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The hidden advantages of virtual conferences

4th August 2020 | Author: Dr Louise Hughes

There is a great deal of effort that goes into preparing and attending a conference, especially one as large as M&M2020. This week M&M is occurring in a virtual format, a result of the global pandemic that has changed how people work, travel, and communicate around the globe. There are many questions going around in people’s heads. Will this be the new normal? What are the advantages and disadvantages compared to the normal conference experience?

It is only day one, so we have yet to determine the outcomes from either a business or scientific perspective. There are clearly challenges in networking with peers and customers. Conferences are a great place to catch up with colleagues that you have not seen since the last event. There are also lots of opportunities to meet new people, to form or strengthen collaborations and engage in the informal chats that can prompt ideas and new, exciting avenues of research. How will this affect the interaction customers have with exhibitors? It could be positive, negative, or neutral. I have already been engaging with people via twitter and associated social media surrounding M&M and it may be that a different form of community engagement will replace the more familiar in-person discussions. There is certainly some evidence of that from smaller virtual meetings that I have attended recently, and I think flexibility is key here, but such significant change is a big challenge.

There are many positives from hosting this type of conference virtually. From a delegate perspective, this has been a very good experience so far. Recording presentations ahead of time means that I can ensure I keep to time and cover all the messages that I intended to say. It also avoids technical glitches that can sometimes occur while presenting, for example videos not working or displaying correctly due to differences in software versions. It also means that by the time the conference starts, I have already done the hard work of presenting in the scientific sessions and can enjoy everything the conference can offer, regardless of when my presentations are scheduled within the meeting.

Having an on-demand approach to platform sessions means that I can optimise time spent watching and attending the presentations that are important to me. I am enjoying not having to make the difficult choice about which presentation I want to watch when there are several interesting parallel sessions. I can watch them all! The live Q&A sections are important, and I am glad there remains a schedule in place for when I want to talk to session speakers.     

Travel can be challenging, there are cost implications and time away from family can also be difficult for some. Conferences such as M&M have excellent child-care options, but that many not be an option for people travelling long distance, especially when international travel and visa issues may come into play. The reduced cost of the conference and the lack of travel costs, which can add up to substantial amounts when hotels and international travel are accounted for, is also beneficial for staff, researchers and students that may not have access to departmental funding or grant money. I know that I missed out on several important conferences in the past because of this.

There is an additional advantage to virtual conferences that had not occurred to me ahead of time. I have a hidden disability and conference attendance usually comes at a physical cost, causing significant amounts of pain. Long distance travel is a challenge on its own. I must take extra time planning my trip. I need to make sure I have the correct medication with me, that the medication is legal in the country I am travelling to, and that I have contingency plans in place if I have a bad episode. This is compounded by problems sleeping in unfamiliar beds, difficulties in enduring long sessions in uncomfortable chairs (I have not ever been able to sit comfortably at a conference), travel between the conference venue and hotel, carrying my laptop and other things I need during the conference, and often a long time standing while attending exhibition booths and networking events. I knew I would not be facing some of these challenges, but I have been surprised, nevertheless. It occurred to me earlier, while I was happily watching some of the scientific presentations, that this was the first conference in my career that I have attended without significant pain and the first conference that wasn’t clouded with the associated anxiety that brings.        

We do not know whether we will be able to return to the more familiar conference set-up in the future, but even if we can, I think there are lessons we can learn and take forward. Virtual conferences provide opportunities for widening participation across many different areas. Could a hybrid format work in the future? Ultimately, science is about dissemination of data. Making it easier for a diverse range of people to participate broadens our ability to do this and that can only be for the better.

Did you join M&M? Have you been to other virtual conferences? How is the virtual environment working for you? Comment below with your own experiences.

Ask me a question Louise Hughes

Dr Louise Hughes

Life Science Product Manager


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