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Real Gains From Virtual Conferences

Attendance, Diversity & The Environment All Gain

Real Gains From Virtual Conferences

By John Salak –

Yet another reason to embrace working remotely. It appears that working at home has given rise to more virtual conferences than ever, which are not only making it easier for a greater number of individuals to participate, but it is also helping to protect the environment. 

The pandemic obviously brought in-person meetings to a halt in 2020, but even as restrictions eased through 2021, organizations of all kinds were reluctant to embrace in-person meetings. Some instead have moved to hybrid meetings, which allow for direct or digital attendance. It may also be the way of the future. 

The exact number of all-virtual or hybrid events is hard to come by. But half of the nonprofits, for example, expect to hold hybrid events in 2022, a 300 percent increase since 2020, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy 

A LinkedIn survey of event planners supported this notion. It reported that 75 percent of these planners believe virtual conferences are here to stay long after the pandemic loses their grip on businesses and organizations. Much like the nonprofit survey, many planners expect upwards of 50 percent of events will be all virtual or a hybrid going forward.

Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin think this trend has a lot going for it. A university study examined the environmental, social and economic costs of virtual conferences compared with in-person events. Its report revealed that the lower costs and time commitments associated with virtual conferences resulted in these gatherings drawing in a more diverse group of attendees.  These events also had a significantly lower carbon footprint than in-person conferences because they didn’t require thousands of people to fly from around the world to attend.  

“When we went virtual, it brought a lot more voices to the table that just weren’t able to be there for in-person events because of cost, time and other reasons,” said Kasey Faust, an assistant professor in the university’s Cockrell School of Engineering’s Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering. 

The Texas study noted, for example, that the in-person cost for scientists from Africa attending recent conferences was on average between 80 percent and 250 percent of their country’s annual per-person gross domestic product. In comparison, it amounted to just 3 percent for U.S. participants. 

Conferences with virtual elements have also encouraged more women to participate, especially since for many women event attendance often falls in life periods when they are having children, said Faust, who is a mother of two.  

As a result, participation by women in virtual conferences recently increased by over 250 percent compared to their attendance at in-person events. 

The impact on the environment was also staggering. The Texas team noted that just one in-person conference attendee had the same carbon footprint as 7,000 virtual participants.  

Despite the benefits of virtual events, there are elements to in-person conferences that are missed, which include a higher degree of engagement and in-person networking. The researchers noted that about 75 percent of attendees at one scientific conference and 96 percent at another reported preferring in-person networking. They also noted that virtual sessions felt inauthentic and contrived. 

These concerns combined with traditional expectations certainly are clearing the way for more in-person conferences to return. But the conference world may never return to its absolute pre-pandemic setup. Researchers, in fact, expect many events to create hybrid offerings, potentially at lower prices. 

“Tech companies are already doing this with their events,” said Manish Kumar, an associate professor in the university’s Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering. “Smart people will hybridize their events at least to some extent.” 




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