Virtual conferences build up to Real Estate Forum in Toronto

Informa is in the midst of presenting eight virtual forums from Vancouver to Montreal in a 44-day period. Then there’s a month-long break before the …

IMAGE: The Real Estate Forum in Toronto. (Courtesy Informa)The more virtual conferences George Przybylowski organizes, the more advantages he sees to a virtual format for getting hundreds, if not a couple of thousand, commercial real estate executives together.

Przybylowski is one of the most recognizable faces in the industry in Canada. Informa’s vice-president of real estate heads up the country’s largest series of CRE conferences, the Canadian Real Estate Forums.

Needless to say, the COVID-19 pandemic has created some headaches for him and his team. Not only has Informa’s staff shifted to accommodate working-from-home requirements, they’ve also completely reimagined the forums in just a few months.

“This is something unprecedented in our lifetime,” Przybylowski told RENX, “but we want to make sure the industry gets what it’s looking for and what it needs.”

Informa is in the midst of presenting eight virtual forums from Vancouver to Montreal in a 44-day period. Then there’s a month-long break before the showcase Real Estate Forum in Toronto Dec. 2-3.

Major pivot from in-person to virtual

Pivoting from live events in massive conference centres to virtual presentations using cutting-edge online technology hasn’t been easy. However, as of this week they’ve presented six of the eight regional events.

“It has absolutely amazed us in a number of ways,” he said. “First of all, that the technology has evolved so significantly that you can offer a virtual conference that is far, far more than just the videos of the speakers and panelists.”

That has led to positive reviews from attendees: “Congratulations on an outstanding virtual conference, it provided lot of value to the participants and attendees. I’ve had very good feedback from my broker team that attended,” Przybylowski said, reading from one such response.

And, he noted, “if there is one segment of the industry who finds it particularly frustrating to think about virtual conferences, it’s brokers.”

While people don’t meet face-to-face around tables or in the hallways or lounges at venues, they still meet in a variety of individual and group formats during the conferences.

“People say ‘Where is the list, how can I see who is here?’ ” he noted. “In the virtual platform, you get the opportunity to go into something called ‘Network’ where you see every single person who is going to the event, be they speaker, attendee, sponsor or what have you.

“You are then able to bump into them because the system allows you to send a note to these people.”

From there, attendees can arrange private Zoom sessions within the conference network, and there are also group discussions distinct from the major scheduled presentations.

“The other day in the Vancouver conference, a CEO (Michael Hungerford of Hungerford Properties) had 50 people in this lounge where he was answering questions from individuals about a variety of subjects related to industrial and office, and so on,” Przybylowski said. “He was phenomenal.”

The virtual technology also means every minute of the presentations is available to all attendees. During concurrent sessions, conference-goers don’t have to pick and choose what they want to see – they can view real-time events and then, later, catch the forums they missed.

The Real Estate Forum in Toronto

“Everything is available on demand for a number of weeks after the event,” Przybylowski said. “In the Real Estate Forum in Toronto, we have concurrent sessions three times. Once there are five, another time there are five and once there are two.

“So there are 12 sessions, but (in person) you and I can only go to three of them. In a virtual conference, you get to see when you want to see however many of those forums as you want.”

During the Toronto conference, which features about 90 speakers (42 of them with CEO or president in their job titles), that means you can experience almost double the content compared to attending in person.

Przybylowski said the Toronto forum brings a national perspective to the discussion, something not as prevalent at the local conferences. And while the forum has traditionally been hosted in Toronto, it’s not just about Toronto.

“The Real Estate Forum in Toronto is always looking at things nationally,” he explained. “So if you are at all a national player or a regional player . . . you don’t get that same level of information in our local events.”

The subject matter is also different.

“We go far beyond the normal realm of topics,” he said, noting the local forums generally focus on local performance and trends in the four main sectors; office, industrial, retail, multiresidential and their related sub-sectors.

The theme of last year’s sold-out Toronto forum (2,500-plus attendees) was tech, and how it is transforming both the industry and the world.

List of keynote speakers

This year, keynote speakers who’ll offer their perspectives on current trends and issues include former Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz, Empire Co. Ltd. CEO Michael Medline, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and perhaps the world’s top social well-being expert, Sir Cary Cooper.

“The Toronto forum allows us to bring in people you would never hear at any of our other conferences,” Przybylowski said.

Take Cooper for example, who will discuss what he called a vital topic: “How is COVID-19 changing the people who work for you and consumers and people in general?”

Przybylowski said he’s looking forward to the Real Estate Forum in Toronto to wrap up Informa’s 2020 program, and put everything they’ve learned so far in the local events to the test.

“The scale of the Toronto event is much greater than any of the other conferences that we have done.”