Power

What happens when coronavirus cancels all the tech conferences?

There's been a wave of cancellations, and more are probably on the way.

Attendees at Facebook F8

Facebook's F8 conference was one of many canceled in the last day over coronavirus fears.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Your backup plan is surely in effect by now. Because coronavirus is coming for tech conferences left and right. Hopefully the plane tickets were refundable.

In the last day alone we lost F8, the Google News Initiative Global Summit, as well as an internal Google marketing conference, IDC's Directions and Shopify Unite. The Game Developers Conference next month seems bound to follow, as Facebook, Microsoft, Sony and several other gaming-related companies have already pulled out. (Update at 4:15 p.m.: Follow it did. On Friday afternoon, the organizers of GDC announced that the conference is officially postponed.)

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Those cancellations are being felt acutely by conference attendees, especially developers who were betting on F8 for meetings with Facebook employees to score additional funding for their projects.

"Without F8, you might not have another opportunity like this — another six to eight months at least," said Tima Anoshechkin, CEO and co-founder of the Sydney, Australia-based VR startup Alta VR, which is developing a VR title for multiple platforms.

Doesn't it feel inevitable? If coronavirus continues to spread, it seems almost certain that many if not most of the major upcoming tech conferences this spring will be canceled.

When Mobile World Congress was canceled last month, it felt like a fluke — like things would surely get better. But as we head out of winter into the spring events season, concerns that COVID-19 could turn into a pandemic have only increased. More and more event organizers are taking the precaution of canceling their events for the safety of attendees.

Anoshechkin, who had planned on flying in for F8, is now nervous as he looks toward GDC, the most important conference of the year for his startup of 12 employees. Although GDC said in a statement published on its website on Friday that the show would go on, organizers added they were "closely monitoring the COVID-19 (coronavirus) situation" and would update their "assessment if the situation changes."

Still, Anoshechkin says at least 30% of his meetings at GDC have been canceled already, including funding meetings that could have helped Alta VR raise money for its crucial seed round.

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"Everybody who's everybody has pulled out [from GDC]," Anoshechkin said. "That has a massive impact on a company like ours if you can't pitch people."

So what happens when your tech conference gets canceled?

Facebook told Protocol it is still exploring ways to organize an "F8-inspired experience," although it's unclear what that experience could look like.

A source at a major tech company told Protocol that virtual conferences were the most obvious solution to all these conference cancellations. Likewise, several tech conference attendees we spoke to said they expected to see a sharp uptick in virtual conferences this year as more conferences cancel. Yes, conference-goers will lose out on some of the magic of being on the floor, but in the short term, it solves the real challenge for tech companies.

"My hope is that is that these cancellations really light the fire under this idea of virtual conferences and that Facebook puts some money behind that, either by buying an interest in somebody who's working on that type of project or developing that project themselves," said John Westra, virtual innovation officer for Vuturus, an AR and VR firm with offices in Colorado and Michigan. He said he had planned on attending F8. "Sure, there's less serendipity involved, but virtual conferences would also allow more people to attend, particularly people in the industry from all over the world for whom flying to the San Francisco Bay Area is not in their budget."

Many of the biggest and most well-known conferences from Google, Microsoft and Apple have yet to announce their fates, which says nothing of the dozens of smaller conferences and events attended by thousands of people.

In an emailed statement, Sarah Porter, CEO of InspiredMinds, which produces tech events including the World Summit AI next month, said, "I have been in the tech events industry for almost 30 years. In my experience, the events industry are well equipped to deal with situations like this." She added, "Of course, as [organizers] we are evaluating the risk on a daily basis based on outbreaks per region, geography of attendees and so on. However, the risk to the general public remains low in most areas. Those most at risk are those who are elderly or already ill; the profile of the attendees to World Summit AI are not within this category"

While Google has canceled a few events, it hasn't made a call on its important Google I/O and Google Cloud Next events. It plans on monitoring developments around COVID-19, according to a spokesperson. News broke on Friday that a Google employee was officially diagnosed with COVID-19, so odds feel like they're tipping toward Google I/O not going on as planned — at least in its current form.

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That would be a big disappointment for Joshua Ostrom, a Mishawaka, Indiana-based senior software engineer for Simpli.fi, a company focused on localized digital advertising. Ostrom, who won an internal company raffle for one of two Google I/O tickets, looks to the conference as a way to network with some of the best engineering talent in the world.

"It's really just a chance to be around a lot of bright minds," said Westra, whose wife simply refers to Google I/O as "nerdchella." "It makes you excited about your career field and makes it fun to be a programmer."

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