No Substitute for Face-to-Face Contact, but we can get closer than I thought

Q & A about the Virtual Summit

No Substitute for Face-to-Face Contact, but we can get closer than I thought
No Substitute for Face-to-Face Contact, but we can get much closer than I would have thought.

For the first time since its inception in 2003, the Presentation Summit will not take place in a particular city or at a specific hotel. Speaking with editor Geetesh Bajaj, conference host Rick Altman shares how he made the difficult decision and his vision for this first-ever virtual version of the conference.

Bajaj: You announced that this year’s Presentation Summit, originally scheduled to be held in Seattle, is now a virtual, online event. Was this a difficult decision?

Altman: It was gut-wrenching. The hardest part was that we needed to make the call before we had enough information to be able to make the call. In mid-March, we were just in our second week of sheltering in place in California and some states in the country hadn’t been ordered to yet. It probably wouldn’t be until May or even June that we would have any idea about the conditions in August.

So we really were completely in the dark and the limbo was killing me. So we had to look into some surreal crystal ball and try to foresee what the world would look like. And when we did that, it was not encouraging. Even if Seattle was cleared, even if our host hotel was operating, how many people in our industry would still have viable training budgets, how many would be allowed to travel, how many would feel like traveling even if they were allowed to? And those who were able to attend – how would they feel? Would people want to shake hands, let alone hug their friends? Would everyone sit six feet apart? It all added up to a conference experience that would not look anything at all like what the presentation community has come to expect from us.

What does this mean for regular attendees who have been to the conference before?

That was one of the biggest hurdles for us – dealing with expectations. People expect way more from us than just a high standard of learning. They expect a “high touch” event – they know the Presentation Summit as an interpersonal experience, where they will form genuine and deep relationships. How could we ever recreate that type of experience? This is why I have always been resistant to bottling our conference and repackaging it after the fact and it is why I never – not for one second – ever considered holding this conference virtually. But when the world changes, you need to change with it.

How will you try to capture some of the Summit atmosphere?

Had you asked me that question in late-March, the answer would have been “beats the hell out of me.” The thought of stringing together a bunch of Zoom webinars and pretending that it would be even close was an affront to my very core. But when I started researching, I found an entire industry out there for hosting multi-day, multi-activity events. Not just a video platform, but a virtual venue, with metaphors for the main stage, an exhibit hall, a lounge, even our Help Center. They make it possible to create a feeling of thereness, whereby our patrons can have a sense that they are at a destination, in a place, with others around them.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like truly being all together in one place, but we can create something that is much more vital and communal than I ever thought possible.

What does this mean for new, prospective attendees who can now attend since no travel is involved?

It means they should sign up now because who knows if we’ll ever do this again! Seriously, it might be a unique opportunity to get to be in the presence of this much expertise. Because the learning will be as good as ever – the whole team is in place and then some. Garr Reynolds will still give the opening keynote, all of the folks we have come to depend upon for cutting-edge PowerPoint, inspiring design, expert coaching. And as you might have guessed, we’ll be offering quite a bit of content to help others with virtual presenting, because long after Covid-19, we suspect people will continue to present virtually at a pace far higher than in the past.

And all of that will be available at a tiny fraction of the cost of an in-person event. Eliminate the travel, eliminate the lodging, and cut the registration price by 75%. That’s some serious value.

Now, I have been to many Presentation Summits and you always create amazing experiences, such as the Trivia Contest, the Guru Session, and of course, the Help Center. How do you plan to port these experiences to the virtual sphere?

We think they are all portable. For the Trivia Contest, we can utilize one of many gaming services – that will be the easiest, except we won’t be able to serve beer and wine to everyone! As for the Guru Session, our traditional late-night bull session, Ric Bretschneider (its host) is confident that he can take it virtual. In fact, he’s pretty excited about the new challenge. The only thing is it won’t be at night – unless you’re in Europe, then it will really feel right! And the Help Center will be as equipped as always: drop-in, appointments, file upload, screen sharing, live chat, and video conferencing. It won’t miss a beat.

What happens to prospective attendees who cannot attend all sessions, because of time zones, concurrent sessions, or other conflicts?

Yeah, apologies in advance that we’ll be making you stay up past your bedtime in India. And no matter what time of day, nobody is as attentive online as they would be in person, so we will hold the Summit over four consecutive half days. We’ll start at 8:30 AM each morning on the West Coast of the U.S. and go until early afternoon. Sessions will be shorter also – 30-minute keynotes, 45-minutes seminars – with longer breaks. We’ll have two concurrent seminar tracks so we do still hope to torture people with impossible choices between irresistible-sounding topics. But it’s okay if you miss parts of it because the entire experience will be available for on-demand viewing afterward. We are hopeful that even the live chat and Q&A can be captured and played back as part of the in-room experience.

What about the connecting part, where attendees, staff, and sponsors get to meet each other?

We will promote personal connections to the maximum extent that technology makes possible. We’ll moderate all the sessions, the lounge will have one-on-one and one-on-many video chat, attendees will see full rosters of one another. Hey, one of the services claims to use AI to suggest who should meet whom. Kind of like Tinder for the presentation community.

Do you have any last thoughts that you want to share with attendees and sponsors?

As you know, I have staked my livelihood on the notion that there is no substitute whatsoever for in-person gatherings. Nothing that happens this season will change my point of view about that. But when Mother Nature changes the world as profoundly as it has this spring, we all do our best to not drown in the tidal wave. This is our reality for 2020. For nearly two decades, the Presentation Summit has been the beacon for best practices in the industry. So I think it is incumbent on us to host the best damn virtual conference that anyone has ever attended. For the next 12 weeks of my sheltered existence, that will be my sole focus.



For complete information about the 2020 Presentation Summit, visit

Share the Post:

Recent Posts

My “Last Hurrah”

Rick Altman Hosting the Presentation Summit has been the greatest joy of my professional life, and it is not a close call. Across 21 seasons, going on 22, it has

Read it

Are You Smarter Than a Kindergartener?

The story I told in 2018 was one of my favorites, because, first off, it was told to me by a good friend who teaches middle school, and second, because it was 100% true although you would never believe it.

Read it

Now that you have made it most of the way through this article, might you like to join our mailing list? We only send it out about once a month, it’s usually thought-provoking articles (occasionally thoughtless, so say our critics), and it’s never spammy.