With re:Invent 2020 Going Virtual, Did Covid-19 Turn the World’s Best Tech Event into a Webinar?

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Since AWS announced that re:Invent 2020 will be virtual, with three weeks of online content for free, I’ve been thinking about what it means for people who enjoy being on the conference floor in Vegas each year.

One thing I’ll really miss at re:Invent 2020? The pub crawl that happens every year at the end of the week. After a full week of intensity, at the pub crawl, everyone can enjoy a more relaxed, authentic connection, rather than having to be hyper-focused on getting things done or checking off a list of booths to visit and people to meet. Nobody is pushing or selling anything.

When everyone starts to arrive at the pub crawl, it really feels to me like catching up with old friends. Now that I’ve attended re:Invent for eight years running, I make a point of meeting Jeff Barr at SUSHISAMBA and thanking him in person for throwing another great event.

Each year, the growth in attendance at re:Invent has matched the growth of the cloud computing industry. The first year there were a few thousand; last year attendance reached 65,000! Unfortunately, this year, we won’t be able to use AWS re:Invent 2020 attendance as a measure of much of anything.

This year, the uncomfortable truth about re:Invent is on par with what many of us have been experiencing with life, in general these days: nothing will be the same this year. The impact this particular loss will have on the cloud community is simply sad.

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A Virtual re:Invent Is Sad

It’s clear why AWS waited until the eleventh hour to announce that re:Invent 2020 would be going virtual. It is, to put it simply, an enormous loss for everyone involved. No matter how good the virtual summit is, it will be a shadow of the real thing.

During the past decade, re:Invent has taken on a life of its own. Business happens at every step, from bumping into colleagues on the flight to Vegas to meeting new ones traveling on shuttles around town. Tens of millions of dollars are spent at the physical event on sponsorships, goodies, and more—all to create opportunities for connections. With the summit going virtual, it’s impossible to tell how much is lost. But it’s clear that the downsides go way beyond budgets.

To me, the biggest loss is trust. 

In business, as in any relationship, everything we build is based on trust. Trust is what’s contributed to IOD’s growth over ten years, and while we maintain our relationships around the world, it takes longer to create and sustain authenticity at a distance. The truth is, much of IOD’s growth began through in-person connections… the kind that people make—and reaffirm each year—at re:Invent.

This year we’ll see fewer partnerships, less business deals made, and less innovation sparked from the in-person connections that won’t happen due to the virtual nature of the event.

On the event floor in Las Vegas, glancing at a lanyard color shows an opportunity for a genuine and meaningful connection—there is an analyst or a partner; here is someone demoing a new product. With the event going online for free and an audience closer to 65 million than 65,000, it’s a lot different to figure out who to engage with.

In a way, re:Invent 2020 will be three weeks of people sitting alone in front of their screens. That’s three weeks of watching webinars!

You would have to lock me in a room to do that, and even still, I might end up smashing the screen. For those of us who are already accustomed to calendar blocks of back-to-back video meetings during these pandemic days, what will AWS do to make this event feel like it isn’t pure torment?

Shifting budgets to digital marketing? Need more high quality tech content? We’re experts at it.

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Three Weeks of Webinar Hell?

It’s fair to say that AWS is making the best of a bad situation. But it is a really, really bad situation for everyone. I imagine Amazon has dozens of staff members who are completely dedicated to this event, one that costs the company untold sums to host.

It cuts even deeper for sponsors, partners, customers, and the whole cloud community as hundreds of millions of dollars vanish or get moved elsewhere. And with all the digital noise for three weeks, it will be impossible for the AWS ecosystem partners to get the attention they normally would from making major product announcements at re:Invent.

Attendees are missing out, too. Three weeks of digital re:Invent content is an intense time commitment. Compared to the in-person event, it’s a different type of journey entirely. At re:Invent, you’re not working as usual. You set aside a week for focused learning and networking.

At the end of the week, you have results to deliver to your team—the kind that impact the business and show the value of taking time away from your desk to be present at re:Invent. 

After the event last year, you might come away with 8,000 leads to fuel a year’s worth of business development. What happens this year? If your employee is asked to set aside three weeks for free webinars, exactly how impactful are the results expected to be?

Will teams find a way to spend the money previously allocated to re:Invent? Sure, you can sponsor a virtual event. Some say it works, others say the leads aren’t the same. IOD has benefited from the shift of budgets toward digital marketing, but I would give that up if I could, in return for being able to safely attend the event in person.

I have no doubt that the growth and the results in the industry just won’t compare. It’ll be tougher to gain trust, grow business, and build new relationships. Everyone knows the losses are incalculable. Without the physical event it’s impossible to generate the same business.

I’ll Be Surprised If I’m Not Surprised

Despite all the drawbacks, this is still the best available alternative for AWS and its ecosystem. My anticipation is that it will showcase the creative talents of the team. If anyone can set a new standard for virtual summits, it is Amazon. They certainly have the team capable of amazing us. As an AWS groupie, I’ll be surprised if I’m not pleasantly surprised.

They’ll have to be very, very creative in a short timeframe. We are expecting collaboration, virtual breakout sessions, sponsorships, goodies, and digital lanyards. Maybe they’re already thinking about how to have a virtual pub crawl.

I’m looking forward to what could be the best virtual summit ever hosted—the model for how to do this type of event going forward. It could change the industry and set new standards for next year.

Next Year’s re:Invent

Next year, a virtual event would not be an afterthought. It might have equal weight. With the experience of creating a virtual summit that’s a force to be reckoned with, a virtual or hybrid event next year could be even better.

AWS could be on the verge of pioneering a virtual summit at a level nobody saw coming. They have the opportunity to push themselves and partners to deliver something truly incredible. We might also see a shift to smaller summits around the world, requiring less travel and smaller groups.

No matter what happens in the years to come, I’ll plan to see you in Vegas in 2021. In the meantime, reach out to me here or on Twitter.

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