There’s been a lot of discussion this week on the costs and benefits of attending conferences. Like many others, family priorities for limited vacation time as well as costs are the main reason I don’t go. And, like many others, I’ve found the sessions that some conferences have broadcast online have been both informative and enjoyable. In addition, I’ve attended several virtual conferences and have seen that it’s quite possible to do – and do well. One conference on publishing was able to incorporate multiple tracks of presentations with a delightful exhibitors “hall” full of vendors and even a lobby where attendees could connect with each other. Each area allowed two-way interaction – Q&A sessions at the end of each presentation, live chat and even Skype-style conversations and demos from vendors and social networking with other attendees. It was all managed by a virtual conferencing platform which I’m sure cost a pretty penny, but then putting on a brick-and-mortar conference is a huge expense too.
The presentations were basic webinars only with a slicker theme to add more style to the interface. Most of the screen displayed the presentation slides with the speaker shown as a picture-in-a-picture. Like most webinars, a text messaging box allowed interaction with the speaker/facilitator as well as the ability to send private messages to other attendees. Handouts could be downloaded right from the presentation. All presentations were recorded and attendees had a period of time after the conference to view them at their leisure.
I found the exhibit hall quite fascinating. You clicked on a vendor from the graphical directory and were taken right to their “booth”. The screen included a masthead, a sidebar with links to connect with people “manning” the booth, view demonstrations, request information or visit the company’s web site. The main area of the screen was used for product information or to present video demonstrations and such. As soon as you “arrived” at a vendor’s booth, they knew it was you and had some level of contact information pulled from your registration data. Although most vendors had personnel available for live text and voice chats, some only had a static presentation or video demo with email requests for more information. Some vendors even had hands-on demos of their software or platform.
The lobby was sort of a clunky kind of Facebook. There were scrolling conference announcements and the ability to search and connect with other attendees. I think it might have been more useful if I’d known anyone attending the conference. I did chat briefly with a couple of people, but I think it would have been much better experience if I had friends or co-workers attending.
While this conference was all bound up in a very slick, customized platform, components similar to those used to create it are readily available right now. Exhibitors’ booths and speakers’ halls could be built as sites in a multi-site version of WordPress. Add the BuddyPress plugin and there’s your lobby/lounge area. It will probably require a custom registration/login/presence component, but that shouldn’t be too difficult to build. The biggest cost would be the webinar platform. Platforms like Adobe Connect and GoToWebinar have multi-user or enterprise accounts that support multiple simultaneous presentations, but they don’t come cheap. Still, when you consider the costs of a facility and all the equipment involved for a brick-and-mortar conference, it’s probably a very competitive price.
Although you would not be able to experience hands-on interaction with hardware vendors and Thomas would have to create a virtual version of his genea-blogger beads, you wouldn’t be stuck without Internet access either. Tweets, texts and Skype video conference calls would be getting a workout. And, if you’re willing to lose a little sleep, you could even attend virtual conferences anywhere in the world.
The biggest question now is . . . who will break the ice?