Thoughts on virtual conferences

In the last couple of weeks I’ve “attended” two conferences from the opposite side of the planet, in virtual mode. These were The Experts Conference (nice to see it back after Quest’s re-emergence from the Dell Years) and the European Identity and Cloud Conference. For what it’s worth, here are my reflections on the experience.

The Experts Conference

Quest’s TEC was a two day, fully virtual conference, in USA EST timezone, and free to attend. I attempted to join in live, despite the appalling time frame for me (11:30pm to 5:30am). I made it to 3:30am the first night, and then kept falling asleep the second night.

It was conducted entirely through MS Teams, and I thought the TEC organisers had come up with a good approach – each session was pre-recorded and run in one meeting in presentation mode, with a second open meeting immediately following for Q&A. It meant we had both a session that ran exactly to time, and also some interactivity, where you could ask questions to the speaker, as well as seeing and responding to other people’s comments.

European Cloud Identity Summit

Kuppinger-Cole’s EIC ran over four days in a hybrid mode with both on-site and remote presenters and attendees. It was held in Germany and, in my time, started at 10pm the first day, and 5pm on the other days. It was hosted through a dedicated website and app and my virtual ticket cost about 10% of an in-person ticket.

The EIC interface was pretty fancy, so much so that we were instructed to watch a how-to video before the conference. Much effort had been put into trying to virtually recreate conference experiences such as the exhibition hall, and mingling during breaks. It all looked impressive but I was not remotely tempted to try any of it out – I’m not interested in watching vendor ads, or trying awkward meetups in virtual bubbles in the middle of my night. I wonder how many of the virtual attendees used these facilities, unless perhaps to say hi to someone they already knew.

The sessions were watched through live streams and it was a long time (well over 24 hours) before the recordings became available. This was frustrating as I was experiencing some glitching and skipping in the live stream, and even without that, I was planning on watching most of the sessions in my morning. By the time I was able to watch the first day’s recordings the conference was pretty much over.

Why I go to conferences

Like everyone I haven’t been to a conference in a long time, actually years. I used to go to TEC every year, and would speak at my regional TechEds or TechDays. I’ve been to Identiverse once and had planned to go again in 2020. I’m not a fan of the travel, or the jetlag, but it’s always worth it for learning from experts and peers, meeting up with old friends, late nights in the bar (the jetlag being quite helpful there). It works because it’s an immersive experience – everyone is there for the same reason, we’re away from distractions of work and home, and can have a good laugh with people who get the weirdness of our particular profession.

How much, if any, of this experience is available to a virtual attendee?

Bored and distracted

Here’s something I’d like presenters to think about – it’s harder to keep people interested when they’re not trapped in the room with you and it would be rude to get up and leave. Add to that the fact they are watching from work or home (or, for many of us these days, both simultaneously).

Conference sessions are always a mixed bag, but anything that is boring, poorly prepared, robotically read out, straight-out wrongly pitched for this conference, or (worst of all) does not seem to be in any way about what the title and synopsis indicated, is that much worse when consumed through a recording or a glitching live stream. Click. Away.

Will someone please think of the timezones??

A big appeal to conference organisers for going virtual or hybrid must surely be the international reach, and it’s also appealing to those of us who are a very long way away from Nth America or Europe, and have no way of getting there right now anyway. BUT with an international audience comes international timezones, and I didn’t see any consideration of that from either conference.

Something really simple: don’t wish your virtual attendees “good morning”, or suggest it’s time for them to get a coffee. On a more practical level, I would have appreciated being able to view the agenda in my own timezone – that shouldn’t be too hard, surely?

What I really want however is a second run, 12 hours later, of all keynotes and selected sessions. I’m not saying a live run, a recording is fine, but at a scheduled time and with a live chat for those of us who needed to be sleeping at 4am when session actually happened. With vendor presentations they could probably even organise for a regional rep to jump on the chat during the re-run. Would that be so hard? Those of us who are timezone-challenged could still feel like we were part of the conference, get some interaction with each other, and a vendor might even make a new connection.

So would I do it again?

If it were an exact repeat of the experiences I’ve just had, the answer would be no. However, I’m pretty sure that the virtual or hybrid conference is here to stay and this was a first run for both of these particular conferences, and the fact they went ahead at all is much appreciated. I’m sure changes will be made and I’ll consider again based on that.

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