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ICAEW Virtually Live: Embracing digital conferencing

26 August: ICAEW’s flagship event for 2020 went virtual out of necessity, but its success highlights how delegates are embracing the flexibility and accessibility of digital conferences to fit in with their lives.

At the start of 2020 ICAEW had planned to combine its CFO and Practice Conferences, bringing together two elements of its membership to learn together and from each other. There were always plans to host some content online, but the impact of the coronavirus pandemic took this to a new level.

Instead of a two-day physical event, ICAEW embraced the opportunities offered by a virtual event to expand the programme to 45 sessions spread over three days. The majority were live video sessions, delivered over zoom, while there was also pre-recorded sessions and additional articles on the topics being discussed.

More than 1,250 delegates participated in the event, with hundreds attending individual sessions live. Five days later and with every session recording now accessible for all ICAEW members, ACA and CFAB students, as well as communities and faculties members, ICAEW Virtually Live is certainly not over.

Choices in content

Ahead of the event, Amanda Digne-Malcolm, ICAEW’s Director of Practice, confirmed that digitalising the event allowed ICAEW to provide more content in a tailored way, bringing delegates together in sessions where there are areas of common interest, but also focusing on practitioners and business members needs with their own sessions.

Feedback has been positive, with delegates from business and practice agreeing that there was something for everyone. “It was good to have choices especially between industry and practice webinars,” said one attendee.

“A useful free event which enabled flexibility on attendance, along with a broad range of topics designed to provoke thought. As an FCA not in practice, this helped facilitate a better use of my time and focus on relevant sessions,” said another.

Greater accessibility

The increased accessibility offered to delegates by a virtual event was another benefit on which the organisers were keen to capitalise. Iain Wright, ICAEW’s Director of Business and Industrial Strategy, said: “The virtual setting gives us huge scope for deeper engagement because people can commit to participating in the event without having to invest large amounts of time, and energy in actually travelling to the event.”

Feedback from delegates certainly supports this assessment. “I especially liked the ability to attend remotely. Dedicating two or three complete days to the conference is difficult. The ability to only attend sessions I wanted to, allowed greater flexibility,” said one business member.

Another delegate confirmed: “Due to work restrictions I would not have been able to make the three-day event, so to be able to have access to so much fantastic content has been brilliant. The accessibility of a virtual conference due to time, travel and money restrictions I hope is not forgotten.”

This inclusivity of a digital event, with access to recordings has been particularly valuable for members who could not travel to London, such as those based overseas. “For those of us who live (and are stuck by COVID) outside the UK it was great to be able to feel part of the ICAEW,” confirmed one delegate.

In fact, 30% of those visiting the Virtually Live website during the event came from outside the UK, with the greatest engagement from those in the US, India, Malaysia and Singapore.

Flexible participation

Putting aside distance to travel, the digital format also gives delegates the power to participate in an event in a way that suits them and that isn’t possible in traditional conferences.

Many of those who shared their thoughts on Virtually Live confirmed that they were taking advantage of the format to dip in and out of sessions. “The online platform also meant that you could get on with normal work in between watching the webinars of interest.”

Another delegate said: “Loved the online format and that some sessions were pre-recorded so we could watch at our leisure, while others were good live for Q&A. It’s good to be able to pick-and-mix from the comfort of our desks.”

The virtual conference format also means that delegates can watch all of the sessions on-demand after their live broadcast, matching their experience with other digital content providers. Delegates can now catch up with sessions they missed or rewatch a session that really interested them.

While virtual conferences were being run many years before COVID-19, the pandemic has ramped up expectations and trends. Speakers are more comfortable engaging onscreen after months of videocall interactions, while delegates are enjoying the empowerment of being able to engage in a way that suits them, unrestricted by location or commitments.

As lockdown continues, physical events will return, but this online, on-demand consumption of conference content is surely here to stay.