I recently attended the hybrid SC21 conference in person, as one of the about 3000 in-person attendees, along with several thousand virtual attendees. (I don’t know the exact numbers, but in the past, an SC conference would have about 12000 attendees in-person.) In December, I’ll be attending the hybrid AGU Fall meeting remotely. And I’m also involved in planning a number of future workshops and conferences, so I’m thinking about how to run such events.
It’s clear how in-person events work. In my experience, the advantages to such events are the sense of community that develops, the opportunity to talk to people in hallways, and the fact that when I dedicate time to travel and to attending an in-person event, I end up learning about new things based on attending sessions that seem interesting at the time. The disadvantages are that such events involve travel and associated environmental impacts, and that they are often limited to those who can afford the cost of attending them, typically mostly those from the Global North and those in certain types of jobs.
It’s also reasonably clear how virtual events work at this point, after 20+ months of many of them. The advantages of these meetings are somewhat the opposite of the disadvantages of in-person events: they are generally cheaper than in-person events, have no travel and associate climate impacts, and are really open to anyone in the world with sufficient network connectivity. The disadvantages, at least for me, are mostly around timing: it’s harder for me to dedicate time to virtual events, so I often only attend sessions where I am talking or I am sure I will learn something, but I don’t have many serendipitous encounters; I often don’t feel very connected to others attending, or make social connections to people I didn’t already know; and for events that happen out of my time zone, I often cannot attend large parts of the event.
Some virtual events have worked on these issues, such as by running sessions multiple times in different time zones, either repeated or with different hosts and different speakers on the same topic or via recordings, and by creating social sessions (virtual icebreakers, use of gather.town and spatial chat, etc.,) and they do improve the virtual experience and make it more inclusive, but don’t really succeed in fully addressing the disadvantages and providing an experience that matches an in-person event.
I’m not really sure where this leaves us, as I don’t think the disadvantages of either in-person or virtual events can ever be fully addressed (e.g., it’s hard to see how to solve people being in different time zones without travel), I can imagine a world where we have both types of events (and gradually get better at running virtual events), and organizers develop a set of rules for deciding which kind works best for a specific event.
I think that having hybrid events instead of either purely in-person or purely virtual events is not the general answer, as they seem to be the worst of both in many regards. A hybrid event has to
- Provide something for in-person attendees that makes the extra cost of their attendance (in time, travel, and funds) worthwhile, and
- Make sure that remote participants don’t miss out on anything by not attending in-person.
It seems to me that it’s almost impossible to do both of these at the same time.
On the other hand, even given these disadvantages, maybe we should still have hybrid events, as neither in-person nor virtual events don’t also have disadvantages. If so, it seems we would want to provide guidance for participants about the advantages and disadvantages of in-person and virtual attendance, perhaps on a session-by-session basis as well as for the overall event, and let them decide.
I’m also interested in thinking about an event format where people meet in-person locally (or nationally), and these local meetings are then brought together in the overall event, similar to Research Bazaar (RezBaz) events.
Overall, I don’t think there’s ever going to be a solution. All three event formats have disadvantages, and none of them seem to be outweighed by their advantages. If this is correct, our goals should be to:
- Understand the disadvantages of each type of event and reduce them as much as possible;
- Understand how different types of events meet different objectives, and try to best match the format for an event to the objectives of that event; and
- Develop and present clear guidance to potential attendees of their options.