Are In-Person Conferences Sustainable?

Virtual conferences are already in the rear-view mirror, but I am not convinced that in-person conferences should be continued.


DAC/Semicon are now over, and while I missed a large part of it due to a stomach bug, I increasingly have a stale taste in my mouth about in-person conferences in general. Let’s split things up – an event such as DAC is both an academic conference and a trade show. It has been that way almost since its inception 60 years ago. There are many other conferences that are pure conferences, and there are some which are really just trade shows in disguise with all of the papers coming from the vendors or their invited guests.

The trade show part of DAC has been in decline for many years, simply because the number of EDA companies is shrinking. Attempts have been made to broaden the scope to bring in new participants, such as cloud companies. My hat is off to the organizers’ efforts to re-invent this aspect of the show. The dynamics of the market have also changed. There have been times in the past when some of the large EDA companies threatened to pull out of DAC but all came back. That isn’t assured for next year.  EDA companies do not get the same value from the conference they used to, in part because the number of design companies also has shrunk.

But the academic portion of DAC remains strong. The number of papers submitted continues to grow. This continues despite the fact that fewer universities are actively doing research into EDA tools or algorithms. Still, the application of EDA to design and architecture is picking up. More recently, the integration of AI techniques and domain specific processing have enlivened the field.

The problem is that much of the conference cost is paid by the trade show exhibitors. I was also told that the academic content could be cut from 5 days down to 3. I imagine that is just part of balancing the budget. Conferences evolve and change to meet the conditions of the times. That is the reality of life.

But that is not what leaves the sour taste in my mouth. With COVID, meeting in person was not possible. Conferences wanted to continue, and so remote events were created. That enabled me to attend events that I never would have dreamed about in the past. I attended a fashion conference that was concentrating on the incorporation of semiconductor technology. I attended conferences that would have been in far flung regions of the world where I would not have been able to justify travel costs. It opened a world of new opportunities for me. Sure, I didn’t get to have a beer with friends that I only see once or twice a year at conferences. They never perfected this aspect of the virtual conference, even though they tried.

When we think about some of those factors being applied to the academic world, it becomes much more significant. Virtual conferences level the playing field for academics around the world, rather than giving priority to the richer colleges within richer countries who can afford to travel. Virtual conferences democratized research based on the merits of the research. This was good – a significant advancement.

But COVID has been forgotten, and almost all conferences are back to being in-person only. They may record a few events for replay, but that is not the same thing. They do not accept papers from people who do not commit to attend in-person and provide a live presentation to go along with the paper. We had a chance to make a real difference, a real improvement, and that opportunity has been lost.

In a world where we are beginning to understand the consequences of our gluttony, having to travel means burning fossil fuels. Is that a wise choice? I know there is a difference between seeing someone on a Zoom screen and being able to look them in the eye in person, but the technology has improved to the point that I found it to be a very good way, a very efficient way, to get the information I needed. While there is some energy cost associated with the technology necessary to get that information into my home, I am sure it is tiny fraction of travel costs.

I would love to hear other people’s thoughts about this. Why must we go back to in-person conferences? Is it because virtual trade shows just don’t work, and we need them to keep footing the bill? How much more expensive are virtual conferences? It seems like there would be a lot of cost savings, as well. Can we ethically afford to keep having in-person conferences? What do academics think about it? Let me know.


Nancy Zavada says:

While not an academic, many of our clients are and we believe there is a place for both virtual and in-person. It is sad, indeed, that virtual meetings are in the rear view mirror for many organizations. The DEI significance is vitally important as well as sustainability.

Lou Covey says:

A lot of tech companies still support the trade show strategy have a basic problem: 90 percent of their marketing spend on their trade show effort, even though overall companies spend 36 percent of their budget on them.
Cost per lead for trade shows is more than $350 for the tech sector whereas leads from public relations are under $50. But without a vibrant media covering the industry there isn’t much press to be had, as the EDA world has learned. Advertising CPL is less than half that of trade shows. But when most of your marketing goes to a trade show, there isn’t much left for more efficient marketing.
But the reason companies continue to follow the inefficient path is the old saw that “if we don’t show up, people think we are going out of business.” So the reason it continues is more fear than reality.

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