Instead of starting this blog with an intro about how the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted everyone’s lives, I thought “Nah, we’ve all had enough of that already!” So, I’ll take it as a given that we all understand how our lives, jobs, relationships, and countries have drastically been affected and how refreshing it is when we get that chance to experience a bit of normalcy.
Current state of events in a COVID19 world
One of the first global transformations was the rapid adoption, deployment, and usage of Microsoft Teams. This was parallel to an abrupt end to in-person events of all types. All major community events — Microsoft Ignite, Microsoft Inspire, the European Collaboration Summit, Comms v.Next, and more were affected. Some were postponed and then canceled; some were postponed and then virtualized, and some went immediately virtual.
In fact, the Microsoft MVP Summit in February 2020 was one of the first large community events to go all-virtual. Several events that optimistically planned a spring 2021 reopening found that they had to push their dates back to the fall or even the winter, and some organizations (including Microsoft and Apple) announced plans to keep their events 100% virtual until summer 2022 at the earliest.
But you know all this. Here’s what you may not know: a select few organizers have successfully held in-person events recently. I have just returned to the States after attending CommsVerse, which bills itself as “a conference and exhibition about Microsoft Teams,” and it was stellar.
(Sidenote: if you haven’t already: you should watch Ted Lasso on Apple TV+. Seriously.)
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. With more than 350 attendees and 40 exhibitors, there were a lot of people in close proximity at times. The host conference venue, Mercedes-Benz World, required a negative Covid-19 test for entry on the first day. They also had clearly marked traffic patterns, plenty of hand sanitizer, a fully masked staff, and physical distancing measures in place and well-adhered to.
Many, (if not most of the attendees) remained masked when around others, and the conference badges were marked with a red icon on one side and a green one on the other. With that, attendees could flip their badges over to indicate whether they were comfortable with close physical contact or not.
As far as the venue? The Mercedes-Benz World staff prepared excellent meals, efficiently staffed the attendee party, kept things sparkly clean, and in general delivered a high-quality physical plant for the conference. If you’re ever in London and want to have a bit of fun, try one of their driving experiences (either on a racetrack or a 4×4 off-road course). I did and it was the most fun I’ve had in a car since that one time I “borrowed” my dad’s 1964 Corvette.
The live conference featured just under seventy sessions, organized into two days: a “collab day” focused on collaboration, productivity, and automation; and a “config day” with the focus on deployment and management. Each session was held using Teams, so remote attendees and speakers could still participate.
Since every session was hybrid, this equated to extra work for the conference staff, all of whom quickly became experts in live troubleshooting Microsoft Teams Room systems, webcams, and assorted other parts of the remote-meeting experience. In addition to the two conference days, the event featured remote-only sessions for the two weeks leading up to the live event—a terrific way to bolster attendance, interest, and community.
The sessions and speakers were exactly what you’d expect from a Teams-focused event: a heavy emphasis on voice, devices, call recording, and contact centers, but also some interesting coverage of adoption (including a review of the 100,000+ user deployment at one of the UK’s largest public agencies), plus a number of narrowly-focused technical sessions covering various aspects of Teams deployment, management, and collaboration. Mike Weaver and I co-presented a session on Teams tenant-to-tenant migration, which amusingly enough was at the same time as Steve Goodman’s own session on tenant-to-tenant.
Perhaps the thing that surprised me the most was the large vendor presence—there were more than two dozen vendors covering the spectrum from the large and well-known (Ribbon, AudioCodes, Jabra, Poly, Logitech) to lesser-known (EPOS, Kuando). I was particularly impressed with the variety of hardware devices on display; in the kickoff keynote, Microsoft’s Ilya Bukshteyn promised a wave of new intelligent cameras and speakers that take advantage of new Teams APIs but, even without those, there are a ton of solutions for getting high-quality audio and video into and out of your meetings.
Radiating throughout all this, of course, was a sense of relief which turned into joy. A few lucky people have been able to resume some semblance of normalcy by visiting customers and going to the office on occasion, but even for them – much less for people who have been cooped up and staring at Teams or Zoom event presentations for the last year and a half – the opportunity to mingle freely with peers and enjoy the experience of a 2019-style physical event was most welcome.
The event organizers deserve special mention of the fact that in-person conference tickets were only UKP 59—you’d be hard pressed to buy yourself breakfast and lunch for two days for that amount, not to mention the quality of technical content on offer. As with most other events, virtual attendance was free.
Overall, it was a terrific event, and one I’m thankful to have been able to attend. I’m very much looking forward to next year’s iteration.