This past year, several changes were made by businesses and industries to continue to grow with the pandemic. One major decision that the Accounts Recovery Industry has had to make is whether or not to continue to host tradeshows and conferences. Traditionally, these have been great networking opportunities that have provided a means for businesses to socialize with one another and learn from each other. With social distancing restrictions and a reduction of large group gatherings, a probable decision could have been to cancel all the shows altogether. Instead, the industry has innovated and reinvented conferences transforming them into virtual experiences. With conferences changing to a virtual platform, the question is often asked if the new format is just as good, better, or worse than before. Do they satisfy the demands of attendees and exhibitors? Are they worth the investment? We reached out to several ACA International Conference & Expo and insideARM Strategy & Tech Conference attendees to help answer this question. Both conferences were virtually hosted, and surprisingly, most of the feedback received was in favor of this new virtual format. Here are some of the takeaways we have gathered:
1. Greater Flexibility
The first piece of feedback we received about the conference was how appreciative the virtual flexibility is compared to onsite meetings. Virtual conference attendees can come and go as they please, making it possible to attend more sessions or address other matters that may arise without interrupting the class or the presenter. Traditionally, an attendee would have to figure out where they need to go, calculate how long their break is to ensure they were at their class on time. Once in the class, participants need to find a good seat to listen and see the presentation, figure out who they are going to sit by, and then remain there for the duration of the class.
Admission into a virtual conference may or may not be less expensive for an attendee or exhibitor than onsite meetings. As an exhibitor, we were surprised at how expensive the cost to exhibit still was for a virtual setup. Where we did see cost savings, however, was in travel and lodging. Traditionally, we’d have to purchase plane tickets and accommodation for each of our attendees and transportation for the attendee once they arrive in the city where the conference will be held – not to mention food and dining. As an exhibitor, we would also have to pay for the price of shipping and handling of our booth, equipment, electricity, and Wi-Fi at the conference. Other attendees found cost savings as well and agreed it was quite a bit less expensive than onsite conferences in the end.
Convenience was probably one of the most significant appreciations regarding the virtual conference setup. Attendees were able to experience smooth transitions between events. Part of this convenience was contributed to how well the virtual conference website was laid out – making it easy to navigate between sessions, resources, and the exhibit hall or lounge. Apart from costs, time was another convenience that attendees appreciated. The time it takes to travel, get registered, and situated were all non-issues with the virtual setup.
4. Readily Available Content
Attendees not only had the flexibility to come and go as they please, but the content of each session was made readily available afterward for folks who couldn’t see the full course, needed to view the meeting at a later time or wanted to review the class they just attended. The content was also made available for the attendees who weren’t able to attend, giving them the option to see every session with no overlap. As an exhibitor, our content was recorded and prepared well before the conference even started. Speaking and presenting was a non-worry as things were prepared ahead of time; we just monitored the class and answered questions, although we did miss the face-to-face interaction we get when socializing and meeting new people.
5. Digital Interaction
There were a variety of tools granted to participants for interacting and reaching out. Although we didn’t get the in-person experience we usually enjoy – there were plenty of options for virtual communications, including phone, email, and video conferencing. The most used form of communication was the chat system integrated into the set of virtual tools provided by the conference. Most of the conversation and interaction was made through chat, mostly answering questions and reaching out to acquaintances. As texting is a preferred way of communication for most people these days, the chat system felt right at home, and people were already accustomed to it.
“The conference website was laid out extremely well. It was easy to navigate around from the presentations to the exhibit hall or the lounge. Also, the chat function made it easy to interact with other participants.” (Jay Collins, Spring Oaks Capital)
The feedback we received from virtual conference attendees was mostly positive. The conference’s only real negative was not being able to converse with people face-to-face, but that seemed to be the only thing that was really missed. Apart from that, everything else was in favor of the virtual format. When we asked if attendees preferred onsite or virtual – half of them said onsite while the other half preferred virtual. With this being the first time for the industry to host a virtual conference, and the first time for many of the attendees to attend it, the experience ended up being much more positive than we expected, and perhaps not just a quick solution to get through COVID-19. After the virus passes, we wouldn’t be surprised if virtual conferences continue to be used in the future.
“I would prefer virtual conferences to onsite. The virtual option gives so much freedom, especially for someone like me, who has a very small department (L&D). I was able to work and attend simultaneously since I knew I would have the sessions on-demand afterward. There are two people in my department, and not having to find coverage for a three-day event, plus travel time was great!” (Kyle Matthews, BC Services)