Events and conferences were shelved, postponed or hastily made virtual in the wake of the pandemic. However, welcome progress is now being made towards a more diverse, responsive and accessible digital event landscape.
The Chemistry World team celebrated, if that is the word, our one-year anniversary of working remotely on 15 March 2021. A year of being away from the office, 12 months of Zoom and Teams, 52 weeks of working on kitchen tables or in makeshift offices, 365 days of home and workplace being one and the same. Zero hours in conference halls.
The disruption to conferences caused by the pandemic has been significant. Many organisers faced the tough choice of quickly flipping from physical to virtual or, as happened most of the time, cancelling or postponing conferences until the return of more clement times. Irrespective of the emergency measures taken, all event organisers realised that change was needed.
it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to prompt this change of thinking
We’re seeing those changes everywhere of course – anyone submitting abstracts for conferences both large and small will have seen evidence of either hybridisation (the complementing of physical with virtual) or a purely virtual approach. It’s a sign of the times but it should ever have been thus.
While the disruption caused by the coronavirus was the motivator in almost all cases for this transformation, it was long-heralded and necessary. While I have every sympathy for organisers who have seen the bottom fall out of their business, it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to prompt this change of thinking – not only for convenors but also in delegates and the organisations that place value in conference attendance – talks, posters, panels, dealmaking, networking.
events held at single points in time in a single place are intrinsically exclusionary
Putting aside the financial, time and environmental costs of conference attendance, particularly internationally, events held at single points in time in a single place are intrinsically exclusionary. Maybe you can’t afford it, maybe your family life prevents it, maybe you don’t do well in intense, super-scaled social settings. That’s not to say that virtual attendance is entirely without restrictions, but it lessens or mitigates many of the problems with access outlined above.
The often cited drawback with virtual conferences is the difficulty in networking. Spontaneous, accidental meetings are challenging to create digitally. It’s hard to overhear a conversation if you require a Zoom link and password to get within earshot, or to make and observe small social gestures that lead to introductions, and potentially collaborations and friendships. But for anyone who has a meaningful dialogue or relationship with someone on Twitter whom they’ve never met in person, this doesn’t seem insurmountable. There’s a host of new platforms and technologies that cater for the social side of conferences – and many existing ones, too.
the digital event goes far beyond a presentation on some past achievement with time for questions at the end
The more interesting story is the shift from events being point-in-time activities to becoming stiches-in-time within the fabric of our professional lives. The seamless integration of event experiences into the products and platforms we use everyday is about more than just forums and file sharing. The digital event goes far beyond a presentation on some past achievement with time for questions at the end. Collaboration tools allow networks to form, grow, splinter and disperse whenever and wherever they are needed, rather than for a few days in an airport hotel next month. We shouldn’t need a pandemic to drive this change.
And therein lies the rub. Because what most people crave now more than ever is not matchmaking via machine learning, or hyper-personalised event programming. It’s bumping through busy corridors bristling with poster tubes, having a drink with old friends and exchanging withering looks when someone has ‘more of an observation than a question’ in an overrunning panel session. I won’t be surprised if conference halls, like pubs, are busy when restrictions are lifted.
In our rush to return to the free buffet at the welcome reception, let’s not forget that digital diversifies participation, increases access and provides a powerful set of tools to make events greater than the sum of their three-day programme. Besides, virtual attendees bring their own food.
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