The covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of meetings via video, including conferences and webinars. We first thought to change the World Conference on Marine Biodiversity (WCMB) to ‘hybrid’, that is both in-person (for national delegates who are allowed to travel) and online attendance for overseas delegates). However, as the situation developed we opted for an online-only conference. The reasons are outlined below and are relevant to other events. A major consideration is how to address time-zones for international delegates.
Hybrid or online?
A hybrid conference is more difficult and expensive to manage than one online-only or in-person only. Essentially one is running two parallel events which significantly increases the costs in both planning and hosting the conference.
For a hybrid event there could be different registration fees for online attendees versus those onsite (in-person). An onsite event will have additional costs for room hire, catering, registration, and desk services. These costs increase with the number of delegates. Thus onsite attendees would be expected to pay more. But if they see online attendees paying significantly less they may decide to not attend in person.
There are additional costs in managing an online event as well, including the online platform and managing presentations and sessions. In contrast to an onsite event, these costs are fixed and do not increase with the number of delegates.
If time zone considerations mean that the local audience would have to attend early in the morning and/or late in the evening, then they may also prefer to attend from the comfort of their homes. Thus while initially an attractive ‘best of both worlds’, hybrid conferences are uncommon. Of course, any group of people can self-organise to attend an online conference together at a physical location of their choice. Thus, an online-only conference does not mean people cannot meet and attend together.
Benefits of an online conference
- Saving money, time and carbon emissions by people not travelling.
- Greater attendance. One of the benefits of an online conference is the ability for more people to attend, regardless of their location, financial resources, ability to travel (e.g., health situation), and conflicts on their time (e.g., child care).
- Accessibility. A third benefit is that the presentations, being all electronic, can be recorded. Thus all attendees can watch talks they otherwise have missed because they were in parallel sessions of due to inconvenient timezones. Presenters may also choose to publish their presentations on their own websites and other platforms.
What is not possible to have the relaxed serendipitous personal interactions that can occur at in-person meetings.
There is also no saving in organisation and management time. All the usual management of registration, financial budgeting, submissions, programme planning, inviting keynote speakers, organising sessions and chairpersons are still required. In addition, the online platform needs people to manage presentations and sessions and needs to be paid for. The only cost saving is room hire, and costs of receptions and refreshments. The absence of these costs greatly reduces registration fees for online conferences.
Dealing with timezones
If the meeting is international then multiple time zones need to be accommodated. This means early mornings and late evenings for some people somewhere. For the WCMB, I counted the number of delegates from different time zones and settled on the following as the most likely to enable most time zones to attend using TIME.IS. I coloured the most unsociable hours red and highlighted those that would inconvenience most delegates least. Of course, depending on where an event is hosted and most attendees will be based, a different timetable may be better.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for people ‘attending’ an online conference is that they are still at home with all the pressures and commitments of their private and work lives. In addition, trying to concentrate on online presentations can be surprisingly exhausting. Thus, I think it is best to minimise the total number of hours per day to 4 ± 1hours.
No doubt the pandemic forced online teaching will lead to an increased availability of online teaching in years to come, as forecast in this article on Canadian universities https://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/in-my-opinion/online-enrolments-after-covid-19-some-predictions-for-canada/
A more detailed analysis of attendance and delegates experiences is now at https://peerj.com/blog/post/115284883981/lessons-learned-from-wcmb-2020/
Related to this I think is some understanding of why students prefer in-person classes, the same issues arise with online vs in-person conference s https://www.universityaffairs.ca/features/feature-article/7-missing-pieces-why-students-prefer-in-person-over-online-classes/