The Covid-19 pandemic transformed the conference and event industry. Event organisers at Aarhus University have adjusted to the new reality: we are now prepared to offer purely virtual conferences as well as hybrid events which combine in-person and digital forms of participation.
When you’re deciding what format is most appropriate to your conference, the important question to ask yourself is: ‘What will benefit my event and my participants most?’ In other words, you shouldn’t choose a virtual or hybrid format for your conference ‘because you can’. You should select the format that brings the most value to your event and your participants. In this connection, it’s worth noting that according to a survey carried out by Aarhus University and VisitAarhus in 2022, 86% of the participating researchers prefer in-person conferences to virtual conferences. This isn’t in itself an argument against holding events of this kind; however, it does highlight how important it is for event organisers to consider the question carefully. In some cases, a virtual or hybrid event might certainly be the best solution.
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 in-person conference is not an option – and technology and functionality have more possibilities than we think.
The following outlines the advantages and disadvantages of the in-person and the virtual/hybrid 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 January 2023.
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 in-person conference
Obviously, the in-person 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).
A survey carried out by Aarhus University and VisitAarhus in 2022, 86% of the participating researchers prefer in-person conferences to virtual conferences. In order to ‘justify’ meeting in person, we recommend focussing on facilitating networking at in-person conferences. You’ll find lots of good advice on how to facilitate networking and dialogue on our new conference networking webpage. Read on for more information.
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
While it can be a big job to plan and host a hybrid conference, this format has a lot of advantages. 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 things, 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 conference means two separate groups of participants which must be dealt with and communicated with differently. And when it comes to planning the conference programme, avoid a one-size-fits-all approach: even though a hybrid conference brings all of your participants together for the same event, virtual and in-person participants will experience the event differently. In reality, you are actually planning two separate conferences in one. Your goal is to ensure that both target audiences get the same benefit from the conference while accepting that they won’t get the same experience.
We have some experience with organising hybrid conferences at AU, 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. Watch our presentation on what we learned from organising a large hybrid conference here.
When planning a virtual or hybrid conference, the choice of platform (and associated functionality) can be important. Aarhus University can provide support for Zoom and Microsoft Teams. If you have additional questions regarding the platforms and their possibilities, please contact your local IT department.
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 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.
A number of ‘Zoom Rooms’ are available at AU, and the Centre for Educational Development has put together a guide to using them. These rooms are designed to support Zoom meetings and are perfect for virtual or hybrid conferences. However, the Zoom Rooms are not large, so they’re best suited for smaller conferences or as breakout rooms in connection with hybrid conferences. Find a description of the available Zoom Rooms on this list.
In addition, there are various guides and guidelines on how to use the platforms at Aarhus University:
In addition to the platforms described above that Aarhus University has licenses for, there are lots of different platforms you can purchase access to for use in connection with an event. Contact us for help and advice on virtual platforms, for example need input regarding suppliers of live stream video or virtual conference platforms with more of a ‘conference feel’ than Zoom or Teams.
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