The COVID-19 pandemic means that the conference and event industry has to face a new reality. At Aarhus University we are also starting to adjust to the fact that for some time to come, and perhaps permanently, we will have to be able to convert physically planned conferences into completely virtual conferences or to hybrid meetings, i.e. a mix of physical and digital meetings.
Events and Communication Support has put together a guide containing advice, special focus areas and questions that you should ask yourself if you are about to plan a virtual conference. The three forms of conference have different advantages and also require different approaches in terms of planning and execution. In any case, the virtual form can ensure that we are still able to 'meet' when the physical conference is not an option – and technology and functionality have more possibilities than we think.
The following outlines the advantages and disadvantages of the physical and the virtual conference form, but advice and special focus areas only address purely virtual conferences. We are always available for further advice, so do not hesitate to contact us.
This page is updated regularly. Last updated on 16 November 2020.
Before you start planning your conference, you should consider which type of conference you want to hold. Several aspects affect whether you should choose a virtual or a physical conference, or whether it should be a-little-of-both conference (hybrid).
For example, you should consider:
The physical conference
Obviously, the physical conference provides the best possible setting for networking and personal interaction between participants. Physical interaction also often results in greater trust between the participants and ensures direct involvement, togetherness and fewer misunderstandings. Meeting physically leaves room for the more unscheduled dialogue, where trust, chemistry and the opportunity to exchange experiences arise. The participants often experience a sense of community and connection. The physical conference is often restricted by space (number of participants) and time (1-3 days).
The virtual conference
The virtual conference needs to be planned differently and has other advantages. This type of conference provides better opportunities for fragmented participation and, in principle, has no physical limitations. The virtual conference is often more flexible (can be executed at several times of the day, can easily be split into parts and modules), time-saving and efficient. It allows participants to take breaks or to work in-between sessions, for example.
As a general rule, the virtual conference is best suited to a controlled dialogue, for example one-way communication (presentation with the option of a written chat function/questions), but may also contain breakout sessions and dialogue in small groups, which can allow more spontaneous dialogue, networking and options to connect. With efficient use of the chat function, the virtual conference can allow for more questions from participants than a physical conference, and dialogue in the chat function. For example, 3 out of 10 questions can be answered in the chat function, and subsequently it can be agreed with the keynote/speaker that he or she will answer the remaining questions in writing, and the answers will be distributed to the participants after the conference.
Finally, the virtual conference is likely to have a smaller climate footprint and can be less costly, because there will be no expenses for air travel, hotels and meals/refreshments, for example. On the other hand, additional costs may be likely for external technical support and perhaps to purchase equipment. Moreover, a virtual conference is time-saving for the individual participant, and there is no travel time or jetlag – or time away from the family.
Note that the networking part of a virtual conference requires additional effort, as the participants are not together physically. This may be a problem, perhaps especially for younger researchers. There is no face-to-face interaction, no conversations with other participants, no 'real' discussions between participants and speakers, etc. There are no random meetings that could potentially be interesting, and the participants are invisible to one another. This requires creative thinking and that the conference is adapted to the target group. The use of breakout rooms should be considered, so that the groups in which you place people are perceived as relevant and have an appropriate number of participants. You can also try to hold an after-work gin tasting event and specify how the participants can subsequently link to one another, for example on Linkedin, etc.
The hybrid conference
Although planning and hosting a hybrid conference can be quite challenging, this format has a number of advantages that are worth taking into account. The hybrid format is more flexible and may be easier and more convenient for some participants. It may also help you achieve greater reach in relation to participants who live far away or who are short on time. However, hosting a hybrid conference also requires a lot of extra talks that you will be unfamiliar with if you have only every hosted purely in-person or purely virtual conferences before. Among other tings, you should be particularly conscious of resources and finances, because hybrid conferences require more of both. In addition, you should be aware of the fact that a hybrid conferences means two separate groups of participants which must be handled and communicated with differently.
At AU in 2021, we have gained experience with this format through planning and hosting a few hybrid conferences, so if you are considering this format, you are welcome to contact us for additional information and advice on issues including objectives, content and benefits, in addition to more practical advice on participants, communication, technology, platforms and interactive tools, network, scheduling and programme planning, multi-hub options, complexity, workload, setting realistic goals, etc.
When planning a virtual conference, the choice of platform (and associated functionality) can be important. Aarhus University can provide support for Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Note that the platforms should be viewed as virtual meeting rooms, where you can control the content. This is not a full solution for your conference. A separate registration in Conference Manager, for example, is still necessary, and payment is also outside the platforms.
We cannot recommend one platform over the other. They can do almost the same, so the choice is typically a matter of preference for the individual organiser. However, below is a comparison between the two platforms.
Click on the image below to go to a downloadable PDF.
In addition, there are various guides and guidelines on how to use the platforms:
It is important for the good virtual experience that you have considered the 'layout' of your virtual venue:
When planning and executing your virtual conference, think of it as a physical conference. This means that we recommend making a timetable and a staffing plan or a technical script, so that everything is thought through including settings, dialogue formats (presentations, breakout rooms, roundtables, etc.) and changes in technology and equipment along the way. Focus on both soft and drier aspects, even though the event is virtual.
The social aspect
People behave very differently online and offline. Therefore, it is important to balance expectations with your participants and prepare yourself for different behaviour online.
Difference between meeting and webinar
Get off to a good start with Webinar
Engage your participants
Film material for free use during execution or during breaks
Film about the Aarhus region (1.37 min.): Https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeQKodfH1JE
This film may be used in contexts where Aarhus and Aarhus University are to be profiled.
Note that if you want a film that is targeted at the individual congress or conference, you can contact the VisitAarhus Convention Bureau.
Historical film about Aarhus University (with English subtitles, duration: 2.23 min): https://youtu.be/pK3Ilk7rsfc
Drone recording of Aarhus University (without sound, duration: 0.30 min): https://youtu.be/fkg9ld62iTU