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Conferences Go Virtual Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Among the casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic are in-person events, including academic and scholarly conferences. Although that’s rather minor in the scope of things, it’s something that conference organizers, presenters, and attendees must deal with for the foreseeable future. Rather than cancel or postpone their conferences, many societies are moving their events to an online platform. Just as in-person academic conferences provide excellent opportunities for learning and networking with peers, online events have their own advantages. Here are some reasons to take advantage of an online venue and tips for providing a great virtual experience.

Benefits of hosting a virtual conference

As COVID-19 forces many large annual scholarly conferences and smaller society meetings to cancel in-person events, other planned events are shifting to a virtual platform as well. It’s an unfortunate development for those conference organizers who have spent countless hours planning their events, but moving to an online platform does provide some unique benefits, including:

  • The ability to reach large international audiences with little cost.
  • No travel expenses for presenters and attendees.
  • An interactive component offered by many virtual meeting platforms including text chat, streaming video dialogues, conference calls with breakout rooms, asynchronous discussion threads, and more.
  • Allows event planners to learn and adjust over the course of the event, taking some of the pressure off.
  • Easy access to presentation materials.
  • A web-based infrastructure that can become the foundation for ongoing professional development and collaboration.

Although attendees miss out on in-person networking, impromptu idea exchange, and after-hours meetups, meeting virtually is the next best thing. For some organizations and attendees, the advantages make virtual events a better option than in-person events.

Best practices for virtual events

One of the biggest advantages of moving your event online is that it takes significantly less time and removes a layer of difficulty to plan. For example, with a virtual event, there’s no need to book a venue or arrange travel and accommodations for presenters; nor is there a need to deal with set up and tear down. That said, it’s still important to work with a dedicated event planner who has experience organizing a virtual conference, as well as the online conference platform vendor. Here are some other tips and best practices to provide the best possible virtual conference experience.

  1. Stretch your event across time zones to provide an opportunity for all participants to experience it live. For example, you may opt to extend the conference over more days and adjust times for sessions to allow for greater accessibility.
  2. Keep sessions short. Keep in mind that the level of excitement and engagement that would normally accompany live events won’t be present (or at least not as strong) via virtual events. So be mindful of the length of your presentations to capture the greatest attention.
  3. Include a good mix of high-value thought leadership, vendor presentations, and customer case studies. Depending on the size of your event, you also may want to focus on recruiting a great moderator and influential guest speakers to amplify the appeal of your event. For smaller events that may not require a high-profile speaker to draw attention or attendance, you should still be prepared with high-value content and clear, charismatic speakers.
  4. Offer opportunities for virtual networking. Networking and impromptu conversations are some of the main reasons people attend in-person events, so be sure to provide virtual networking options. For example, you could offer breakout chat rooms or online groups that meet before and after the conference to discuss local issues or hot topics.
  5. Find ways to engage the audience. Help your attendees feel connected to the content by offering interactive features to increase engagement. For example, you could use polls during a presentation to get real-time feedback from your audience. You also should encourage audience questions; but be sure to set an expectation for when they will be addressed (e.g., during, at the end, after). Also, distribute related hashtags ahead of time so that moderators can route any questions that may come through social media to presenters.
  6. Allow early access to the platform. Your presenters will appreciate the opportunity to practice ahead of time and test out their audio-visual setup and software. Similarly, early access will provide attendees with the opportunity to test their systems ahead of time to ensure they can join the event without issue when that day and time comes.
  7. Have plenty of technical support available before and during the presentations. Even with the best laid plans, technical problems can come up for either your presenters or attendees. Be prepared to address questions and troubleshoot issues to create a positive experience for all.
  8. Record all sessions and make them available on-demand. Why stop at a live event? Get more mileage out of your event and content by offering the recorded sessions to participants. You may also choose to offer recorded sessions in future promotions or marketing materials, giving you added benefit long after the event has concluded.

It’s unclear how long the pandemic will stifle in-person events, so for the near future, it’s wise to embrace virtual conferences to engage your audience and move forward. You might find the advantages compelling enough to use for future events as well! Virtual events or a hybrid of virtual and in-person may even become the new normal for future society and academic conferences.

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