations due to COVID-19 has storage vendors rethinking the future of live technology events.

Tech giants have canceled live shows during what would have been a busy season for conferences, with most choosing to hold virtual events instead. IBM, Dell, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Cisco, Apple, Microsoft, AWS, Oracle, Nutanix, Veeam and Rubrik are among companies that have scrapped live events.

The cancellations have a ripple effect on smaller vendors that sponsor larger conferences. These vendors often set up booths on the main show floor to show off their products and services and set up face-to-face meetings with prospects. The goals are to create awareness, demand and customer connections.

Besides wiping out the live tech conference schedule, the coronavirus has thrown product launch schedules into question. Some vendors suggest live tech shows will be heavily scaled down even after the pandemic.

"Nobody was prepared for anything like this," said Prem Ananthakrishnan, vice president of products at data protection vendor Druva.

Ananthakrishnan said trends that quickly emerged among the data protection vendor's customers worked in Druva's favor. In the first week of nonessential businesses being ordered to close in many U.S. states to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Druva noticed a spike in demand for ROBO backup, SaaS application backup and VDI. Prospects that relied on traditional, on-premises backup found themselves having trouble getting hardware delivered to their data centers and turned to Druva for a cloud-based approach. Druva itself experienced increase use of collaboration tools such as Zoom and Slack.

What will future tech conferences look like?

But product execs such as Ananthakrishnan will seek ways to reach customers and prospects after the danger of the virus passes. He suggested tech companies will be coming up with creative ways to replace tech conferences until large public gatherings are safe again. Many of those methods will likely include projects companies have already been working on, as there has been an established trend toward more videos, webinars and online sessions.

"The trend has been moving to digital anyway. This whole situation might accelerate that even more," Ananthakrishnan said.

Oussama El-Hilali, CTO at Arcserve, said the main advantage of live events was that it captured attendees' undivided attention for two or three days. He believes the same thing can be accomplished virtually.

"From my point of view, I'm becoming a firm believer that they're not necessary," El-Hilali said about live shows.

Whatever replaces tech conferences will have to be more interactive than online demos and videos. El-Hilali suggested virtual events might need virtual booths for each vendor, and ways for attendees to "visit" each one. Convention incentives such as branded pins, mugs or shirts could be replaced with gift cards and based on digital booth visits. Raffles and prizes could also be distributed this way. There would also need to be a way to incentivize sponsors of the event, perhaps through ad banners.

"The organization has to be creative, because this is uncharted. They have to think about how to make this more attractive than just another virtual conference," El-Hilali said.

While he's unsure if any vendor has a virtual event of this caliber yet, El-Hilali is optimistic because there are tangible benefits to accomplishing such a feat. Physical events involve travel, which leads to higher costs, higher stress and more planning and organization for all parties involved. Every detail down to what food will be made available to attendees needs to be accounted for.

El-Hilali also added that removing travel and its associated costs from the equation means more of these events can happen. He said the convenience and accessibility of virtual events would make it possible for someone to attend multiple events, in rapid succession or even simultaneously, without getting burnt out.

Live tech shows will never die

Not everyone shares Ananthakrishnan or El-Hilali's optimism on virtual events. Vendors that have a physical component to their products, such as those selling storage appliances, still see a need for live tech conferences.

David Audrain, CEO of ExpoDevCo and executive director of the Society of Independent Show Organizers (SISO), said there's no reason to believe this is the end for physical tech conferences. SISO's coverage extends to trade shows beyond the tech industry, and Audrain said 2019 was the largest year for events across the board. While 2020 is highly unlikely to reach those numbers, he doesn't see a reason why trade shows wouldn't become popular as soon as they are safe to hold again.

Audrain said trade shows are the best way for buyers and sellers to get face-to-face contact, which is why even vendors that don't sell physical products will attend these events. When large businesses and hundreds of thousands of dollars are involved, people want to make those transactions in the same room as each other. Live events will come back simply because they work, he claimed.

"The reality is people like to get together," Audrain said.

Christophe Bertrand, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, said popular trade shows also created a cadence for major product releases. It's pretty much expected that vendors will have something to announce at large conferences such as VMworld or Consumer Electronics Show.

"Events created reasons for launches," Bertrand said.

Bertrand said it's impossible to predict when live tech conferences will start again. Referring to how unprecedented the current situation is, Bertrand said it was difficult to speculate on anything.

Vince Asbridge, president and founder of SANBlaze, said he usually launches the next generation of SANBlaze's products at Flash Memory Summit. SANBlaze is best known for its testing and validation software for storage systems, but the vendor also sells its products on Supermicro hardware. Asbridge said nothing else can replace the foot traffic during live tech conferences.

"The beauty of trade shows is people who've never heard of you can walk by and learn about you," Asbridge said. "It's not the same online."

Asbridge added he currently has no plans for what SANBlaze will do if Flash Memory Summit (scheduled for Aug. 4-6) or upcoming plugfests get canceled. He doesn't see SANBlaze attaching itself to any virtual shows, as the lack of foot traffic leaves him with little incentive.

Outside of trade show woes, SANBlaze's VirtuaLUN 8.0 launch in late March almost didn't happen because of the pandemic. Asbridge said given how most of SANBlaze's customers were in the middle of adjusting to a higher percentage of remote work and likely implementing changes across their IT environments, it seemed like a bad time to roll out a new version of SANBlaze's software.

"People have a lot more on their minds than making sure SANBlaze is running the release code," Asbridge said.

Asbridge eventually moved forward with the release because the update had been a long time coming -- there had been 32 beta versions since the previous stable release. On top of the incremental changes introduced in the betas, version 8.0 introduced the "Certified by SANBlaze" testing methodology and accompanying test scripts. This simplified some of the testing, while still allowing full control of the test suite through an underlying API.

Even though the timing wasn't ideal, Asbridge reported many customers have downloaded the latest version, and he can always do a reannouncement later. He said his biggest concern was how the release would be perceived, claiming every product released during a disaster runs the risk of appearing opportunistic or predatory in the public eye.

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