The Pros and Cons of Virtual Conferences: Just My Opinions

Before taking any time with the rest of my SQL Saturday Chattanooga, Home Edition teammates to discuss what went right and wrong with our event (it felt mostly right, honestly as far as I could tell, but we won’t totally know until we get the feedback from attendees), I was thinking as I was enjoying the conference process that there were some things about the virtual event that actually were kind of better than the in-person event. Not everything, mind you, I definitely missed seeing everyone which as you will see will be the theme of all of the opinions in this list.

So I am just tossing things into this blog in an outline format with some notes to share from three viewpoints: Attendee, which I did for the SQL Saturday Richmond; Speaker, which I have done a few times both for user group meetings, SQL Saturday Richmond, and another event;  and Organizer which I have so far done with SQL Saturday Chattanooga and am doing with the PASS Summit to a much lesser extent, and maybe another conference.

As an Attendee

  • Pros
    • No travel. Could attend from a smart device, which means you could attend from ANYWHERE. ANYTIME. 
    • Choice. Can choose to go to just one session very economically, even if you were on the road and just stop off at a rest area and catch that session you wanted to see. Could even go to multiple conferences on the same day if they existed.
    • Cost. Can do this all the time, because almost zero expense.
    • Better than purely recordings. While it will also be a con, at least having the ability to ask a few questions with the speakers is awesome. I personally am not a big fan of watching the recordings of many sessions, unless it is something I specifically NEED to know about to solve a problem. In live sessions, I tend to spend time trying to learn new things, because if I get confused, I can ask (often after the session, in the hallway (which was a bit of a con for the virtual conferences so far)  and the speaker can answer or say “go read this”).
    • Video quality over in-person. My home screens is always better than what I can get in most of the free venues (and some of the paid ones.) There is no dependency on some venue screens, lighting, or someone wearing a big had. (One time I presented on a TV smaller than my home TV, from much farther back. I am not complaining, as the conference location was free, but it was interesting!).
    • Ability to do things like closed captioning. Our keynote speaker turned on closed captioning in Powerpoint, something I did not know existed until it was too late to ask people to do. It seems to me that features like this, plus likely improvements in real-time translation could make virtual (or at least, virtual/in-person simultaneous) conferences a better thing some day for some companies
    • Great for people with mobility challenges. Speaking just for myself, the year my hip replacement broke the week before the PASS Summit and MVP Summit, I missed almost all of both of them (I was pretty high on hydrocodone, so I really missed more than I liked to admit), but some people could attend virtually if they if they can’t physically get around a conference center, or drive, or fly.)
  • Cons
    • Limited Interaction. Weak interaction with speakers, limited to moderated chat with the speaker. Using the chat of the GotoMeeting platform (as I have in both SQL Saturday events), meant no hang on afterwards and talk to the person for a while afterwards.
    • Isolation. Once I was done as a speaker, the whole thing felt a bit isolated, like I was in this alone. Being on on Twitter or some social platform helps. But social media usage seems rare among people other than the speakers/people that we all already know. We don’t seem to grow that many people into that community during each new event.

Summary: The learning opportunities are expansive. Some events are live/have to be there events, but some events provide recordings that you can watch pretty much forever. For me, the value in conferences is the social aspects and virtual conferences, once you get too many people to have mics turned on kind of lacks somewhat in the current virtual platforms that smaller virtual conferences can have. Without that social interaction, it can make me lose interest if I have anything else that is pressing, and I am not 100% interested in the material. Even some form of chat environment would be very useful.

The less obvious problem for an attendee is that without this interactive nature, the value of making relationships is gone. Networking and meeting people is one of the most important things we do in the community. Hopefully, the PASS Summit will really get this right, and not only will we be able to have great training, but feel present with the other attendees.

As a Speaker

  • Pros
    • Same as attendee pros. Generally the same as for attendees, cost and travel are minimal. Can do from anywhere needed, anytime. Even during the workday if needed. Video, comfort, etc.
    • Could prerecord. Could be prerecorded in some cases, and just chat along with attendees. This would take the heat off of newer speakers, as they could get the material right, be edited, and just enjoy the moment. 
    • Breadth of reach. It feels good to be a part of something larger than your typical, local area.
  • Con
    • Feedback void. Presenting virtually is like presenting to a mirror. You can see yourself, you can see your slides, but you have no idea what is happening on the other side of the camera. When presenting to a group long-distance, where they are all together, you might be able to occasionally hear from them how it is going. But with 20-100 (or 10000) people in as many locations, who knows what is going on.
    • Connectivity. What if the power goes out (we had a speaker have this happen!) it is really hard for the people on the other side to know what happened. So you really need to be prepared. Prerecording takes this worry out, but does take the spontaneity out (and if you make a mistake, it is in there and you can’t fix it!)
    • Minimal audience interaction. Unless you have a modicum of control over the people in the audience, only chat works. Any attempt to let attendees open their mics tended to end in a mess of feedback and background noise.
    • Future limitations? This is speculation, but as time passes, if virtual was the main way conferences were done, there could come a time where the speaking slots were severely limited. A “rockstar” speaker working to get their name around could do 3 or more conferences in a single day, lots more actually based on timezones, because no need to travel. This could really be a thing for people who use this for their primary way of making a living, in that it increases their audience.

Summary: As a speaker, the virtual experience is not terrible, unless you need interaction with the audience. There are two reasons you may need this. Either 1. you are the kind of person who feeds off the energy of the audience or 2. your presentation is very interactive. I did an interactive (using audio) presentation to some local groups, and they were great! We did interactive meetings with 15 speakers, and 20 people in our Disney user group, it was awesome. I did the same SQL presentation to a SQL Saturday group that needed interaction, and it was pandemonium! I switched to chat and it worked well enough, but still was clunky reading the answers (and dealing with grammar that sometimes didn’t say exactly what I thought it did).

Overall though,  as a speaker, the virtual experience is pretty great. It is just different and something to get used to.

As an Organizer

  •  Pros
    • Process seems much easier that in-person.  The big difference is that you need a way to transmit one or more simultaneous sessions. 100 or 1000 is a licensing issue, not a fire-codes issue. You don’t need a venue, you don’t need food.
    • Less liability. No one is physically on site, so no one could get hurt, or really any sort of physically harmed while there. You still need to monitor for bad behavior, slander, racism, etc. But not someone physically assaulting someone.
    • Day of process is shorter. Due to my physical limitations for my entire SQL Server life, I have never been one of the people who carried stuff in and set up the conference. But I have been around to stuff bags a few times, and take tickets early in the morning. This year, we ran four tracks with four people. Each of us in our own houses, and with a slack connection, the web, and GotoMeeting, we were able to manage the entire event. We all arrived at 8am, first session was at 8:30. Last ended around 4:50 or so. We turned off the feed at around 5 and went to dinner with my wife at an outdoor restaurant.
    • More involvement with sessions. As an organizer, I actually felt MORE involved with the conference, because I didn’t end up bouncing around, taking pictures, checking on things, etc. I was able to moderate a room, tweet, and handle other things we had to do pretty easily and still learn a few new things.
    • Weather concerns a bit less acute. Crowd was more dispersed rather than in one location. When it is local, if the weather is good, people will go outside instead of showing up; bad weather and people may stay in; ugly weather and you might even get cancelled and get stuck with a mess. Virtual, everyone is dispersed around the area, and even around the world. And since even your leaders are dispersed you are a lot safer if a leader or two loses power, for example.
  • Cons
    • Social interaction. We did manage to have some, but it was definitely not enough overall. At our event we hosted a virtual speaker meeting the night before, and it was great to just talk with people who dropped in for a few hours. We talked a little about SQL, a bit about set up, but mostly just about “stuff”.  But it wasn’t close to as good as being there in person. Not all speakers came to the meeting, so there were some speakers that I did not even see at all, which was really weird for a conference where I picked the speakers. Usually I would at least be checking to make sure they were all there, and saying hi/thanks.
    • Vendor value. Taking tickets/sharing details with vendors will be a lot harder. So no idea how that would affect future revenue if we need to pay for things like software to enable more socialness.
    • Social interaction. Yep, saying it again. The biggest con is a complete lack of seeing attendees. I didn’t see or hear the voice of any attendee (other than one person who turned their camera on for a minute or two, and one person whose mic was on and their child was screaming so I muted them :))

Summary: I really enjoyed the experience of hosting a virtual event. The process was actually much easier than doing something in-person, and we were able to have the same number of sessions with more people in attendance (and some of our attendees from all around the world (most were from the local area, from our informal poll at the end of the day at least.)

I definitely can see myself participating again some day in a small, medium or large sized virtual conference (even other than the PASS Summit), even once we can start having in-person events. I think that some technologies like closed captioning and real-time translation could make virtual/simultaneous virtual/in-person conferences the wave of the future and better than just in-person. And if we can get the ability to talk in small groups and move from group to group more naturally, it might be better overall anyhow.

The virus has already pushed working at home from something a few of us on the fringe did to something that almost anyone who can does, so why not use it to make conferences better. We just need to make it better to socialize online. I have two thoughts that would really help.

  1. A better chat experience that persists past the end of the conference. Probably currently available for expensive conference suites, but I will start to see what I can find for us small-time operators.
  2. A nice way to have side conferences. For example, say you are in a meeting/presentation, or even it a keynote and you want to ask a question of someone in the room. You click on the person and say “ask for side conversation”, they say yes. Then you could choose:
    1. Chat: Start typing to them (Teams has something like this now. If you are in a meeting, you can click on the person and start a little pop up chat)
    2. Voice: This would be like whispering to each other in the session, but without being annoying to anyone else. Maybe even choose to have the presentation audio playing in one ear, and the side conversation in the other. Cameras could be a part of this too. This would give you that “We are sitting together and being able to say ‘wow’ together live” experience. (Ok, admittedly and probably joke about the salesly-ness of the presentation and discuss better sessions to go to. But at least you wouldn’t be doing this when 100 other people are entranced by it!)

It is definitely a brave new world!

Edited: Added mobility pro for attendee