Virtual Conferences are a Bummer and I’m Done Pretending Otherwise
Eight months ago, our world was turned upside-down as a pandemic caused a major disruption in how nearly everything is done. Several weeks before large-scale events started getting canceled, my team and I were preparing to fly to Seattle for a sourcing conference and it would have been the first time for all of them.
I excitedly counted down the days because I remembered how life-changing my first conference was and I wanted the same experience for my team. As the date grew closer the situation quickly escalated as Covid-19 cases continued to rise in Seattle. I started to accept the fact that the conference would likely go virtual, and of course, it did.
I give conference organizers a lot of credit for everything they have done over the last year.
They had to pivot quickly for the safety of everyone involved, and they have navigated through a lot of uncharted territories. They have also put in countless hours above and beyond what they normally would to make the best out of a tragic situation.
One silver lining to all of this is that virtual conferences are more accessible to those that couldn’t previously attend due to the high cost of admission and travel. The first conference of 2020 that I attended virtually, I was hopeful and did my best to make the best of it.
I even organized some virtual happy hours to try and mimic the look and feel of the social part of the conferences. It might be the defensive pessimist in me, but it didn’t take long for my enthusiasm to dissipate. In the months following, I spoke at and attended countless conferences and each one seemed to gradually wear me down more and more.
As much as I wanted to ignore it, I had a sobering realization that virtual conferences will never be the same as in-person. Not even close. It’s undeniable that an on-site immersive experience offers benefits we took for granted before. There is something to be said for committing to take time away from your day to day work to recharge and reinvigorate your passion for sourcing.
At an in-person conference, I’m fully present during the sessions, and my sole purpose is to learn. If I’m traveling for an event, everyone at work knows I’m “away” and there’s a respect for it. When attending a virtual conference, it’s tough to justify not taking any meetings that week when all sessions are recorded anyway.
Sure, I always say I’m going to go back and watch any presentations I had to miss, but if I’m being truly honest, I never do.
Many of the most valuable skills I learned happened not during the scheduled sessions, but after hours in the hotel lobby over drinks while nerding out and sharing sourcing hacks with fellow attendees. During a virtual happy hour, it was nice to see old friends on screen. But there were glaring reminders that it wasn’t the same.
Because of the pandemic, many had important concerns that made them unable to attend, like helping their kids with school work. Understandably, socializing online with fellow attendees wasn’t a high priority, especially if they were first-timers and didn’t already know some of the long-time community members.
On top of missing everything we love about in-person events, we’re just burnt out. Attendees are burnt out from using zoom every day while working from home and then also attending full conferences online. There are so many events to choose from, it’s overwhelming.
We try to take advantage of the content from all of them, but we can’t do it all. The Speakers are exhausted. They are doing more presentations than ever before due to the increased accessibility from not having to travel, but at what cost?
As a speaker, I didn’t anticipate how much extra work it would be to create new and original content for several months straight, and most of it was strictly on a volunteer basis. I felt like I couldn’t say no when asked because I knew the conference organizers needed as much help as possible.
Ultimately, I ended up stretching myself thin and reached a breaking point. At times I’m left to wonder if my content that I dedicate countless hours to create will make the impact I intended, or if it gets lost in the shuffle because of everyone’s fatigue and divided attention.
I really believe that everyone is doing the best they can under some difficult circumstances, from the speakers, to the organizers, to the attendees. Can improvements be made to the virtual conference format?
I believe they can, but I think they will always have limitations. They won’t ever come close to being as impactful as in-person events. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with acknowledging that.
Covid-19 has taken a lot of things from all of us, whether it was a job, a canceled vacation, a postponed wedding, or most devastatingly, a loved one. What I think a lot of us don’t realize is that we’ve collectively experienced a lot of losses in the last year both major and minor.
Maybe it doesn’t occur to us that it is completely valid to grieve those things that meant a lot to us. I’m sad for the members of my sourcing team that have not been able to have the full experience of the wonderful community that has given me so much.
As for myself, I’m tired, I’m overwhelmed, and miss being reunited every few months with my chosen family.