in person  conference with a crowded audience watching a speaker on the stage
PHOTO: Samuel Pereira

Here we are, almost halfway through 2021. We’ve spent the past year getting used to a 'new-normal' and doing everything virtually. Virtual school, virtual meetings, virtual happy hours, virtual parties, virtual family reunions, virtual baby showers, virtual weddings and virtual conferences.

So … many … virtual conferences ....

Virtual has been a tremendous way to stay engaged and get our jobs done while keeping people safe. It has also opened a world of accessibility and inclusion that hadn't existed before. The technology advancements have been equally exciting. Case in point, my BFF Jeff Teper announced that Microsoft Teams has hit 145,000,000 daily active users! That is a LOT of virtual.

As critical as virtual has been to getting life done this past year, all this virtual does have its drawbacks and unforeseen costs, especially when we look at virtual conferences, including:

Loss of Connection

For me and many others, one of the most valuable aspects about attending conferences is the networking. The conversations had in halls between sessions. The introductions and sharing of experiences. Many business-deal relationships have been built over a drink that’s just not happening anymore. Even though there are ways to engage in a virtual event, fundamental human connection just cannot happen virtually.

Increase in Distractions

One of the great things about going to an event is that people expect you to be unavailable. They are less likely to call you or expect that immediate response to an email. When attending a virtual event, it is too easy to get distracted by an email, a phone call or that “hey I’ve got 15 minutes until the next session I’ll just work on this task.” We may be attending a lot of virtual events, but are we really engaged?

Virtual Burnout

There are just so many virtual events now. I mean, why not? They are so easy to do! However, many of these events show recorded sessions where interaction is non-existent. Or it is the same content you’ve seen 10 times now. Or you download all the session recordings planning to watch them later. Or you go from virtual conference to virtual meeting, to virtual happy hour and repeat ad nauseum.  We weren’t meant to live a virtual life. 

Related Article: Virtual Conferences Will Not Replace Face-to-Face Events

The Case for In-Person Events

Virtual did provide safety when we needed it. But it's time to consider having in-person events again.

At the time I wrote this blog, 234,639,414 doses of COVID vaccine had been administered in the U.S. (source: Covid World Vaccination Tracker - The New York Times) In most parts of the country, if you want a vaccine you can get a vaccine.

US map

It's also important to note that although some larger cities are still fairly locked down with active cases, many parts of the country no longer have mask mandates and active cases in some areas are minuscule to non-existent. In my entire county the 7-day active case average is three and the 7-day death average is zero (Arkansas coronavirus cases and deaths | USAFacts). In some parts of the country the risk is almost non-existent. There is reason to be hopeful … cautious, but hopeful.

In addition to the lowered overall risk, conference venues and hotels have adapted, going above and beyond to keep guests safe.

For example, the Branson, Mo. Hilton Hotel and Convention center has been safely hosting events since last May (including hosting my event, The North American Collaboration Summit, last September). We had about 75 people attend in person and it was a comfortable, safe experience. The venue took extra precautions including regular sanitizing of surfaces, seating attendees six feet apart and additional changes to food service to ensure adequate distancing. I am so proud to be able to say that we had zero reported infections come out of our event. It shows that with proper caution and due diligence you can do a safe event in-person.

Individuals can take steps to reduce risk further if they are considering attending an in-person event including:

Drive instead of fly

Avoid additional exposure to people by finding a conference that is in driving distance. Turn it into an epic road trip!

Be critical about which conference you attend

When looking for an in-person event, look for one that is being hosted by a venue that has policies in place to keep you safe. Ask them what their safety guidelines are. Also, be sure to attend an event where the event is hosted at a convention center attached to a hotel. This will help limit exposure to other people having to travel to and from the convention center and give you confidence that the safety guidelines are consistent for both the hotel and convention center.

Remember the lessons from the past year

We have been doing this for over a year now. Wash your hands. Keep your distance and respect other people’s boundaries.

Communicate!

Finally, if you do not feel safe, say something. If a room is too crowded, ask if you can be seated somewhere else. Trust me, if you kindly tell someone you are not super comfortable and would appreciate them giving you a little space most will happily oblige … and if they don’t, tell someone!

We can all do this if we all do our part to help everyone feel safe and comfortable.

Related Article: Shifting to a Virtual Events Strategy

The Best of Virtual and In-Person Worlds

Maybe no risk is acceptable for you to attend an event in-person. That is totally understandable. Or maybe no event is within driving distance for you. Maybe you are in a part of the country or world where travel is just not an option. 

Luckily, the future of events is forever changed — and in a good way. I believe the future for successful events is hybrid, where content is available in person and online. My event last year was a hybrid event. Hybrid events give those people desperate for human connection the opportunity to meet safely in-person, but it also improves the virtual attendee experience by making it:

More Accessible

The good thing about the world going virtual is we are now super equipped to go virtual even when it isn't critical … like with conferences. Why go back to an in-person only experience when we can easily use tools like Microsoft Teams to effectively stream these lives sessions to people all over the world?

More Interactive

A virtual conference with recorded sessions limits the ability of attendees to ask questions, engage with the speaker, and potentially go off on tangents where everyone learns something unexpected. However, because sessions at a hybrid event are streamed live, it means they aren’t recorded. This is fantastic for attendees because it gives the online attendees more opportunity to interact, ask questions and feel like they are really part of an event. This was a huge part of the success of our hybrid event last year.

More cost effective

Travel can be expensive: hotel, airfare, meals, parking all add up quickly. When you throw in registration for conferences that can sometimes top $2000 or more, it quickly becomes impossible for some people to attend. With hybrid events conference organizers can charge online attendees a fraction of the cost of an in-person attendees and make it possible for those on tight budgets to get access to the same world-class content.

Related Article: The Exciting Future of Events: Online, In Person, Hybrid

We Weren’t Meant to Live a Virtual Life

People need human interaction. They need the ability to dedicate time to a conference without interruption, to build their network and make new relationships. In many cases that in-person connection is needed for mental health as well. Thanks to the wonders of modern vaccines, the declining number of cases and the extra steps facilities are taking to keep us safe, it is time to consider an in-person event.

I understand some people are not ready to venture into the world for a myriad of reasons. Thanks to the technology advances in the past year, they don't have to. They can attend these same conferences remotely at home and even save some money doing so.

We are about to engage in a “new” new-normal, and that new normal is hybrid. With hybrid we get the benefits of both in-person events and online events. With hybrid, attendees get the engagement that is lacking in purely virtual events and the accessibility that is missing from in-person only events.

I believe hybrid is here to stay and I can’t wait to talk to you about it in-person … or online — whichever you are more comfortable with.