September 27, 2016 / Mark Milroy

Embracing the Virtual Conference Experience

There’s an oddly persistent idea that has been heard in the learning community for years. It’s the idea that if you broadcast the sessions from your conference, you run the risk of cannibalizing your face-to-face audience. After all, if someone can watch and listen to sessions from the relative comfort of their office, why​ would they spend time and money actually traveling to the event?

This question has been around since the early days of baseball. When radio came on the scene, there was concern among the owners that if people could listen to ballgames for free, they’d never buy tickets. Just the opposite happened. People were able to follow their favorite teams throughout the season, which built fan allegiance and created a surge in in-person attendance because radio strengthened the desire to be there in person.

I had a similar experience in 1976. While watching the first week of the Montreal Olympics on television with a group of friends, someone asked, “How long does it take to drive to Montreal?” Next thing we knew we were in a car and headed to Canada. We saw volleyball, track and field, and the marathon, we got autographs from gold medal winners, and we had the opportunity to mix and mingle with the international crowd. The television broadcast piqued our interest in being part of the experience.

The same thing happens with our virtual broadcasts of Fall Conference and AIHce​. It’s a way to share the essence of the conference with an online audience. The cost of technicians and equipment limits the number of sessions we’re able to broadcast, so we do our best to select ones that translate best to virtual delivery. Things like table exercises or group discussions might be engaging for live attendees, but they can leave an online audience sitting on the outside looking in.

Virtual conference facilitators play a key role. They are the conduit between the live and remote audiences. They interact via chat and ask questions of the live presenters posed by online participants. If you’ve ever been to a session and seen a camera on a tripod in the back of the room next to a table with a couple of people on laptops, you were looking at the virtual broadcast team.

Did you ever wonder what the virtual audience does when the in-person audience goes to lunch? At AIHce this year, online viewers watched prerecorded interviews with exhibitors to get a sense of who was represented on the expo floor. Our facilitators do a great job of planning content to help online attendees feel connected to the conference, and that’s reflected in the overwhelmingly positive feedback we’ve gotten from the virtual audience.

Do we ever feel that broadcasting sessions detracts from attendance? Not at all. Our virtual attendees tell us that it’s time away from the office or budget limitations that prevent them from traveling to the conference, but their first preference is to attend in person. That’s why we do all we can to make the online experience as valuable as possible and we continue to look for ways to improve it. After all, it’s the next best thing to being there.

Mark Milroy

Mark Milroy is AIHA’s managing director of Global Learning.


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