Six Takeaways from a Virtual Conference Weekend

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Three days. Two virtual conferences. One head spinning with ideas.

That essentially sums up the recent weekend’s activities.

Imagine sitting in front of a laptop screen for three consecutive days attending online workshops, keynote presentations and education sessions. It was wall-to-wall education. By the end of three days, my head was throbbing with so many ideas, and my to-do list became as long as Merlin’s beard.

Virtual meetings have come a long way since the very first virtual set-up by AT&T in 1964. At that time, it was one closed-circuit TV screen connected to another in a different location. After the explosion of the Internet in the early 1990s, it was only a matter of time before the first virtual trade show was held in 1993. 

Then in the late 2000s, virtual conferences became more popular as the recession hit and companies looked for cost-effective ways to hold meetings for large groups of people. Today’s platforms are more sophisticated, allowing people from all over the world to gather in one virtual meeting place to listen to keynote speeches, attend online networking events, and meet one-on-one with clients or entire teams. There are more software and platforms available for online meetings than ever before.

AS the pandemic hit this spring, even more companies jumped on board, converting their in-person trade shows to the online platform, including Spring Fling 2020 which I had been looking forward to attending since the beginning of the year. Would the online presentation water down the conference experience? I answered that question this past weekend.

Below are my takeaways about my experiences with virtual conferences in general. In the near future, I’ll do more specific roundups of the individual conferences I attended hosted by Freelancers Union and Spring Fling 2020 (regional event of the Romance Writers of America).

Takeaway #1: The current pandemic crisis has made technology even more vital to our familial and collegial connections. Without technology tools and event platforms like Zoom, staying in touch with friends, family, colleagues and fellow volunteers would not be possible. Many platforms are fairly easy to use, even for novice users. Still both virtual conferences had their share of tech issues. Some speakers had difficulty staying connected to the platform while others experienced drop outs of sound and/or visuals. Some platforms work better with certain browsers over others. For example, the Accelevents conference worked better with Chrome than other browsers.

Takeaway #2: If you decide to attend a virtual conference, make goals for yourself about what you want to get out of it, just as you would if you were attending it in person. However, some feature may require more effort on your part. For example, if your goal is to meet at least three new people during the event, you might need to make the extra effort to attend the networking sessions since they occur in a separate hub, and most interactions aren’t likely to be by happenstance as they might be if you were there in person.

Takeaway #3: Pace yourself. There are as many sessions and workshops to attend during a virtual conference as there are at in-person events. It’s tempting to visit every one of them. If the experience becomes overwhelming, take a time out. Keep in mind your educational goals. That said, the nice thing about virtual events is you can jump from one session to another quickly without having to get up from your seat and move to another room.

Takeaway #4: Take good notes. There may not be handouts so make sure your notes are crystal clear. Since there are so many sessions, take time to review them a day or two later to refresh your memory. Even better, write one or two summaries of the sessions you attend and post them to a blog – just like I’ve done.

Takeaway #5: Chat rooms can be fun, but they can also be a distraction. It was fun to see the ongoing conversation going on in the chat room that ran alongside the presentation. Even the speakers would get involved in a side chat. It allowed for added interactivity that you might not get in an in-person event. The live chat also allowed participants to post questions, which speakers addressed at the end of the session. Still, it was tempting to get caught up in the commentary and lose track of what speakers were talking about. Other times, it was downright annoying, much like hearing people making snarky remarks about a movie that’s showing in a theater.

Takeaway #6: You can’t replace the energy of a live event. No matter how well planned the conference organizers make the event, it still feels like something is missing from the experience. In-person events seem to have a stronger collaborative energy. You can’t help but start conversations with people around you while you’re waiting for a session to start. You don’t get that with online events – or at least I didn’t. Sure, there is an ongoing chat during the sessions, but it’s more about commenting on what the speaker is presenting. Not sure if any of those chats led to a meaningful connection with a fellow attendee, however.

By the way, if you’re interested in participating in a virtual conference, check out WordPress.com’s Growth Summit event August 11-12, 2020 in the U.S. (No, I do not work for WordPress, but thought it was an interesting and timely item to share considering my topic today.)
 
Bottom line: You get out of a virtual conference what you put into it. I’ve always been interested in the education sessions rather than networking, so that’s where I put most of my effort. But if your goal is expanding your network, there are plenty of people to connect with at these virtual conferences.

With the end of COVID-19 nowhere in sight, virtual conferences will only get more commonplace. It will be interesting to see if they become a permanent fixture in the business world.

Have you ever attended a virtual conference? What was your experience like? Would you attend another one in the future?