By LAURENCE DARMIENTO | Staff Writer for the Los Angeles Times |
OCT. 11, 2020

Few places exude glamour quite like Beverly Hills, which is one reason the Milken Institute Global Conference has become one of the world’s leading business mixers.

The annual spring event draws thousands of chief executives, wealthy investors, fund managers and others to a jammed Beverly Hilton where attendees catch up with acquaintances, pass out business cards and trade investment tips — while enjoying all the sun, fine dining and luxury shopping the city has to offer.

Not this year.

After twice postponing the conference due to the coronavirus outbreak L.A. billionaire Michael Milken’s soiree is set to start Monday. But instead of getting comfortable in one of the hotel’s many ballrooms, attendees will be seated at their work desks, kitchen tables and home offices.

While many prominent conferences have simply written off the year and canceled their annual gatherings, including the massive at the Los Angeles Convention Center, the Milken Institute joined other event organizers in moving ahead with a virtual conference despite the limitations.

“Obviously when you have a few thousand people in one location, the ability to connect in person over a more social environment like drinks or coffee — that’s gone,” said Institute President Richard Ditizio. “There are some networking tools in this virtual environment but they’re not the same.”

The Santa Monica institute got a bit of practice for this fall’s event when it conducted a smaller virtual conference over the summer.

Dawn Moyer, a data scientist at Vanguard who has attended multiple virtual tech conferences and wrote about it for a Medium publication, said online events have advantages, but can fall down in other respects.

“Certain conferences are really a conveyance of information and those go really well virtually. Those are training sessions, hands-on sessions and when the speaker is telling you what they think,” said Moyer, who lives outside Philadelphia. “What doesn’t work as well is when they are idea building. A lot of what we do is talk to the people sitting next to you and you just bump into people and you may know them and may not know them. You kind of bounce your ideas off them, and you can get an idea if you are well out in left field or if you are onto something.”

Milken has always been very much a place to do just that.

The gathering is predated by a high-yield bond conference dubbed the Predators’ Ball that the financier organized and reached its apex amid the junk bond craze of the 1980s. The current iteration put on by the nonprofit institute the financier later established was first held in 1998 and has forged an identity as an investment conference that also explores hot-button issues across a variety of fields.

Speakers are drawn from finance, government, healthcare, academia and philanthropy, with the intent of creating a mix of participants who might not ordinarily run into one another — what Ditizio calls the “magic that unfolds when humans are interacting in person together.”

Last year, a major theme was inequality with the conference taking place amid the rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders and his avowedly democratic socialist platform during the presidential primary season.

This year, several sessions will address the consequences of COVID-19, including how to distribute and finance a vaccine. Others will explore the growing movement to make corporations serve more than their shareholders, the implications of Black Lives Matter and the affordable housing crisis. And as is typical, there will be interviews capable of making news, including a session with Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, who is leading negotiations with Democrats for a new stimulus package.

In order to make the online sessions more tolerable for participants stuck behind their desks, the conference was transformed from an intense three-day meeting with up to 11 breakout sessions held simultaneously, to a week and half, with fewer sessions and no more than two at any time.

The event is being hosted using a proprietary platform developed by Jujama, a Pennsylvania events management company that has worked with the institute for nearly a decade. The first versions of its software for desktop facilitated networking at live events, while the latest work on multiple platforms and are capable of livestreaming sessions with audience participation through media such as Zoom or from professional production studios, all while hosting virtual networking, said founder Nadia Dailey.

“We have matchmaking functionality so people can plug in different interests and then that will match people. We sort of built almost like a Tinder model,” she said.

Prosek Partners, a public relations firm with offices in New York, London and elsewhere, has been holding its own reception at the Milken conference for several years. Managing partner Jennifer Prosek said that while in-person networking can’t be duplicated online, it can foster real connections.

Prosek has conducted her own virtual networking for clients and has attended other virtual conferences, but she admits the live event will be missed.

“There is nothing like a drink at the bar with someone you just met,” she said. “All us New Yorkers were like, “Ahh, that’s the one time of year we get to go to Beverly Hills and network with amazing people.”

Milken has decided to livestream all the sessions for free and make them available to the general public. However, those who want to participate in the virtual conference and get a chance to network will have to pay full freight, which involves at a minimum becoming an associate member of the institute at an annual cost of $15,000.

The conference typically draws upward of 4,000 people. Ditizio said attendance is expected to be similar to past years. Prosek said all the “fans” of Milken she knows will participate in the virtual event.

The conference is a big moneymaker for the institute, which sponsors research and holds summits around the world. However, clearly not benefiting this time around is the Hilton hotel or the city of Beverly Hills.

Beyond the Hilton, the conference jams up the city’s other luxury hotels and is the single biggest “hotel occupancy event” each year, showering the lodgings, local businesses and city coffers with millions of dollars of revenue, said Julie Wagner, chief executive of the Beverly Hills Conference and Visitors Bureau.

“It’s a huge loss for us,” she said. “It pretty much fills the city up.”

Of course, the high-net-worth municipality is hardly the only place that has been affected by the collapse of the convention business. Los Angeles is a tourism mecca and hosted 51 million visitors in 2019, with an estimated 5% to 10% drawn here by conventions.

The Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board is projecting that figure will drop to 31 million this year, no doubt partly dragged down by the cancellation of conventions for groups as varied as the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation, the American Postal Workers Union and Major League Baseball. The business can’t bounce back until restrictions are lifted on large indoor gatherings.

Doane Liu, executive director of the Los Angeles Department of Convention and Tourism Development, said not only is this year a lost cause but the first quarter of next year should also be written off due to cancellations.

He expects that when the convention business does restart, it will get going gradually, with hybrid events that are available not only in-person but online for attendees who aren’t ready yet to mix it up live. In the meantime, groups that rely on events for big chunks of their annual budgets are trying to hold off making decisions.

“People are really just playing it day by day, and month by month,” he said.

With all that uncertainty, the virtual conference space has exploded with new and existing companies trying to get a piece of the business. Hopin, a London virtual events startup, announced in June it had received $40 million in venture capital with Salesforce’s corporate venture arm participating in the funding round.

Part of the allure is that like much else in life, COVID-19 has changed everything. The idea is that hybrid conferences won’t be just a transition back to the old normal, but a vital part of the new normal, with online attendees perhaps a multiple of those who attend in person.

There is no doubt money to be made. Dailey said that Jujama‘s thousands of clients pay from $5,000 for off-shelf-software for small conferences with simple needs up to $100,000 for customized products capable of handling complex demands.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the allure of the traditional event model.

“Zoom fatigue is real, and there is going to be this demand to get together and see each other,” Liu said. “People like just hanging out and touching and seeing exhibits, and touching and seeing colleagues that they only see once a year.”