WITH COVID-19 making social distancing a must, face-to-face annual industry conferences around the world have been canceled—and many have been quickly reinvented to bring together large groups of attendees in virtual settings. That includes AACSB International’s International Conference and Annual Meeting (ICAM20). Originally scheduled to be held in Denver, Colorado, ICAM20 will be delivered fully online for the first time in the event’s history.
From April 26 to April 28, attendees from around the world will come together in an online format to network, hear keynote speakers, and attend topic discussions. To convert the event, AACSB has partnered with Hopin, a London-based virtual events platform that launched two years ago.
It will be the first time that many people will attend an event of this size from a distance. So, we asked Franz Schrepf, special projects manager for Hopin, to offer his advice on how all participants can get the most from the experience. First and foremost, he says, attendees need to be sure they have a good microphone, good lighting, and a strong internet connection. That way, they can always be prepared to go live with other participants. “That’s where all the magic happens,” Schrepf says. “Sitting on the sidelines is far less engaging than participating in the action.”
But the right tech is only one factor that will ensure a good experience. Schrepf goes into more detail below about what attendees, sponsors, and organizers should expect—and how they might get the most from these events.
What challenges of virtual conference participation should be people be aware of?
They should know that the biggest difference between a virtual conference and a physical conference is its separation from their everyday lives and tasks. When you travel to a conference to participate, you have dedicated your time to two or three days of conference activity. You might try to squeeze work in, but that’s significantly more difficult when you’re participating in a virtual conference.
In a virtual conference, your emails are just one click away, which means that the event organizer needs to make sure that the content is far more engaging, far more interactive, and far more collaborative than the content of a physical conference.
What kinds of interactions are possible online that might not be possible face-to-face?
One example is a networking feature we have on our platform called “chat roulette.” With this feature, participants who click on “Ready” are put into a call. The organizer can set up a time limit to each interaction—say, five minutes. Then, you can have a five-minute conversation with someone you might not normally engage with at a conference, somebody who on paper might not be an ideal potential partner, but who might seem otherwise after a brief chat. After five minutes, you move on to the next person.
At a physical event, you might meet three people and then hang around those same three people for the rest of the conference. At a virtual event, you have the opportunity to meet many more people. It’s easier to follow up with them afterward as well, because you’ll have a list of all the people you shared contact information with.
That sounds like speed dating!
It can be like speed dating, but some organizers also use this tool for different exercises. For example, they can hold a group session where they discuss what the exercise will be, and then pair people up to work on the exercise for 20 minutes.
A breakout session on the Hopin platform.
How many people can your platform accommodate at one time?
The platform supports one-to-one interactions for networking, one-to-many interactions such as keynote speeches, and many-to-many areas where people can interact in groups in breakout sessions and roundtable discussions. The platform also has a stage that can accommodate up to five people on a panel, and their discussion can be livestreamed to up to 100,000 people in the audience.
We’re trying to raise that limit to half a million participants toward the end of the year. Because of coronavirus, everything from the meetings of multinational corporations to Pride events and massive musical festivals are trying to move online. These types of events exceed the 100,000 participants limit that we’ve set so far.
What kind of interaction cannot be replicated in a virtual format?
One of the biggest challenges we’re working on is replicating the after-conference beer—those unstructured meetups after an event when people go out for drinks. That interaction is difficult to recreate, because after the conference attendees have emails to work on or they switch off to be with their families. That’s why we recommend that any networking be scheduled at the beginning or toward the middle of the event.
On the other hand, while people can leave a virtual event more easily, they also can return more easily. People can add each session they’re interested in to their calendars, and then come back any time there’s something they want to hear.
ONE OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES WE'RE WORKING ON IS REPLICATING THE AFTER-CONFERENCE BEER.
How can exhibitors make the most of this technology?
It’s important for sponsors to have materials ready that work well online. For example, they should each have a video, because we have found that videos are more effective online than just a graphic or text. Sponsors also should think about what possible virtual goody they can offer to participants, whether it’s a free e-book or discount.
How has COVID-19 affected your business?
The Hopin platform already was at a stage where we were comfortable rolling it out. After the pandemic hit, we began getting requests from organizers, so that our wait list was more or less doubling every other week. We have had an intense number of inbound requests through our sign-up lists, email, and LinkedIn, as people everywhere are trying to move online. We’ve been hiring people every week so we can scale up our support system and follow up with people as quickly as possible.
What does today’s technology make possible that might not have been possible until recently?
A few years ago, events platforms were trying to support virtual events, but were often based on chat rooms or avatar images. The capacity to livestream to large audiences was simply not there. But today, livestreaming has become a lot faster, cheaper, and more accessible. That’s partially because of the rollout of 4G and soon 5G. We’re seeing speeds that a couple of years ago would have been unimaginable.
What are the biggest benefits of attending a virtual conference?
It’s exciting that you can quickly swap contact details with others, so that those details are then stored in your profile. That means no more messy business cards flying around.
Another thing I’m personally very excited about is that it’s also more environmentally friendly. We’re now seeing a lot of organizations doing annual conferences with us because of corona, but they might keep using our platform after corona as well. They’ll be able to reduce their costs and their carbon footprints because they don’t have to fly their teams around the world for one-day meetings.
The coronavirus pandemic is a dramatic situation, but there is an opportunity to restart everything we thought we knew around working from home and engaging participants remotely. Before, people felt like they had to be “there” to be part of a meeting or event, but many might discover they actually can do well without being in the middle of it—without being there in person.
How can people raise their comfort level with virtual conference participation?
I think the most important thing is to take everything with a bit of a grain of salt and also some humor. This experience will be new to most of the participants, which means that everyone is exploring the platform together. It’s just about getting used to it, trying all the functionality, and finding out what’s possible.