Regulations surrounding COVID-19 have left conference conveners with essentially three options: cancel, reschedule, or go online. Now that the first wave of these online conferences has occurred, some organizers have begun to share their strategies, lessons learned, and best practices, such as those from ICLR2020 (April 27-30), CHI Nordic (April 27-28), and Photonics Online Meetup (held January 13, 2020, prior to the declaration of pandemic; however, in their post-event review, the organizers note the applicability of their experience to mid-pandemic online conferences).
Champions of online conferences point to the increased accessibility of these events: online conferences lower the barrier to entry by eliminating the burden and cost of travel. However, increasing the pool of potential attendees also increases the likelihood that the audience will be participating across multiple time zones.
One of the major challenges of moving any conference online is how to retain the crucial networking and contact-building component, without which the event becomes more akin to a webinar. Additionally, all organizers noted another impact of the lack of physical presence: it is harder for presenters to perceive the audience’s reception of the talk, and audience members may feel less inclined to participate.
All three conferences combined a variety of tools to build the events.
Both conferences that used Zoom experienced “Zoom-bombing,” with CHI Nordic in particular detailing the challenges these disruptions posed.
A number of virtual event platforms are positioning themselves as all-in-one solutions that make transitioning to online conferences easy and that include native or integrated webinar capabilities, registration processes, exhibitor/sponsor spaces, and networking environments. Their success will depend on presenting a compelling argument for their ability to:Offer innovative ways to replicate the social connections and networking that conferences rely on and that webinars lack.
Some virtual event platforms, such as vFairs, can represent a client’s online event as a 3D environment that replicates familiar sights, such as a convention center lobby populated by static or moving people. Users can click on auditoriums, information booths, or exhibitor hall booths to navigate the virtual space of their online conference. Does mimicking the appearance of an in-person conference add value to an online conference?
How can online event organizers recreate the networking and social components that make up an essential part of the in-person conference experience? This is one of the central challenges faced by organizers looking to move their events from onsite to online.