APU Business Careers & Learning Innovations in the Workplace Online Learning Podcast

Podcast: The Future of Virtual Conferences

By Dr. William Oliver HedgepethFaculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management and
Dr. Wanda Curlee, Department Chairs, Business Administration

The pandemic forced many conference organizers to either cancel the event or offer virtual or remote attendance options. In this episode, Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth talks to APU business professor Dr. Wanda Curlee about the pros and cons of virtual conferences. While virtual or hybrid conferences can save money and travel expenses, they often lose the face-to-face networking opportunities for attendees. Learn about the factors contributing to conference structure, the growth of micro conferences, and the influence of generational difference and attendee make-up.

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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Welcome to this podcast. The subject today is how to design a successful hybrid conference. I’m your host, Oliver Hedgepeth. Today we’re going to be chatting about how to design such a successful hybrid conference if you wanted to design one.

Today my guest is Dr. Wanda Curlee. Dr. Curlee is the Program Director of Business Administration, the School of Business Management at American Public University. She has a Master’s in technology management and a doctorate in management in organizational leadership. She has been teaching online for over 20 years and she’s been working in the business sector with artificial intelligence, or AI, applications, and currently researches AI topics.

Dr. Curlee is active with the Project Management Institute, or PMI, and she currently serves on the PMI’s ethics review committee, very important at this time of life with all the things going on. She has several certifications with the Project Management Institute as well. Wanda, welcome back and thank you for joining me today on this very important topic.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Thank you, Oliver. It’s always great to come back and join you on a podcast.

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: You have been presenting, Wanda, academic papers to conferences as part of your career these last 20 years. Today it would be interesting to hear what you have to say about how you present at conferences as well as setting them up, and how it’s changed in the last few years, especially in the last two years during this pandemic.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Prior to the pandemic most conferences, in fact, I don’t know of too many that were virtual, but conferences were face-to-face, and you would have to work with the conference coordinators to find a time, and that was constantly being done manually. Sometimes you would get a good placement, sometimes you wouldn’t. Sometimes you’d have people show up to your talk and sometimes you wouldn’t as well.

Since the pandemic, conferences have had to scramble, especially academic conferences, because they tend to be very stodgy. I don’t know any other word to say about it. But since the pandemic they, again, had to change their focus. At one conference it was supposed to be in Nashville, and instead of trying to go virtual, they just canceled the conference, which to me was a terrible mistake, because we should be nimble enough in today’s society to get to a virtual conference, or at least a hybrid conference.

Today, that’s what we see, although we’re slowing going back to face-to-face. But even if it’s face-to-face you’re finding that there’s the opportunity to present virtual. For example, we’re still not allowed to travel from our university. Therefore, if I wanted to present at a conference I’d have to do it virtually at this point.

But I know many conferences are already face-to-face. You see conferences that are face-to-face doing hybrid, virtual and face-to-face. Is that good? I don’t know. We’ll discuss it a little later.

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Okay. That’s most interesting. On that reference you said that the conference that you were going to attend, they canceled it versus adding any part of virtual? They just-

Dr. Wanda Curlee: They just canceled it.

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: They just canceled it? Okay.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Was that 2021? Was that at the beginning of the pandemic?

Dr. Wanda Curlee: That was at the beginning of the pandemic. Yes.

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Have they had one since?

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yes, they have. It was totally virtual for the last two years, and they had an opportunity to allow you to pre-record it and then they just would have it as on-demand. That’s what I did. I was with another author to present. Or you could present live. We opted not to present live because our presentation was a little longer than what they wanted you to do to present live.

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: When you attend that conference, that’s an experience now, when you had your chance to give your presentation, did you know how many people were attending your specific session? Did you know that 10 people or 100 people were listening to you even if it was recorded?

Dr. Wanda Curlee: No. They never gave us feedback as to how many people listened to the on-demand, which is a terrible thing, and we didn’t get any feedback. They told us we would get feedback and I wrote to them several times, and they said, “Sorry, we’ve had some problems with the feedback so we don’t have any for you.”

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Oh, my goodness. So that particular organization is really still struggling with trying to understand the format and how to produce a virtual conference or a virtual combination conference?

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Correct.

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: They’re still having trouble with it? Yeah.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yes.

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Well, this hybrid conference is part of the hybrid workplace that’s going on today in business. How do you define this hybrid workplace in business, as well as attending or providing papers and presentations at one of those conferences?

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Well, hybrid in business is an interesting thought, because prior to the pandemic there were many, and I have several bosses in corporate America, that believed that if you were not sitting at your desk you’re not working. They thought if you went to working from home that you wouldn’t produce anything.

There is an element of trust that has to be there to have a hybrid situation. I do understand that some things have to be done in a face-to-face, although I think that’s getting fewer and far between. Some people will say IT has to be consolidated or a help desk has to be consolidated. That’s not true. We have many help desks that are run with people all over the world and working from their homes. You just have to have good technology.

Many businesses were caught off guard when the pandemic happened. They didn’t know how to get a virtual workforce and they struggled. Now some are thinking do we really need to come back into a brick and mortar because we’ve saved so much money if we don’t have brick and mortar?

Think about that. Your overhead costs go down tremendously, but there are some drawbacks. Those of us who have worked remote for many, many years, I have worked remote probably for 20 years, sometimes you don’t develop the camaraderie and you don’t have those water-cooler discussions. You might miss the brainstorming. You might miss interacting with your fellow coworkers, so that is a drawback.

As far as conferences, I really like the hybrid approach because it gives you the opportunity, for example, I can’t travel and my university won’t pay for travel, so it gives me the opportunity to do a virtual academic conference. And hopefully in the future also gives me the opportunity to see things that are going live if I attend the full conference.

So you don’t have to, as they say, have a butt in the seat. You can be at home watching that presentation and you can even provide your feedback. I’ve been to some conferences that they use AI and it’s just amazing how things go forward. There’s no issue about people not showing up because they’re on a different time zone. That has happened to me. Not me personally speaking, but I showed up to do a conference, I think you did too, Oliver, and the speaker wasn’t there. Or sometimes it’s vice versa. The speaker shows up but there’s not too many people, because they think it’s an hour later or an hour earlier or more.

So AI would be very, very good in those situations, because it puts everybody on the same in their time zone and tells them what’s the appropriate time. It also can schedule individuals at a time that meets their time zone. For example, if it’s an international conference and somebody is speaking from India they don’t really want to speak at 2:00 in the morning. Now I may not want to attend at 2:00 in the morning, but it gives both an opportunity, and if it’s recorded I can go and see it later.

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Yes. Have you attended some of those hybrid conferences where someone was from a country that it’s 2:00 in the morning or 4:00 in the morning and they had to get up and brief? Have you seen that?

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yes, I have.

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: How was that with the person speaking?

Dr. Wanda Curlee: It was pretty good. I mean I’ve actually had to do that. I went to a hybrid conference and it was done in Egypt and I was in the United States, so I had to get up fairly early, and you have to be dynamic. I have found that the folks, especially from India, that are presenting, most of them tend to be dynamic because they’re used to working really odd hours.

But is that fair? I wonder about fairness in these international conferences. Whereas before when it was all face-to-face we were all at the same place, nowadays that’s not true.

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: That’s true. Yeah. And fairness is a good word. Fairness leads to what is fair and how popular these kind of conferences are.

I remember early on, oh, gosh, 10 years ago when we tried something like this nobody wanted to do it, and in the last two years it was kind of stuffy. People weren’t really sure how to deal with somebody on the television set, basically what they looked at. But this pandemic has really drawn us apart and together in various ways.

Do you think, let’s see, this is 2021, and 2022 is coming up very soon. Do you think over the next two to five years that a virtual conference will gain popularity and familiarity with people for conference going? Do you think it’ll gain, or will it stay where it is or get worse?

Dr. Wanda Curlee: I think as academia finds out that they can save a lot of money for travel for us not to go to conferences, but to do it online, and I think as the conference individuals, planners, become more aware of how to do a virtual conference or a hybrid conference, and as the younger generations are involved in academia, the younger generations are absolutely comfortable with virtual.

I think they will provide a lot of feedback to those of us who have some years on us, to say “Hey, this is the way to go, virtual.” I see eventually being able to speak from my phone at a virtual conference or attend via virtual conference. Many of the conferences, even if it was face-to-face, they had an app that you would download to see where everything is at. They would have a map on there that would tell you what conferences had to be canceled because the speaker couldn’t make it, for whatever reason, and what has been put in its place, if anything.

So I think we’re going to see apps, in fact, in the last conference I attended there was an app that you had to go into, I think you attended for me as well, Oliver. You had to have downloaded an app to get into the conference site. This allowed and made sure that you had paid for the conference and nobody could hack into the conference. I think that is a major issue that many of these conference planners are worried about, people hacking into the conference and getting in there for free.

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Oh, yes, I now remember. I was in that conference, you were off doing something else and I decided, “Oh yes, I’ll take that conference.” The topic is artificial intelligence, something both of us know about. I logged in, I signed in, and everybody is ready to have me go give a presentation, and I was all excited. I said I’m replacing you and I think Robert Gordon.

By golly, gee, I was ready to go and about an hour before my presentation they said, “You own us $650.” I had to register myself, oh, golly. And you couldn’t hack in. You’re right. It was a downloaded app. That’s good.

Let me ask you, these conferences we used to go to up till two years ago were large events, annual events. I belonged to conferences like your Project Management Institute that would go for three, four, five days in some place like Los Angeles or California or somewhere in Nevada. It would be a long event for a week.

But now as virtual they’re still trying to make them long, but do you think we’re just going to have one long conference, or do you think maybe, I’m thinking they might have more micro conferences? Since we can deal with each virtual couldn’t we kind of break things apart? I’m just wondering, have you ever seen anything happen like that? Are people thinking about more conferences per year versus one big thing?

Dr. Wanda Curlee: I think as it matures they’re going to find that having one big conference in a virtual environment or hybrid doesn’t really work, because the networking can’t happen when you have that many people, and technology sometimes gives out. Those in other countries don’t have the bandwidth to do what we do here in the United States for conferences.

Think of somebody that’s presenting from Africa. Most of those countries don’t even have stable electricity. If you don’t have stable electricity you probably don’t have stable internet, so we’ve got to think about that.

When I think about that, I think micro conferences is the way that we’re going to end up going. I think it will be those that are early adopters that will do the micro conferences. We still might have the big conferences if they’re still face-to-face or hybrid, but I know PMI is doing a lot of micro conferences. In fact I’ve presented at several of those micro conferences.

They’re finding that that works much better, and in fact some of the micro conferences are even for free, which is nice, because then you have people that really want to attend and learn from the conferences. Sometimes you have people just going to conferences because their employer are paying for it and they like the area, so they attend the minimum amount of conferences that they have to, or they present if they’re presenting, and then you don’t see them anymore at the conference because they’re out sightseeing or doing whatever.

I think with micro conferences, even if they’re face-to-face or a hybrid, I think those will gain traction. I know they have at PMI, and I really love them, because it’s a smaller audience, because they focus it on different areas.

For example, I did one… They had one on AI and ethics and I presented there. It was great, because everything was around AI and ethics, and it was interesting to see the different thoughts about ethics and AI. Those speakers, we actually talked to each other in a speaker room, which was nice. They actually had a speaker room for us, where all the speakers could get together. So I think as it evolves those companies and planners that are forward thinkers will see the advantage of micro conferences.

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: I’d say it’s a benefit from the factor that’s initiating all these micro conferences virtually, and that’s this COVID-19, this pandemic that’s been underway for two years, it will end one day. We will be more stable as a society in America and the world.

But I’m thinking now we do live in this micro conference, this virtual world of conferences and virtual discussions with people and businesses. What do you think, I’ll put you on the spot here, let’s say this pandemic goes away by 2023. Say a year from now, it’s 2023 coming up and the United States is like we’re clean, you don’t have to wear a mask anymore. Everything is fine. If you feel something take this pill. It’s going to be okay. You’re not going to die. Let’s go back to normal. Let’s go back to the way it was.

Do you think our conferences, now that we have been involved in virtual conferences for two years, let’s say three years, do you think we’ll just say, “Hey, let’s go back to Las Vegas. Let’s go to Washington, D.C. for a week long conference. Forget this virtual stuff.”

Do you think the virtual will hang around after we go back to being healthy again and not having to wear masks and get shots for viruses and stuff? Do you think it’ll go back to normal again as it was before two years ago?

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Human beings are social creatures and we like to be with other people. Some of us are comfortable with socializing virtually, others are not. Many cultures around the world like the interaction, face-to-face interaction, that we can have. I truly believe that face-to-face interaction has some advantages over virtual, but again, I’m speaking for my generation.

Younger generations are fine with texting. Trying to get them to do something, pick up the telephone and call somebody, they’d rather text or they’d rather do a virtual face-to-face on the iPhone.

So, I think we’re going to see some conferences go back to, I want to call it the old normal, prior to pandemic. Will those conferences succeed? Possibly. I think what we’re going to find is that more people have to pay it out-of-pocket because universities and companies have found out that you can run a great conference, virtually, and all you then have to pay for is attendance. Whereas if you have to travel you have to also pay for that, and you have to pay for meals as well, and the hotel possibly. So that gets expensive.

Plus, many of these conferences have become very, very expensive. I mean sometimes they charge you thousands of dollars to attend, which to me is ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. The virtual environment, the conference doesn’t have all that overhead cost, so the amount of money that we should have to pay for a virtual conference should be much, much less.

Do you have the same interaction and networking? It depends how forward thinking the conference planners are. Like I said, I’ve been in some where there’s a speaker room where you can discuss. I went to one where I prerecorded my actual presentation, but I was there live. I actually answered questions live after the presentation.

That was kind of neat, because then I didn’t have to be nervous about presenting in a live area. They allowed me to prerecord and if I coughed or if I stumbled I could start again, so that’s nice. I think we’ll see more and more of that, so I’m excited about virtual and hybrid conferences.

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Yeah. I hear you clearly. I’m excited about both of them. I do have evidence, I work with an organization, the Reverse Logistics Association, and they have canceled their conference. I think it’s in January. It’s always on Las Vegas, one of them, because they didn’t want to do virtual. But they have said, “We’re going to meet in September, all of us again, person-to-person, no virtual.” They want to move it to virtual because of all these positive things you’ve talked about, personal reactions and shaking hands, having a cup of coffee with somebody and exploring new ideas. It’s really exciting.

But I do think, as you brought up something earlier, there may be a generational, not divide, there may be a generational interest in that some conferences maybe led by an older generation may go back to the original format of live, in-person conference. Let’s say folks in their 20s, 30s and 40s who are in charge may decide we’re getting so much out of virtual, we can go global now, we’re adding more people, and maybe the cost is going down. So I can see maybe there might be a generational, I don’t want to use the word divide, but there may be a generational format that may come out of it in the next two or three years.

Let me ask you about the goals. All these hybrid conferences do have goals, and you’ve talked about the personalities and the age differences. Do you think the goals of a hybrid conference change compared to those before this pandemic impact? Have the goals of doing this conference, say your Project Management Institute conference or my Engineering Management, do you think the goals of conducting these conferences have changed or will change?

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yes and no. Many at the Project Management Institute attend these conferences so they can get professional development units. You have to get so many of these PDUs to maintain your certifications. That’s why many people attend them, and the micro conferences help them achieve the PDUs within an area. So, for example, I’ve got a risk management professional, they actually do micro conferences in risk. I can attend that and most likely get a large portion of the PDUs that I need if I attend all the presentations.

So I think that aspect of it, if it’s somebody that’s trying to get CEUs or PDUs, that will still be there, because we all have to maintain our certifications or stay up-to-date in whatever we’re researching or looking at.

Other goals might be to increase the number of conference attendees. Now, again, they did that also in the face-to-face, but I’m going to say that some conferences got a little greedy and started charging too much. I’m not going to name names, but I went to several of them at different institutions, and that I think will go away, because if they go back to face-to-face people are just not going to be able to afford it, especially if it comes out of their own pocket. And institutions aren’t going to pay for it if it’s too expensive, so that I think will go away.

They’re always trying to increase the number of people to attend the conferences, and as I said, younger generations are very happy with virtual, so we’ll see that. I know several institutions are still not going face-to-face because they do run international items and they’re worried about people being able to travel. The new various pandemic variant right now, where it was delta, now it’s omicron, and we’ll continue to have that, but I think, as you said, Oliver, it will stabilize.

It’ll probably be like the flu shot, you get it once a year, and with COVID you’ll get it once a year or twice a year, whatever it needs to be. And we’ll go back to a new normal. I don’t want to say the old normal, but to a new normal, where I think we will continue to have hybrid conferences, totally virtual conferences, and some conferences that are face-to-face.

Like I said, I would like to attend face-to-face, because it’s always nice to network, like you said, have a cup of coffee or meet somebody in the hallway. You never know what you’ll pick up, just like when your face-to-face at work and you go to the water cooler because you’ve got this idea on your head but you don’t know how to solve it, or you need more input so you go to the water cooler and there’s three other engineers or project managers and you ask them, or you tell them your idea, and then you have a chat about it. That’s hard to do in a virtual environment at this point.

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: My golly, this is such an important topic and it’s still evolving. Wanda, I really want to thank you for joining me today in this very exciting topic. Do you have any last words, kind of a summary of what we talked about here?

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Absolutely. As I said, we’re going to go to a new normal. Will that new normal happen this year or next year? Obviously, it’s not going to happen this year, because we’re in December. I don’t think we’ll see it in 2022. I think by 2023 we will have a new normal and conferences and businesses will have a virtual aspect and they’ll have a face-to-face aspect. In fact, they might leave it up to the employee.

As far as the conferences go, I think conference planners need to understand their audience and may need to go to more micro, as we talked about, where they focus what we’re going to speak to, or they may need to go face-to-face, but maybe at a smaller level. Then we have hybrid or totally virtual. Again, it’s going to depend on the audience.

Oliver, thank you very much for having me. This is a very important topic.

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Thank you for joining me. And you listeners, thank you for joining us. Wanda and I will be discussing other topics, some exciting podcasts in the future, especially in the area of artificial intelligence and artificial general intelligence, things that are happening in our daily lives at work and at home, so stay tuned and stay well.

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.

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