3 surprising advantages of virtual conferences

I recently visited the virtual MuC (Human and Computer, the largest German usability/UX conference), which was a 4-days long experience. Although I had attended countless short or mid-length events/conferences this year already, this was the first one that was going on for more than a day. It even had social events in the evening, a quiz and a dinner, so it was very much like an actual real-life conference - only at home.

While there were many expected differences, which we all have come to know during the times of lockdown, there are three things that surprised me positively about this kind of conference.

1) If session recordings are available, the conference schedule becomes more flexible.

The scientific part of the conference (as opposed to the practitioner track), was distributed via Youtube and you could ask questions via the live chat. But this also allowed participants to watch some conference sessions later! This way, it was possible to attend more sessions than usual and also it loosened up the restrictive nature of schedules. I used this option for parallel sessions and for filling gaps in my schedule, so this part of the conference suddenly had the characteristics of on-demand streaming. #conferenceandchill

2) It was possible to attend only "half a day" or take real breaks from the conference. 

When you travel to a conference you stay at a hotel and potentially need to travel to the conference site half an hour in the morning. Taking a real break of a few hours is actually a real hard thing to do. Firstly, you feel obligated (to yourself) to seize the opportunity comprehensively and secondly, what would be the alternative? Stay in the hotel and watch TV? Go sight seeing?

With this alternative form of a conference, it is actually possible to take a real break for half a day or even just 2 hours. These breaks were very relaxing and refreshing since I was at home and they gave me a lot of new energy for the other parts of the conference.

3) Networking was incredibly efficient, as it was timed and organised, which in real life would be much slower and harder.

The organisers were aware that there needed to be some kind of compensation for the normal networking opportunites, e.g. coffee breaks, lunch time or just sitting in the lobby. So they organised Meet-a-stranger sessions aka networking meets speed dating, which were purely made for the purposes of networking. They were amazing! In a Zoom call, participants were grouped with 2-3 others and had a couple of minutes to introduce themselves and talk. Then, new groups were mixed with 2-3 new people and so on. In a matter of one hour, I met 9 new persons!

If I compare this to a normal networking opportunity, I must say that usually I often meet less than 5 people in a matter of an hour (of which I know the names afterwards). Because in real life:

  • Joining a group isn't always easy if they are in a middle of a lively conversation, if they stand in a way that it would be hard to squeeze in etc.
  • Also leaving a group isn't easy in real life! If somebody else just left, it may just be you and one other person and it is a little awkward to leave. But even if it is a 5-person group with an ongoing discussion, you don't just want to sneak off or disrupt the discussion just to say goodbye.

Other advantages:

  • In real-life networking, you don't always get the chance to formally introduce each other. Very often you discreetly try to read a name tag (which can be hard as they are nowadays often attached to the trousers) or end up looking people up afterwards.
  • Finally, there sometimes is one person at the conference who you really wanted to meet. In real life, you need to recognise them from an old LinkedIn photo and then you need to chase after them after a session or need to scan the coffee area awkwardly to identify them. Online, you can write to them and then call them, which is quicker and much easier.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this virtual conference and I have to say, I wouldn't think twice about attending it again online while offline you have to more strongly consider the costs and time-commitment actual travel requires. One last advantage: I actually twisted my ankle the day before the conference started. Due to the virtual character, I was still able to attend the conference at home... and even to put ice on my foot. 

16.09.2020, picture by myself