In any other year, A2LA staff and assessors might have attended a dozen or more conferences, expos, and professional gatherings by now. These opportunities to network and share professional insight were a part of our industry presence that we never anticipated losing altogether, but as is the case with all aspects of modern life, COVID-19 has forced us to make some profound changes. Many of the conferences we usually attend have been cancelled altogether, but others have been reimagined as “virtual” conferences that seek to translate some of the in-person experience to a digital format through various types of video conferencing, virtual exhibit halls, and interactive presentations.
What does the transition from in-person to virtual gatherings mean for the long-term future of such professional gatherings? What are the advantages, disadvantages, opportunities, and limitations of the virtual conference? A2LA staff members have provided some input on their personal experiences as speakers and attendees at virtual conferences so far and identified some of the pros and cons of this new approach.
The 2020 conferences that A2LA staff have attended so far were the Cannabis Labs/Food Labs Virtual Conference, and the Analytical Cannabis Online Expo. Both were originally scheduled as in-person events and transitioned into digital events because of restrictions on travel and mass gatherings. Beyond the clear necessity of limiting the spread of coronavirus, virtual conferences do have appealing advantages. They dramatically reduce the cost, inconvenience, and lost time associated with traveling to a traditional conference. With virtual conferences, attendees can also continue to dedicate time to their typical job functions, focusing on the conference’s offerings only when they need to. Although this sounds ideal in theory, mileage varied with individual staff. “I was able to prioritize other things if I needed to during the conference, but I’d consider that both a pro and a con,” said Anna Williams, A2LA Accreditation Supervisor. “It was easy to get distracted if I needed to multitask, and I’d sometimes prioritize other work over listening to a particular session.”
Accreditation Officer Renee Delauter, however, pointed out that there are steps virtual conference hosts can take to mitigate this problem of focus. “One of the conferences that I attended had the recordings on display for 30 days after the conference. I could go back and listen to them if I missed something or if I had to take a call.” This is an excellent example of how virtual conferences can approach problems differently, rather than trying to directly mimic the way in-person conferences operate. Making video or audio recordings of sessions available afterward also eliminates the problem of sessions overlapping, which might otherwise force attendees to choose between two topics they might be interested in.
A2LA staff also hosted sessions at both conferences. Accreditation Officer Heather McLemore gave a talk on the steps to achieving accreditation and shared some insight on how the relationship between presenter and audience is different in the virtual space. “For my presentation I wasn’t able to see the attendees or gauge reactions, I didn’t know if the people listening were really engaged with the presentation. The Q&A session at the end was the best part because the moderator had their camera on.” This loss of face-to-face interaction was something that echoed across many of the comments we collected from A2LA staff. “I think the one clear disadvantage would be the limited networking opportunities. I think it is much easier and more personable to get leads in-person,” said Renee. Anna also remarked that she would have liked more opportunities to engage directly with the speakers who covered topics she was interested in.
While the organizations A2LA has worked with did a good job of conceptualizing and scheduling the virtual conference, there still seems to be a bit of a learning curve in operating virtual conferences smoothly. Both in-person and digital conferences can encounter technical issues, of course, but in-person conferences are common enough that organizers have the insight they need to plan for a wider range of problems. The virtual conference space is newer, and while the overall potential for technical problems is probably similar regardless of format, there is less industry experience with planning for and mitigating the problems unique to virtual conferences. “The agenda was solid but there were technical difficulties that adjusted the start and end times on two of the four days of the conference,” commented Anna. “This wasn’t the hosts’ fault, it seemed to be an issue with their third-party software but was still frustrating.”
The virtual conference concept is not entirely new, but some of the more complex logistical elements are clearly still seeing some growing pains, and people are still adjusting to the emotional disconnect that can come with decreased face-to-face contact. It will be interesting to see how our relationship to trade events and conferences continues to evolve in the coming months and years. We plan to continue attending virtual conferences in the near future and are excited to see what innovations emerge in this industry as time goes on.