It's been almost a month since I published my list of tech conferences postponed or cancelled because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Since then, nearly every event scheduled to happen before June has been pushed back or called off all together. And two events this week illustrate how the COVID-19 outbreak is permanently changing the nature of tech industry events. First, O'Reilly Media shut down its in-person events unit and second, the postponement and potential cancellation of DrupalCon is threatening the financial viability of the event organizer.
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On March 24, Laura Baldwin, President of O'Reilly Media, announced that the company was shuttering its in-person events division and going completely virtual for future events. O'Reilly had already postponed its March Strata Data & AI Conferences in London and San Jose and combined it with an online Strata Data & AI event scheduled for September.
According to Business Insider, O'Reilly also announced Tuesday that they had laid off 75 employees. Most of the layoffs were in the events division but also included "editors and engineers, as well as four vice presidents and one senior vice president".
In a statement posted on the company's website, Baldwin explained the decision to shutter the in-person events business:
"Today, we're sharing the news that we've made the very difficult decision to cancel all future O'Reilly in-person conferences and close down this portion of our business. Without understanding when this global health emergency may come to an end, we can't plan for or execute on a business that will be forever changed as a result of this crisis. With large technology vendors moving their events completely on-line, we believe the stage is set for a new normal moving forward when it comes to in-person events."
O'Reilly began as a technical book publisher and consulting company in the late 1970s. It's color-coded "Animal Books" graced the shelves of many IT professionals, including yours truly. Since then, the company had expanded into conferences and on-line learning. In 2017, they stoped selling books online, and shifted to offering them through their subscription-based Safari Online Books service, which was rebranded O'Reilly Online Learning in 2018. In November 2019, they acquired the online learning company Katacoda, which focuses on training tools for developers and software engineers.
Clearly, O'Reilly Media was already moving away from physical goods and services and leaning into its online businesses. The COVID-19 outbreak seems to have accelerated that shift.
On March 25, Dries Buytaert, creator of the open source content management system Drupal and the founder and CTO of Acquia, announced that the future of the Drupal Association was in question after the postponement and possible cancellation of DrupalCon. Like many organizations, the Drupal Association was heavily dependent on the revenue generated by its annual DrupalCon event. Buytaert described the dire situation on his blog:
"With over 3,000 attendees, DrupalCon is not only the Drupal community's main event - it's also the most important financial lever to support the Drupal Association and the staff, services, and infrastructure they provide to the Drupal project. Despite efforts to diversify its revenue model, the Drupal Association remains highly dependent on DrupalCon.
No matter what happens with DrupalCon, there will be a significant financial impact to the Drupal Association. The Drupal Association is now in a position where it needs to find between $400,000 and $1.1 million USD depending on if we postpone or cancel the event."
In an effort to preserve the Drupal Association, Buytaert asked that people become members of the association or make donations, and that DrupalCon sponsors "consider this year's sponsorship as a donation and not seek a refund should the event be cancelled, postponed or changed."
Not all tech conferences will disappear as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the number will likely fall as companies that conduct them shift to virtual events (like O'Reilly) or face financial peril (like the Drupal Association). In addition, companies that sponsor or pay for their employees to attend these events will reevaluate the benefits of doing so versus the costs. Pent-up demand for face-to-face events after travel returns to normal will not trump economics.
For a list of canceled or postponed tech conferences, check out the following ZDNet articles:
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