Getting the Most Out of Virtual Conferences

Attending conferences is a crucial part of career development for higher education professionals. Whether you’re presenting your research or introducing yourself to people who will someday offer you a job, your next off-campus business trip might change your career.

But like many professional gatherings in the current pandemic environment, virtually all conferences and workshops have gone virtual.

Professional organizations like the American Psychological Association (APA), are taking what would’ve happened in three days at a convention center and moving their sessions online, available live and/or recorded to watch for a limited time.

“I think hybrid conventions are the future (with a blend on in-person and online programming) because you can take advantage of so many things with the virtual platform that you can’t take advantage of when you’re just in the room,” said Alicia Aebersold, chief communications officer of APA.

Online chats during keynotes or real-time audience polls and question submissions for presenters help democratize the Q&A experience. They prevent one or two people from asking all the questions, especially when preceded by a long comment that is more public posturing than an inquiry. Randomly assigned breakout rooms also better involve introverts and split up any cliques. Another benefit is easier access for graduate students and professionals who would not otherwise have the opportunity because of time and travel budget constraints.

APA typically attracts 12,000 people to its annual convention, but when the event was switched to online just three months in advance, nearly 15,000 people registered and “attended” sessions in the first month. APA offers discounts up to 85 percent off the normal in-person costs.

Conference organizers still have considerable expenses: virtual conference hosting services can range from $30,000 to $250,000 just to offer the bandwidth and storage capacity for live and recorded sessions, while also simulating a face-to-face environment with virtual exhibit halls, happy hours, and other networking opportunities.

More than 7,000 student affairs professionals annually attend the NASPA Annual Conference, but organizers had just two weeks to adapt to virtual alternatives for 2020 and seven months to prepare for 2021.

The challenge for organizers is to meet the needs of attendees. For academic conferences, especially for disciplines like computer science that use the proceedings at peer-reviewed conferences instead of journal submissions, the opportunity to present research is incredibly important. For other conferences, like NASPA, networking is paramount.

“Even though we put a lot of effort into educational sessions and keynotes, people invariably rate networking as the highest part of the meeting experience. That immediately creates a challenge from a planning standpoint but also for the participants. How do you replicate, or at least create new opportunities, that form that kind of engagement in a virtual space?” said Kevin Kruger, president and CEO of NASPA.

While conference organizers are adapting, attendees also have to rise up to the challenge to get the most out of a virtual conference. Is it possible to replicate networking in a virtual conference?