Conferencing the Pandemic 1: Setting the Stage

Professional conferences have a new look, feel, and effect during a pandemic providing many learning lessons.

The global pandemic has disrupted many industries and professional conferences and the training, network development, and knowledge sharing that they offer is no exception.

For many professional organizations conference and continuing education training are at the centre of their business model. What happens when these events that are elaborately designed for in-person interactions go virtual? For those already accustomed to delivering online programming, how was this years’ events different or unique? What is it like attending a virtual conference and what did I get out of it?

These are some of the questions I asked as I approached ‘conference season‘ this year with an eye, ear, and laptop computer . All events took place in mid-late October 2020 and required different levels of commitment, time, and money to participate.

Over the next few posts I will go through the lessons learned as I conferenced the pandemic. Let’s start with the events themselves.

The Events

The four conferences I ‘attended’ were:

This sample represents a unique cross-section of events and organizational platforms. The conferences were also different in scope, size of audience, provenance, and purpose. All of the events were originally intended to have at least some kind of in-person component and went entirely online.

RSD9 is an event going into its 9th year (hence the name) and represents a relatively small (as in hundreds, not thousands of members), niche, but passionate and growing group of globally connected scholars and practitioners interested in the intersection of design and systems. It is organized and hosted by the Systemic Design Association. Previous conferences have been held in places such as Oslo, Toronto, Chicago, and Turin. The conference was hosted in India this year, yet for reasons of travel restrictions and limited in-person opportunities for people to gather, moved online to a format largely delivered over Zoom.

The American Evaluation Association (AEA) is the largest international body of professional evaluators and its conference regularly hosts thousands of attendees at live events that are usually held in large convention facilities in major (mostly) US cities. While it has a ‘niche’ in focus the membership is international and diverse and despite being based in the United States is truly a global institution. AEA conferences routinely attract 3000 – 5000 or more attendees over more than a week in one city including professional development conferences. The AEA has experience with virtual learning although the majority of its continuing education events are in-person (prior to 2020).

Distributed 2020 was a corporate promotional conference put on by the software platform Miro, which focuses on collaboration tools for remote work. It’s online platform (which I use) is aimed at supporting many of the creative, visualization, and communication goals associated with product and service design. Distributed 2020 was one part trade-show, one part sales demonstration, and one part seminar on issues for remote work. Held over four days, Distributed 2020 was a free event and provided daily summaries of activities, workshops, and lectures that required registration and sign-up in advance. While the event was designed to promote a product (Miro), it didn’t focus exclusively on this and tried to highlight issues in general with remote work and collaboration.

The Great Wave was put together by the House of Beautiful Business, a global, dispersed collective/think tank that is interested in a broad issue of making businesses more beautiful in how they run, what they do, and how they interact with their employees, customers, and markets. The Great Wave has previously been held in physical locations like Portugal, but for this event was held globally from studio base in Berlin. The Great Wave was as much a performance as it was a conference in that it blended together music, dance, visual art, video along with something more traditional like plenary discussions, panels, and presentations. Organizers created local ‘hubs’ that self-organized activities around the conference and generated what they called ‘ripples’ which were randomly assigned groups of individuals connected via WhatsApp to meet and discuss topics tied to the conference.

Cost of Entry

Organizing a conference is an expensive endeavor at the best of times. The challenge for organizations is how to make something worthwhile, learn as you go, and still deliver an event that won’t sink your organization’s budget. Three of the events had fees attached to them. RSD9 was made available for around $100 CAD / $75 USD, which was a substantial reduction in the usual fee. The AEA conference, which usually costs around $400 – $500 USD to attend was made available for $300 and included three months of access to all conference event recordings. The Great Wave was priced at 275 Euros while Distributed 2020 was free.

What was not included (i.e., saved) was the flights, hotels, and food that one might spend as well as the time. In some cases, that is part of the fun and the experience. For example, the AEA conference experience will set a North American back $2500 when all the flights, hotel, registration, and food costs are factored in. With two conferences in India and Europe, the costs for travel from North America would have easily matched or exceeded that for me. So while these aren’t free, they are substantially discounted from the original full cost of the event.

However, the question comes back to whether the cost is still worth it. Even a 50% discount in fees and no travel-related expenses isn’t worth it if a person can’t learn new things, connect with colleagues, and develop as a professional through the event. How did these do?

Price & Value: Lessons

So how did these events do? Without a detailed explanation of what happened (those are coming in a future post) I will say that in all cases the value was high. Factored into my assessment was not only the fees, but the time spent. Every one of these events surprised me in some way (sometimes good, sometimes not), but in each case I was able to derive some value for my time and money.

The manner in which the value was derived is what sets these apart from one another. For RSD9, the low cost made it worth joining simply because it provided access to a couple of talks and workshops that were inaccessible otherwise. For the AEA conference, the value was in having access to the conference proceedings for up to three months and see all the talks I wanted, not just the ones I could physically make (because so many conference sessions are held concurrently in the normal, face-to-face format). With the Great Wave, the value was in an experience that was unlike no other I’ve had either in-person or virtually and has, as of this writing, generated the most value of any of the conferences I’ve attended. Distributed 2020 impressed me by showing me content I liked and in a format that inspired me to think about how I might organize a conference.

What I didn’t get to the same extent was the breather space that a conference affords by taking you to a new city. Then again, it was the planet that gained the most value because I used nothing but bandwidth (which isn’t carbon-free, but far better than flights, hotels, and more).

So what was the experience of these like? That’s for my next post.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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