My First Digital Conference Was Not Terrible

Over the weekend, I attended my first virtual conference, and it was not as terrible as I thought. It had nothing to do with the technology industry but was related to the sport of Tennis, which is a world I’m deeply connected to. I am a member of the professional teaching network called the USPTA, and over the weekend, they held their annual national conference where coaches from all around the world get together to learn, collaborate, and connect. When they first started promoting the event and the virtual forum, I was skeptical it would present anywhere near the same experience. But after attending and using their virtual platform, in many ways, I found this to be superior to attending this conference in person.

Here is the image of the lobby where you select where you want to go. Many of may note the video game feel of this if you have played any kind of first-person adventure type game. That is what it reminded me of, at least.

The lobby is clearly broken out into the main sections you care about. The Lounge was a series of chat rooms, more on that shortly, the exhibit hall where you could go talk to vendors/sponsors and see their new products or services, and the auditorium where all keynotes were happening. Let’s start with the keynotes.

First off, sitting in a gigantic auditorium looking at a speaker from a distance on stage has never been something I enjoyed. The benefits of a virtual keynote for a session like this were two-fold. First, I felt it was easier to digest the content and take relevant notes. The video of the speaker was high quality, their screen sharing for drill or other demos was much easier to see on my monitor up close, and I personally felt it was more interactive on their part. Basically, acquiring information was much easier. Secondly, and this may be the one thing that this format excels at, was the interactivity. The whole video element of the conference was done over Zoom, so the chat was live while the speaker was speaking. I was able to engage with other participants who shared complimentary ideas, tips, etc., and then at the end, the speaker was able to answer specific questions. What I had not realized was lost in the QA of in person is how you don’t generally get to hear a speaker answer the questions of those who line up after to talk to them. Many of the participants asked great questions, I was genuinely interested to know the answer to, and if this was in person, I would not have been able to hear the speaker’s answer.

The speaker’s willingness to stick around and answer questions, then be willing to be around in the lounge for 1:1 interaction, was incredibly helpful and not the kind of thing you normally get at in-person conferences. Usually, these speakers have to leave quickly or don’t stick around, but because they were virtual, I felt it was easier for them to stay present. My best example with this is a coach named Craig O’Shaughnessy, who was on the coaching staff of current world #1 Novak Djokovic and is now the lead statistician for the ATP World Tour. He loves data and stats as much as I do, and he analyzes the vast majority of data from professional tennis matches. I was able to get some 1:1 time with him even though he was simultaneously pressed for time, analyzing the data from Novak’s win in Rome in advance of the French Open. Maybe I could have still snuck time in with him if I was there in person, but the format of being relaxed, on video, and his ability to jump from our time back into his workflow leaves me doubt. The last point here, all the conference keynotes stayed online and demand, and being able to go watch key sessions again is extremely useful. I wish more conferences did this as well.

I had attended this conference before when it was in Northern California, and while the speakers were certainly approachable, I felt more of them were easily accessible in this format than in person. Which, when you are genuinely at an event to learn, felt extremely helpful.

The lounge presented another interesting experience. While I’m not an introvert, I’m still not a fan of networking. I do genuinely enjoy meeting people, especially those with whom I have things in common. In the case of this conference, I’ve met many great individuals who coach Tennis all over the world and share a love of the sport. But I also meet these folks more out of chance than me being proactive. The chat rooms in the lounge were broken out by topic and category, which made for interesting conversation. You could be in several at once, and I found it quite engaging. The speakers would participate as well, many of them having resumes that include coaching professional tennis players, which made it that more engaging as everyone asked questions and shared experience. The ability to join conversations by topics was much more engaging than the more random chance networking that takes place at conferences. This element, I felt, was far more helpful for the intent of the event than what can be done in person.

Lastly, the obvious part that suffered the most from being virtual was the exhibits. Especially since this event has most of the top tennis products in the world show up, and you can see what’s new with rackets, balls, strings, etc. There is nothing like holding, touching, trying this product when trying to see if you or the players you coach will be interested, but they tried their best. Exhibitors were ready to answer questions and show video demos of products, but not being able to see or touch them in person was seriously lacking. The challenge I see here is how, for most conferences, the exhibitors and sponsors are the financial mechanisms that keep them going.

While I don’t expect all conferences to stay virtual, my feedback to the UPTA and any feedback I’d give to conference organizers is to see how to bring the best parts of being virtual also to physical conferences. There are certainly pros and cons to both, and finding a blend can add entirely new elements of engagement and value that you could not get before in either medium.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

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