If your association is serious about inclusion and diversity, make sure you know what ‘going back to normal’ really means. Many groups of people have been historically excluded from in-person conferences but finally got a chance to participate in virtual programs during the pandemic. Now, in the rush back to in-person conferences, they’re getting left behind again. This exclusion may not be intentional, but to them, the decision to forgo virtual feels like it is.
Why virtual conferences are a path to inclusion and diversity
On the Reboot IT podcast hosted by Dave Coriale, president of DelCor Technology Solutions, Reggie Henry, ASAE’s chief information and performance excellence officer, talked about the ASAE TEC conference, which offers virtual sessions on four afternoons followed by a full-day in-person program the following week. ASAE is committed to virtual after the success of the virtual 2020 ASAE Annual. Granted, registration was free, but attendance went from around 5,000 in-person attendees in 2019 to 15,000 virtual attendees in 2020.
Digging into the event data, Reggie learned 71% were first-time attendees. The ratio of buyers to sellers was 95:1. Attendees skewed younger, more rural than urban, and more ethnically diverse. Virtual allows younger folks, the future of the profession, to be somewhere they couldn’t have been to before.
ASAE wasn’t the only association that attracted a new audience to their virtual conferences. Researchers have compared virtual to in-person scientific conferences in a few studies. For virtual conferences:
• More international attendees participated.
• Attendance by students and postdoctoral researchers increased by as much as 344%.
• Female participation increased as much as 253%.
• Attendance increased by as much as 700% for ‘gender queer’ scientists.
How in-person conferences exclude people
Costs to attend. Many people can’t afford the expenses of in-person events: registration, air and ground travel, hotel, meals, and social outings.
Time off to attend. Early career professionals are not likely to get paid time off to travel to and attend conferences. Other groups can’t take time away from personal and professional responsibilities.
International travel. Attendees from other countries are often hampered by global politics, travel expenses, visa policies, and currency fluctuations.
Many people are excluded from association participation when virtual is not an option.
• Students, early-career professionals, unemployed professionals, and professionals whose employers do not support their professional development
• Employees and owners of small businesses, self-employed professionals, and other people with heavy workloads
• People from other countries
• Parents and caregivers, typically women
• People who have experienced harassment or microaggressions at previous in-person events
• People who need prayer rooms during the day
• People with disabilities or compromised immune systems
• People with social anxiety or mental health issues
These people miss the opportunity to:
• Learn and grow professionally
• Increase industry visibility
• Keep up with news and trends
• Share knowledge, challenges, successes, ideas, stories, and research
• Connect with existing and prospective friends, acquaintances, colleagues, mentors/mentees, employers and employees, clients and leads
• Develop and expand their professional network
• Get inspired
“We can’t continue to make attendance at these in-person meetings the price of admission to a successful career in science, when it’s clear that the price is too high for so many,” said Catherine Scott, postdoctoral fellow at McGill University.
Admittedly, virtual has its challenges
In 2020 and 2021, many associations offering virtual conferences simply replicated their in-person events. Association and event professionals have learned much about virtual experiences since then. In the process, we’ve also discovered shortcomings of the traditional in-person model.
The multitasking temptation is real. Not having traveled far from the office, virtual attendees don’t have that same “away from it all” feeling.
The biggest complaint about virtual conferences is the lack of conversation and networking opportunities. Text-based chat boxes aren’t enough.
Virtual will never be the same as in-person, but it can be better than it is now.
How to improve the virtual conference experience
Review the purpose of your conference from the perspectives of existing and prospective attendees, not yours. How can you best support attendees in achieving those purposes?
Program design. We’ve seen a move away from all-day events to shorter sessions spread throughout the week or over a few weeks.
As associations experiment with virtual content formats, we’re seeing a few trends that help hold the attendee’s attention and give them opportunities to connect with others:
• More emphasis on interactive sessions and the use of breakout rooms.
• More microlearning—content bites and snacks, not meals.
• More blended learning: attendees watch pre-event videos to discuss during the event itself—passive work at home, interactive work at the virtual event.
• Extended networking time on the platform before and after each session for attendees and/or speakers who want to hang out longer.
Pre-event experience. Many virtual conferences ramp up excitement—and multiply networking opportunities—by hosting pre-event networking sessions. Segment these sessions by position type, career level, geographic area, or discussion topic.
Networking. Many associations schedule virtual lounges—breakout rooms—hosted by sponsors for different attendee segments and group discussions. Beyond breakout rooms, some associations use Slack as their conference watercooler channel. You can also find apps for attendees to use for impromptu one-on-one or group video meetings or to move between virtual networking tables.
Virtual daycare. Parents never know if they’ll be able to stick with a session if their kids are home. Some event organizers offer children’s entertainment and games to keep kids occupied on another screen while their parents attend sessions and other events.
Virtual education options. Virtual conferences aren’t the only educational and networking format that can attract a diverse audience. Online courses of varying lengths, as long as they have a strong interactive component, are also appealing. For example, offer a master class series with on-demand content that prepares attendees for the live class and an ongoing asynchronous discussion in the class’s online forum.
Other programs don’t require a heavy commitment of an attendee’s time, such as weekly or biweekly talks organized around the same topic or theme, interspersed with small group discussions and networking.
Most likely, the virtual audience you are not serving is larger than the audience you are serving with in-person conferences. If you truly want to live up to your commitment to DEI, extend the conference experience to a much larger virtual audience.