The future of conferences is virtual

This year was the first year I’ve been able to attend the CIPD Festival of Work. I’ve come away with pages of notes and my head is buzzing with ideas, but it’s not just from the speakers. The overall feel of the conference was fantastic. Such an amazing achievement in such a short space of time by people locked down in their own homes!! I’ve come away feeling this has to be the future of conferences. 

Amazingly, despite sitting on my sofa in my PJs, I felt I was at a conference. I felt like I was there with other people. I couldn’t see the numbers of people, nor engage directly with those people, but yet I still felt part of something big.

The CIPD described the conference as a virtual festival – I’d like to say there was nothing virtual about this conference – it was very real, so I’ve used remote in this blog. 

I’ve come away with pages of notes, feeling inspired and energised. All without leaving my sofa (oh, except for when I jumped on to our exercise bike during one of the sessions).

Given we’re in a lockdown and despite the fact that we’re homeschooling four children, I was able to plan homeschool around sessions and still join the family for meals. I’d have never been able to do this if I had to travel to the conference. Even better, my 9 year old son joined me for the closing keynote on Thursday, making some excellent notes and then we had a great discussion about the work I do afterwards.

I’d have certainly not been able to attend a conference like this for all three days without it having a significant impact on the family. Perhaps that isn’t so bad for just three days once a year, but when we add that on top of all the other impacts and throw in a bit of mum guilt, a remote conference is a brilliant option for me. Even once the children are back at school and wrap-around care providers have reopened, a conference delivered in this way still has the benefits of not requiring me to travel in order to attend.

I had a front row seat, great for a short person, with personal control over the volume level. I didn’t have to annoy a whole row of people when I needed the loo! I was also able to surround myself with notebooks for writing down all the thoughts racing into my head. As someone whose mind goes off in all sorts of directions when listening to inspiring speakers, being able to organise my thoughts as I go along is a huge plus for ensuring I take away the maximum benefit. 

Knowing I can go back to recordings later is also a huge plus, despite wanting to watch live. I blocked my diary as if I was attending in person. I know that if I have the attitude “I’ll watch when I can fit it in” then I never will. So in the main, watching live was my priority. However, it’s a huge plus that when I want to attend two sessions that run at the same time, I can come back to the other. I have put time in my diary for next week to make sure those get watched.

I really hope we’ll be seeing more conferences delivered like this. The experience was amazing.

Reflecting today on the last three days, I asked myself the question “Would I pay to attend such an event and if so, how much?”.

I pulled out the marketing brochure I’d received from the CIPD for the in-person event. I reflected on the prices and what those prices would have meant for a physically attended conference, compared to what I experienced with the remote conference. Firstly I noted that when I was considering attending the conference in-person, I was considering just one day. This would have meant I could only have heard either Caroline Criado-Perez or John Amaechi. However, both were such amazing speakers that it would have been a shame to have only heard from one. 

And this wouldn’t have been the only key choice to make. I would have been choosing one session from six options in the physical setting, whilst in the remote conference I was choosing one session from three. And even better, as I mentioned earlier, I can watch recordings of those I missed later on. There were certainly a few times where I really couldn’t decide. Suddenly the learning value has increased significantly with the move to a remote structure.

When paying for an event there are two sides to the story – the organiser’s cost of running the event and then the value I gain from attending it. Clearly with a remote conference I’ve already noted the increased learning value for me. The organiser’s cost of running the event is, I presume, reduced. There are therefore a few things I would personally like to see in future if I was paying to attend a remote conference (and I would value paying to attend).

I’d like to see saved venue costs enabling the payment of the speakers. I think this would make the learning opportunities even greater as it would raise the quality of speakers. This is not to say I thought the quality was poor as overall it was very good and some were brilliant. Given many of those speakers were, I imagine, working in this way for the first time then they did amazingly well. And, despite a couple of minor technical hitches, for a first go I really can’t complain.

If these conferences are to be a thing of the future (and I very much hope they are) then investing in training on delivery to camera, framing a shot and using good quality microphones would give the sessions a lift. This type of delivery is very different to being on stage. There is no audience to bounce off and you can’t move around as much. Watching the conference I found myself reflecting on how these are the skills of the future. Public speaking skills now come in two forms. Just as many speakers would come to conference organisers with skills in speaking on stage, I expect in future those speakers will come with on-camera presenting experience. Just as paying speakers can help with inclusivity, perhaps loaning the right equipment (camera and microphone) could also help to ensure the ability to speak is inclusive. Just as an organiser wouldn’t expect a speaker to turn up with their own sound kit and engineer, I don’t think organisers should assume speakers have this kit at home.

The graphics on entering the conference were fantastic. I felt the wow of walking into a conference hall when I logged in. Without doubt this helped pull the event together and make it “something”. Virtual backgrounds and graphics around sessions would have helped pull some of the sessions together. In particular having speakers’ names visible at all times. I noticed many had logged into Zoom with their first name only which meant only that first name got displayed in the bottom left corner. When I wanted to follow a speaker on social media in response to what they were saying then their full name on screen would have helped me, particularly where I had logged in a few minutes after the start of a session.

These are not things that detracted from a great conference. And, for their first attempt at structuring an event based on a mix of technology, the CIPD have without doubt set the standard! These are just things that could make a step up, one that would be more important if people are paying for attendance. 

There are two things I missed from not attending an in-person conference. I didn’t come home with a bag full of leaflets, water bottles, sweets and stress balls (okay, when you put it like that it doesn’t sound that great but we can all secretly admit that’s part of the fun!). I also didn’t get to speak to people. So, here, I have two suggestions to overcome this:

A festival of work pack – one that arrived through my door just before ticket sales closed. In my pack (a lovely branded box) would be a conference programme, marketing material from sponsors and stand holders, sweets and a festival of work mug. Why? This is about creating and enhancing the wow! Building excitement and feeling part of something. By receiving it a little before ticket sales close you’ll have those of us that like sharing things on social media taking photos of our impressive box and speaking of our excitement of the event, which should all help with promotion and perhaps even a few more last minute ticket sales. And then I wouldn’t be able to help but share my Festival of Work Mug full of tea as I sit down for the first keynote. Clearly I didn’t expect such a box this year. I was already wowed, but if I was paying for the event in the future then this type of little customer cuddle would go a long way. 

Finally, in person networking is much more challenging for such an event. And of course many of the benefits mentioned above about a remote event relate to us not having to travel. So I wonder if there is a middle ground, a way to get the CIPD branches involved? And, of course, I’m talking about a world where social distancing isn’t required. Could a branch in-person networking event be scheduled into the conference somehow? The alternative, perhaps working alongside, would be chat room features allowing remote networking either typing or on camera. I wonder if a tool like Remo could be incorporated as it works very well for networking. This suggestion isn’t quite as formed as the one above but perhaps an idea worth considering.

I can’t stress enough what an amazing event the conference was. My thanks go out to the CIPD and everyone involved for being brave and trying something new. I hope this is something that can go from strength to strength!

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