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December 3, 2021

AWS re:Invents the In-Person Conference

(Alex Woodie)

After two years of Zoom calls and virtual conferences, a little bit of human interaction is in order. That much was plainly evident in Las Vegas this week, as tens of thousands of folks descended upon the AWS re:Invent conference to learn a bit and live again.

Re:Invent was back at The Venetian for the ninth time in 10 years, following last year’s cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the years, re:Invent has grown into a monster, with more than 70,000 attendees at the last conference in late November/early December 2019, spread across four properties. With O’Reilly Media canceling its Strata Data Conference at the start of the pandemic, re:Invent has become, arguably, the biggest show for the big data market.

AWS was understandably cautious with this year’s show–a wise move, considering the emergence of the Omicron variant just days before the start of event. For starters, the company limited the size of the show, at the request of local public health authorities. According to an AWS spokesperson, the official reduced capacity attendance was 27,000, with half a million tuning in virtually. That gave attendees a bit of highly welcomed personal space and elbow room as they ventured about the sprawling venue (this reporter logged 5.5 miles per day, but some attendees hiked over 12).

DeepRacer events were held throughout re:Invent (Image courtesy AWS)

All re:Invent attendees in Vegas had to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination status before receiving their badges, and masks were mandatory at all times–except when eating or drinking.

Despite the masks and Omicron, the mood at re:Invent was borderline jubilant. For most of the people this reporter talked to over the past few days, re:Invent was the first in-person conference they had attended in two years, and they were visibly thrilled to be there.

“Like a kid in a candy store,” said Ryan Andersen, vice president of corporate strategy at Boston-based JMA Wireless, who added that he was particularly interested in AWS’s Private 5G announcement.

“Great show,” said TigerGraph vice president of business development Michael Shaler. TigerGraph held its own hybrid conference earlier this year, so this wasn’t the first in-person meeting for the graph database provider. But the level of interest from attendees was quite high. “There’s lots of knowledgeable people,” Shaler said. “But shouting through the mask is hard work.”

“It’s been an exciting week for us here at re:Invent,” said Matthew Scullion, the founder and CEO of ETL provider Matillion. “It’s so great to reconnect with people.  For me, that’s customers, it’s partners, and it’s also Matillioners, because Matillion has more than doubled in size since we were last allowed to see each other in a setting like this. So I’m meeting many people in 3D and full HD for the first time.”

AWS hosted a ping pong tournament at re:Invent (Alex Woodie)

“Better than I expected,” said one vendor in the AWS re:Invent Expo, who didn’t want to be named.

“It’s been good,” said Cribl Solutions Engineer Joseph Eustaquio, who was manning his company’s booth on Thursday. “We didn’t have a conference last year. We have scanned 600 to 700 people at the show. It’s been busy.”

“It’s been great,” said Kevin Riley, an enterprise account executive at SingleStore, noting that this is the first in-person event the company has attended in a while. “There’s been a high amount of foot traffic. There’s a lot of interest in consolidating databases in the cloud.”

Jes Hagen, who works in marketing for Cockroach Labs, also noted that the conference was better than she expected.

After hunkering down for two years with just a handful of in-person conferences to attend, it’s quite obvious that people are eager to get back to physical get-togethers. Virtual conferences proliferated during the pandemic, and while sizable technological gains have been made since the Great Recession, which is the last time the events industry gave virtual events a shot (to save money), there simply is no substitute for meeting in person.

Of course, with the metaverse and 5G looming on the horizon–not to mention billions of dollars continuing to pour into tech and AI–it’s possible that technology may finally overcome the twin tyrannies of geographical distance and network latency. But something about the human condition hints that won’t be enough.

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