By Mona Lisa Faris
Over the last year, we’ve found many new and creative ways to network in every sphere. Office meetings are often held through conference lines and Zoom calls, and you’ve probably never sent more emails in your life than you have during the stay-at-home order.
But, one of the biggest changes that came to the professional world was how we would conduct our yearly conferences. Organizations have had to learn how to bring together hundreds upon thousands of people in one space in a way that is accessible for all without too many technical difficulties. While there have been many amazing features to moving conferences to an online platform, the way in which they are conducted are far from perfect.
Here at DiversityComm, we’ve had the opportunity to attend many of last year’s virtual conferences. Here are some pros of what we’ve learned that works – and the cons of what doesn’t.
- Availability: Without the confines of a physical space or the need to travel to a set location, a digital platform allows anyone to be in attendance without ever leaving their homes. Speakers and attendees alike who would not have been able to participate due the physical barriers of the conference space are now readily available to connect, share and grow with individuals they may have otherwise never met.
- Special Features: Digital contact cards, company video presentations and recorded panels are just a few of the many features online platforms have made available. The annoyance of repeating your pitch, running out of business cards or having to decide between two panels at the same time has become a thing of the past. Even if you can’t attend a virtual event due to other commitments, many of the conferences allow you to watch and re-watch content for up to thirty days after the live event has ended, further increasing audience attendance. This kind of online platform also makes it easier for individuals with varying disabilities to access closed captions, audio adjustments and proper seating in a space where those services may have been more difficult to facilitate.
- Affordability: Without the need of a physical conference space and its in-tandem travel fees, some of the biggest conferences in the business are now much more affordable than they were in-person. Businesses are able to save on the logistics of shipping cost, booth setup and travel, and send as many attendees as they would like to the conference at no additional cost.
- Preparedness: From the interviewing process to presentations, digital platforms make it easier to be prepared for any issue that may come your way. Instead of worrying about printing enough resumes or forgetting paperwork, these files can be uploaded ahead of time for easy access, organization and viewing. Pre-recorded videos and quick computer accessibility during the conference also allows attendees and presenters alike to be more prepared to properly answer questions and have all the necessary information at their fingertips.
- Communication: The elimination of face-to-face interaction and an almost full dependence on written communication make it difficult to gauge how your conversations are going. Without the cues that come from body language or voice inflection, it’s harder to tell if you’re speaking to an interested recruiter or business client just based on emotionless words written in a chat box. The ability to miscommunicate is also much easier. Comments that were meant to be simple and understood can now be easily taken as rude or uninterested if misinterpreted by the listening party.
- Overcrowding: The digital platform allows for more attendees to engage in critical information and resources, but it also means that you can be easily drowned out or forgotten. This has become such a problem that some individuals require you to have an appointment to speak with them. Having the constraints of a time slot or not having an appointment at all can prevent valuable connections from being fully explored. On the flip side, Massive virtual crowds can also mean talking to more individuals than you expected. Impromptu sales pitches to larger groups, or even the incorrect group, can leave both sides with little to gain besides missed opportunities to connect with the proper people.
- Technical Difficulties: It may be a given, but especially with a platform that is so new and virtually unexplored, technical difficulties are common. Audio issues, visual issues, glitching, internet problems and crashing websites are just a few of the issues that were little to irrelevant in the physical conference space. Though tech support is available at many of these events to fix these bugs as soon as possible, the unavailability of resources can lead to missed opportunities, especially for individuals who depend on accessible technology to fully participate.
- Difficult to Gauge the Takeaway: Similar to how it can be difficult to gauge the mood of a conversation online, it can be just as difficult to see if there was a takeaway from your conference. Event sponsors are not as visually prevalent in a digital space as they are in a physical setting, causing many of them to see little direct return on their services. Plus, without feedback from decision makers, you yourself can feel lost and unaccomplished in a space where you once felt the opposite.
For a second opinion on everything virtual conferences, check out what some of our partners had to say about attending these special events:
“Nothing will ever replace the bonds made interacting one-on-one at events or feeling the collective passion of a crowded conference ballroom. And yet, the unique shared experience of virtual programming throughout the pandemic has taught us how valuable technology can be to make experiences more equitable. Since everyone, from the C-Suite to the intern, were home working in sweatpants, the virtual meeting world was far more democratized than real world events have ever been before. But cutting out travel expenses, speaking fees, logistics planning, etc., attendees from anywhere, from the widest array of backgrounds, with any abilities (both financial and physical) could directly interact with others everywhere. I hope to see virtual attendance options remain at all future conferences and events since we’ve never made it easier for those with disabilities, those with financial restrictions, and those who may benefit more from personal space and privacy to thrive in meetings that may have previously been difficult, if not impossible, to attend before.”
- Jonathan Lovitz, small business inclusion and policy leader / special advisor to NGLCC
“A virtual career fair, with non-person contact, is the next best thing to in-person recruitment outreach”.
- Scot Evans, NCUA
“Like many event producers, we had to pivot our popular live Small Business Expos quickly to online Virtual Events. Though our Virtual Events have been wildly successful, there is nothing like that feeling of meeting face-to-face with people, networking and building new business relationships in person. At this point, over a year later, I think there is a huge pent up energy for our attendees to get back to our in-person events. We are human, we need in-person social interaction. With virtual events, there is a wall between you and the other person. I think everyone is excited to break through that wall and finally meet face-to-face again!”
- Zachary Lezberg, Founder & CEO, Small Business Expo
“The one big lesson AISES learned in executing our 2020 National Conference is to keep it simple when moving from an in-person event to a virtual setting. Our conference was successful, but we could have shortened the length of the event, reduced the number of sessions, and incorporated more breaks. Overall, the participants were happy with the cultural components that characterize AISES such as the talking circle, morning blessing, and ceremonial blessings. The 2021 AISES National Conference will be in-person and we plan to stream limited content for those who are only able to attend virtually.”
- Katherine Cristiano, AISES Senior Director of Special Events
- Rebecca Aguilera-Gardiner, CEO of VIB Network
“By hosting the VIB Conference virtually last year we had more participation from smaller veteran-owned businesses that may have never attended due to cost or time. While attendees were still able to connect with corporations or government agencies through a virtual business matchmaking platform nothing will truly beat face-to-face meetings. As things begin to open, I think the future for events is blending the in-person with a virtual element so we can continue to cultivate the smaller veteran-owned businesses”
“Virtual career fairs have become the norm as a hiring strategy for many companies. As a large organization with thousands of job opportunities, virtual career fairs give us the opportunity to meet and learn more about perspective employees. These job fairs are different from the in-person experience, so come prepared and do your research in order to make a lasting impression on a recruiter or employer. Those who can adapt will have a great advantage.”
- Kamille Morgan of Leidos
As the pandemic continues to show signs of coming to an end, it appears that conferences may be implementing more of a hybrid system where in-person and online attendance are both available. As we continue to grow in this digital space and learn from the mistakes and triumphs of this past year, hopefully we will see a positive change in this new conference world.