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Online vs in-person events; virtually any different?

Author: Dominic Sheehy, Acting Academic Education Manager, ICAEW

Published: 28 Apr 2021

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With the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, events, conferences, and meetings around the world were moved online (IT issues aside!) overnight. Online video chat services such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts have become an integral part of day-to-day work, as the most viable solution in keeping people connected whilst working from home.

In the UK, we are now easing out of lockdown number two, and the ability to meet in groups looms on the horizon. But is going back to large scale in person conferences the right approach? What have we learned from running online events over the last 12 months and what does the future look like for how we approach stakeholder engagement?

I work in the Learning Team which sits within the Learning and Professional Development department at ICAEW, managing over 300 stakeholders in both higher and professional education. We rely heavily on conferences to engage with our partners and in early 2021 we ran two conferences using a combination of Zoom Webinars and Zoom Meetings: our annual Higher Education Conference and the annual Tutor Conference. The HE conference allows our university partners to debate issues within higher education and share teaching insights and research. The Tutor Conference consists of examiner led workshops on the Professional and Advanced Level modules of the ACA qualification. From our own personal experience, here are the main upsides and downsides to running virtual events…

Taking away the travel time for delegates means that your events can reach a much larger audience. Higher numbers can register, there is no maximum capacity on numbers hindered by room sizes, international contacts can join, and you can get a much more diverse range of guest speakers. There are no overheads for venue hire and you don’t have to dip into your budget to feed hungry attendees or supply them with copious amounts of coffee to keep them awake. Audience members can easily fit your events around their work schedules, attending sections of your events when they would have missed the event altogether. It is also easier to record workshops, allowing anyone that misses the event, to catch-up on the content. Sounds too good to be true?

We also found that with a year of virtual working, screen fatigue was a big issue. Making sure that all delegates got enough time away from the screen to rest their eyes and take a break was of high importance. It is much harder to engage your audience virtually, facial cues are harder to pick up on, many cameras are turned off, group work and discussions becomes more challenging and networking is less natural (without the usual pub setting). The reliance on technology means there is more chance for technical issues and delegates may not engage with most of the conference or simply wait until the recordings of each session is released.

What is the best approach going forward then? Perhaps a hybrid approach is the way to go, cherry-picking the most attractive qualities of each option and splicing them together to create the most impact. Over a two-day event, you could have a day of virtual presentations and keynote speakers and day two could consist of face-to-face workshops and networking. The best approach will always differ depending on audience, budget, aim etc. but with more people accessing events online, it offers a new way to connect with each other and make content more accessible. What do you think is the best approach and what would you like to see at your next ICAEW event?

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