The J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference wrapped up this week. It took place virtually.

The media response was muted, with none of the absurdities to report from prior conferences, such as $1000 per night rooms, coffee tables for $300 per hour, and expensive cocktail parties amidst homeless people outside in the streets.

A year ago, I wrote about this conference as a case study of change. It was not about how to improve the conference. It was about learning how the venues for accessing business deals are changing—that these changes are being driven by digital platforms.

A common notion is that the pandemic is accelerating changes that are already underway.

This is obvious for conferences: we have learned that videoconferences can work quite well, travel to meetings will be reduced in the future, and events can now stretch beyond a few calendar days. Those lessons have brought plenty of ideas about the future of this conference. Two thirds of respondents in a poll even expect the conference to leave San Francisco altogether.

My interest is not the fate of this conference, but about where and how deals will be sought in the future. As these changes are starting to reshape the status quo, where can one go to find good deal flow, find better ways to do transactions, and stay at the front of these changes?

First some background (see my case study from a year ago for the full history): the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference started in 1983 as an opportunity for investors, analysts, bankers, and healthcare company executives to meet. Back then, the focus was on public companies. Then private companies were included. Then coverage expanded to include more healthcare sectors. Then other investor events and industry events and business development events chose to schedule into the same week and city in an attempt to reach as many decision-makers at the same time.

The result is four days of about a dozen parallel schedules, spanning many healthcare sectors that have no bearing on one’s direct business. With so many executives in San Francisco at one time, the law of supply-and-demand kicks in, leading to absurd prices, and of course, navigating amidst venues and hotels becomes inconvenient and time-wasting. The value proposition for attending is diminishing.

This is characteristic of all big industries: each major industry has been growing and diversifying over many decades. We see this in the growth of these industry events over that span of their growth.

Now, the subsegments within an industry have enough companies and business activity to warrant their own event.

At the same time, the customer base is getting more complex, and they are getting more sophisticated in their decision-making behaviors.

Let’s look at two other industries as examples: consumer electronics and luxury watches.

The huge Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas also concluded last week. Technology writer Mark Gurman notes: “the fact that Samsung scheduled its phone launch for the week of the lauded tech conference, but not at the conference, tells you just about everything you need to know: CES is no longer the center of the technology universe. The virtual nature of this year’s show could speed up even more technology companies moving to their own events, and the show’s remaining utility (in-person meetings between tech companies and suppliers) may continue to make less and less sense in a post-pandemic world.”

In the luxury watch industry, these are mechanical watches, where examples of better-known brands include Omega, Rolex, TAG Heuer, Brietling, etc. Traditionally, the two key watch events in the world are Baselworld, a trade show with an attendance of about 100,000, and SIHH, an invitation-only curated trade show with about 20,000 attendees.

I wrote about the watch industry in my J.P. Morgan case study last year: Baselworld was already in trouble, with a few years of declining attendance, and then major exhibitors started cancelling on the show.

Like CES, some of the major watch brands started to host their own events.

Since the onset of the COVID pandemic, the industry-dominating Baselworld was canceled in 2020 and 2021. SIHH took over by rebranding itself as Watches and Wonders, gone fully international in its engagement, and has been conducted online to showcase its participating watch brands.

What has happened here is that the old-world trade show (Baselworld) has been supplanted by a modern newcomer (SIHH) who had the advantage of knowing how to better access and engage influencers. This adds to the advantage digital platforms already have in doing business through a pandemic.

From this (the Baselworld trade show):
To this (Watches and Wonders, virtual trade show):

Coming back to J.P. Morgan—and other industry conferences that have grown unwieldly over the years—there will be both an expansion and a focus.

The expansion will come from how digital platforms can allow greater participation. The focus will be in how each segment of the industry will choose to engage its participants with these new tools.

I once gave a talk to graduating students about how to go about (live) conferences effectively and efficiently.

An important new skill to learn now is how to make effective use of remote conferences. So many more events are now accessible. With multiple screens, one can look up background information and follow-up information in real time. Archival and on-demand content can be chosen strategically to allow the participant to see the most content…

As Ben Thompson wrote last week in Stratechery: “the Internet is not simply a new medium, but a new maker of reality.” He addressed more profound and more powerful effects of the Internet. In the much more modest scope of the Internet’s effect on conferences, this will indeed translate into big changes in how we attend these in the future.

The future of conferences
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