Why You Might Want to Attend a Virtual Conference

I believe virtual conferences are the wave of the future. I just returned from a 4-day genealogy conference in Salt Lake City. With the air travel, hotel expenses, restaurant meals, and conference admission, I spent more than $1,500 US. I also spent six days away from home: one day traveling to the event (in the cheapest airline coach seats I could find), four days at the conference, and one more day returning home. I am sure that attendees from overseas spent much more than I did.

Obviously, many people are not able to pay that much money or to take that many days out of their lives to attend such an event, regardless of their interest level. Luckily, technology can provide an alternative.

Holding events online is called a “virtual conference.” The presenters usually remain in their homes, using their own computers and video cameras to deliver their talks, videos, and slide shows. Attendees also typically remain in their homes or go to a nearby library or office and watch the conference events live on computers. Travel expenses and meals are close to zero. Even a conference syllabus is usually available online as a free electronic download, much cheaper than the $25 to $50 required to print each syllabus on paper.

In addition, the virtual conference organizers do not need to spend thousands of dollars for renting a modern conference center. The end result is lower costs all around. The attendees benefit again because admittance to virtual conferences is usually much, much cheaper than attending a conference in person.

Is an online virtual conference just as effective as attending a conference in person? I will suggest it is not. There are several elements missing in a virtual conference. I know I certainly miss the camaraderie of talking with other attendees in the hallways or in social situations before and after the daily conference events. Nonetheless, I will suggest that the virtual conferences do provide MOST of the benefits of an in-person conference and do so at a fraction of the price of traditional events.

Their are two financial considerations:

  1. The ever-increasing expenses of travel, hotels, and restaurant meals
  2. The ever-decreasing expenses of producing live virtual conferences

Here is a suggestion to future conference organizers: you might want to hold your next event in the online world.

19 Comments

It certainly is an option. I’ve taken classes/courses online which worked well and even watched some of last year’s conference as well. I’d have liked to “experience” the actual event, but after seeing your pictures of the ones in England and on yesterday’s post, I’m still comfortable with my decision not to attend large ones. I couldn’t manage ALL those people! For anyone with mobility issues it would be a nightmare!
It certainly isn’t the same as seeing all the booths and new things on display, that would be a great loss to many, but the actual information from the lectures would have to be the main part. Sad too for the event locations as they would lose a lot! Maybe some kind of mix? Still it is the information people go to see and learn as well as the people giving that information, and that can all be done online!
BTW, thanks for sharing the photos and information from last week.

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    Mary, as to your comment on maybe a mix, Rootstech does have several of their classes videoed and online so you can see those. You can also view all of the special presentations that were done. it was a great conference, my first time attending all four days but I live only thirty miles from downtown SLC so I just hopped on the train which costs less than $5 a day. If I lived out of state it would be much more costly.

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Dick, I certainly agree with you. I have benefitted in the past from attending (too many to count) live conferences in the USA and also abroad. For me it is no longer worth the challenges of modern travel — airport security, crowds (especially during flu season), unpredictable food quality, jet lag, and cramped seats. Ditto for the presenters who face the same challenges of travel plus the added stress of giving their program. The money is better spent elsewhere. Instead of traveling, I spend money on long-distance help to augment my own research — professional assistance to do the local leg work, professional translation services to help when I can’t read the records, and upgraded tech at home to connect worldwide via computer with virtual classes and online services anywhere, often including skype conference calls and the like. The virtual world is the future. The classes and events that were recently live-streamed at RootsTech were absolutely wonderful and I hope other groups will choose to make more of their programs accessible virtually in the near future too.

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Dick, I agree with you on virtual conferences. As a Canadian, we also have currency exchanges and weather to deal with, so I took in RootsTech streaming and enjoyed every minute. The Legacy Family Tree Webinars and various Geneological Society offerings are a valuable asset to all genealogists. Thank you also for keeping us in the loop with your Plus newsletters.

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Dick, I agree with everything you say. As I get older, my minor infirmaries make traveling and sitting in uncomfortable conference chairs more difficult. Also, as a retiree, if I spend money traveling, it will be to see grandkids!
Thanks for your thoughts!

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15 years ago I was involved in an experiment to investigate the feasibility of using software and a virtual environment to replicate conferences and meetings that had hitherto been conducted in person. This experiment supported what you say, Dick, the main business can probably be conducted quite effectively in a virtual environment, but it is the side or chance meetings that are more difficult to replicate. In our experiment a virtual bar was created where people could have more free-flowing and ad hoc discussions and experiment participants had no difficulty in ‘collaborating’ there.
Academically, the issue is how to develop trust in a virtual environment. In recent years social media has shown some ways in which this can be achieved and also MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have become hugely popular and effective. I’m sure that there is a place for virtual conferences.

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Jacqueline Van Willi March 7, 2018 at 5:09 am

This of us with hearing problems seldom see captions or script from a video “lesson”.

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But the vendor area is one of the best parts of attending a conference.

Liked by 1 person

I haven’t been able to attend a conference for several years but enjoy the webinars presented by Legacy, NEHGS, and the various state societies including California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, North Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin. They include most of the same speakers and topics you hear at the conferences. Recordings from past FGS and NGS conferences are available for purchase and download. I can transfer these to an iPod and listen to them anywhere. These webinars and recordings make good genealogical methods available to a wider audience and are improving the quality of research.

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The only downside I see is for the vendors who will miss all the eyeballs and resulting sales. Feedback from RootsTech was that the crowds were nearly over whelming, lines to everything were long and very slow, and sessions were difficult if not impossible to get into. I hope that virtual conference options will be the wave of the future.

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    If the conference is virtual, then some of those vendors might not survive, as sales would be lost, and new products might not get the publicity that the conference can give them.

    The conference organisers or venue would lose out on the income from the booths and this would result in increased costs being passed on to the attendees.

    However, on the other side as has been said elsewhere, there should be lower costs for those who ‘attend’ virtually. But if this is alongside a maintained physical event the costs for that will at the very least remain constant – but will have to be shared out amongst fewer people, so they will see an increase in their expenditure which could further reduce attendance and we get into a vicious spiral.

    A smaller venue might be a possible alternative, but that would restrict attendance numbers and have less space for those who wist to promote goods and services.

    The bigger companies in the genealogy world, or those in other fields who see a marketing opportunity might pick up the financial slack, but only whilst they can see profit in it and I believe that depends on a large physical conference.

    Perhaps one way forward would be to levy a fee for the virtual attendance to offset some conference losses, but there would still be associated reductions in income for those who provide hotels or transport, as well as smaller business around the conference venue.

    I see a worrying parallel in the future of genealogical societies – as more and more records become available online, membership declines as fewer people recognise the need to join. Sadly, we will lose the camaraderie and freely shared knowledge that such societies bring and I think that we will all be the poorer for its loss.

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    In defense of Rootstech, the crowds were huge and some classes difficult to get into but after the first day of a new scanning system (a lot of chaos insued) things were much better and I was able to attend every class I was interested in.

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I started a virtual conference 9 years ago for the very reasons you mentioned. In addition, it’s easier to get presenters, too, because they also don’t have to travel. My conference is spread out over 10 weekdays, with 6 one-hour sessions each day. I purposely avoided concurrent sessions, so someone could attend all 60 sessions, if they wanted. I also close caption all the live sessions. It’s the only out-of-pocket expense I have. The sessions are recorded, as well. I now have an online library of over 400 sessions from past conferences. I do agree that you miss out out on the social aspects of a face-to-face conference. But I think the convenience and low cost makes up for most of that.

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David Paul Davenport March 7, 2018 at 5:13 pm

One word – Skype.

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What you say is true but a very rewarding benefit would be lost – that of making friends and personally intermingling with others who share this avid interest!

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I was grateful to see the streamed talks that were there. However I was not at all happy with all the Rewinds that were from years gone past that I had already seen. I would have thought they could have put all the streaming from this years talks as things change every year. It really cut down on what I watched.

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