Six Takeaways from a Virtual Conference Weekend

Photo courtesy of Pexels.com

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?

Four Fun Activities to Break the Ice at Networking Events

Group of guys
Image courtesy of Hub Spot

Networking events can be tedious to attend, especially if you’re uncomfortable meeting new people. But they can be difficult to plan as well, particularly if the point of the event is to introduce participants to one another. It can be a challenge to come up with fun and innovative ways for participants to get acquainted.

In all the meetings and events I’ve attended over the years, a few have stood out for their sense of fun and creativity. That’s because the planners started off with an innovative ice breaker that set the tone for the evening.

Below are a few of those ice breakers. The next time you are faced with planning a networking event, experiment with one of these ideas. You can find other ideas by following the links at the bottom of this article.

1. The M&M Game 
As participants enter the room, invite them to grab a handful of M&Ms from a bowl. Once they are seated, have them set aside three individual candies of different colors, which will be used as part of their introduction. Before they introduce themselves, the leader will reveal a set of questions they must answer based on their three candy colors they chose. The questions can be personal or business-related. For example, a red M&M might mean: What do you hope to learn from this session? A green one might mean: What business are you in? You get the idea. This exercise puts a twist on the traditional introduction at the start of the session. Plus you get to eat the candies afterward.

2. Fill-in-the-Blank Index Card
Each participant is handed an index card with twelve boxes, each containing a clue. Using the clues as a guide, the participant’s task is to match a person with the clue. For example, the clue might be “has green eyes.” The task is to find someone else attending the event who has green eyes. That person will put their signatures on that square. Each participant must move around the room, getting signatures from other attendees that match the description on the card. For larger crowds, it might be helpful to have three or four different versions of the card. Other suggested clues: shoe color, hair color, traveled to Europe (or Asia or South America), has a dog, has a bird, plays tennis, reads comic books, practices yoga, has three or more kids, lives in a high-rise building, lives in the suburbs, drives a SUV, etc. Mix it up. The goal is to have the card completely signed by twelve different individuals. This exercise assures that everyone meets at least twelve people during the event. It’s a great way to build a network in a safe, fun environment. For more fun, offer a prize for the first person to complete their card before the program begins.

3. The “Who Am I?” Guessing Game
Especially fun for a more relaxed environment, such as a part or a picnic. As people arrive, put a piece of paper on their backs with the name of a celebrity or other famous personality. Since they won’t know who they are, their task is to figure it out by asking questions about their famous personality. But there are three rules: They can ask no more than twenty questions; the questions must be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’; the questions must be asked of twenty different people. For example, “Am I a female?”, and “Am I singer?” They keep asking questions until the answers add up to a complete picture of their character. Ideally, they will have met at least twenty individuals along the way. For more fun, you might consider offering a prize to the person who guesses who they are with the fewest clues.

4. Speed Networking
 Speed networking is just like speed dating, except you’re not looking for someone to date, but someone to do business with, offer your services to or hire for a position at your company. Mind you, I have never heard of or participated in a speed networking event, but hey, if it works for dating, why not for business networking?

Speed networking would work like this. When people arrive, they are divided into group A and group B, regardless of gender. Just like with speed dating, group A people will remain seated at each of the tables while group B switch seats as they move from one table to the next for each round of conversation. Allow a set period of time for conversation, say five minutes, before the bell sounds and the line moves on. Participants can always continue their conversations after the speed networking event. After two hours, imagine how many people you could add to your business network. Many of them may not fit your needs at that time, but keep their business cards. You never know when you might need to talk with them later. (Editor’s note: I’ve never participated in a speed networking event, though I’m sure there are events similar in nature.)

Networking doesn’t have to be all work and no play. With some ingenuity, you can help participants break the ice with each other and get your meetings off to a rollicking, productive start.

Related Articles:
20 Icebreakers to Make Your Next Meeting Fun
6 Icebreaker Games For Work That Your Team Will Love
The 10 Best Icebreaker Activities for Any Work Event