Learning Continues Through Virtual Conferences

By John Egan July 26, 2021

​Virtual events filled the gap when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted cancellation of in-person seminars, conferences and other gatherings.

As employers adjust to the lifting of mask mandates, the persistence of travel restrictions, and the spike in COVID-19 cases in some parts of the U.S. and the world, trainers and professional development providers are still offering a mix of in-person, hybrid and virtual sessions.

However, as vaccination rates gradually go up, more in-person opportunities are popping up, too. At many in-person events, sanitation stations, social distancing and other health measures continue.

Meanwhile, a lot of companies are tweaking the formats of virtual events to help ensure attendees are engaged and enthused.

Virtual gatherings now incorporate more "snackable content," said Jessica Brown, senior director of strategy at event management company Opus Agency, with keynotes and sessions that are 30 minutes or less generating better attendance, and events featuring agendas lasting no more than three to five hours also producing positive results.

"Virtual events certainly have their place. During the pandemic, companies found interesting ways to connect with people and interact in ways they might not have been able to otherwise," Brown said.

Overall, the success of virtual events since the outset of the pandemic has been a "mixed bag," Brown noted. Some events are "short and sweet" and convenient, while others miss the mark because their agendas are too dense and networking opportunities are practically nonexistent, she said.

Kelby Zorgdrager, founder and CEO of DevelopIntelligence, a provider of training for software developers and other tech professionals, said some organizations now realize they can save money on travel expenses by signing up employees for virtual training rather than face-to-face training.

"Though many geographic locations now permit in-person gatherings, most of the employers we've spoken with plan to stay with virtual instruction after the pandemic," Zorgdrager said. "In addition to creating financial efficiencies, virtual training more easily accommodates the varied work arrangements that many employers now offer. With some employees onsite, others full-time remote and many in a hybrid arrangement, it's easier to schedule virtual training than in-person events."

Virtual instruction also lets employers steer clear of a patchwork of global health guidelines, uneven availability of COVID-19 vaccines and emergence of new COVID-19 variants, Zorgdrager said.

"In-person conferences entail moving around from room to room, so people aren't sitting still for hours on end," he said. "When designing a virtual learning program, delivering shorter segments is healthier than requiring participants to spend a full day in front of a computer screen."

Despite the advantages of virtual events, Katharine Mobley, global chief marketing officer at First Advantage, a provider of background checks, said she and her colleagues look forward to an expected surge in in-person events this fall.

A recent survey by Northstar Meetings Group showed that more meeting planners were booking new events (30 percent) than rescheduling events (18 percent) for the first time since March 2020. However, 13 percent of meeting planners indicated they still weren't plotting any in-person events. Also, 40 percent of planners were working on hybrid events in June, up from 36 percent in May and 21 percent in January.

"I think there's some uncertainty as to what the experiences will be like and how they will have changed from conferences past, but people are anxious to reconnect in person again," Mobley said.

John Egan is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.



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