The global pandemic caused by COVID-19 has led to a major shakeup of how academic and society meetings are hosted. The traditional platform of in-person events is not currently an option, yet the appetite for information sharing and knowledge exchange remains.
As a result, many events organizers are choosing to go virtual rather than cancel or postpone. We spoke to Daniela Carl, Deputy Chief Executive of the Regional Studies Association, who shared her experience of embracing virtual events.
What is the RSA and what events does it run?
The Regional Studies Association (RSA) is a global and interdisciplinary network for regional and urban research, development, and policy. An important part of our work is to provide networking, professional development opportunities, and to facilitate research and knowledge exchanges. Before Covid-19, this was mainly done by running international conferences, some with a virtual element.
How easy or difficult was it for you to move the event online?
With the global pandemic, all in-person events ceased, and we had to rethink our delivery and support models to remain relevant and continue supporting our members and wider community. The work we had done previously on virtual conferences (Carl & Holmes 2020) came in handy when we developed two webinar series to support our members and global community during lockdown:
- The Professional Development Webinar Series (PD) which offers short professional development training sessions on publishing, career development, networking and research skills.
- The Regions Cities Industry Webinar Series (RCI) which has allowed us to bring high profile researchers and latest research to the community.
Did you decide to drop or modify some aspects of the events to make it work virtually?
From previous research, we knew that a webinar should ideally be no longer than 45 minutes, however, we did not find engagement issues with our longer RCI webinars. In our experience, these longer sessions work well when there are several speakers with shorter interventions and mixing these with polls or videos helps keep the audience engaged.
What online platforms or software did you use?
We initially did a lot of research on software and decided to go with Zoom in the end.
Did you get more or fewer delegates than you expected? Did you get delegates from a wider pool?
This was the real eyeopener as the webinars allowed us to reach a much larger and more diverse audience which we would never have reached with an in-person event. During the first month, we ran six webinars and had over 2,600 people signed up representing 91 countries.
Did you also charge delegate fees and/or fund through sponsorship, or did you experiment with entirely new funding models?
Both our webinar series are open for all and free to attend. The webinar recordings are available on demand for members only. In the future, we will explore a sponsorship model to cover some of our costs.
What was the greatest success of your virtual event?
Our first webinar had over 800 people signed up which was a fantastic success and confirmation that we were on the right track.
Were there any surprises? What did you learn?
We noticed a better balance between women and men asking questions in our webinars. As gender and equality are important for the RSA, we will aim to look into why more women have engaged in this format forward for all our future events, both online and in person.
On the technical side, in case you purchase a larger Zoom license then you have to make sure you also manually update the size of the license on your dashboard as this is not automatically done.
Do you have any tips for presenters or delegates to get the most out of virtual events?
- Webinar participants: To network online, use the chat function and introduce yourself, ask questions, tweet about the event, and follow up afterwards with anyone you wish to get to know better.
- Webinar chairs: Try to include all panelists by addressing the speaker directly, watch for any expressions on faces as there might be someone who wants to contribute but cannot find the right moment to join in.
- Webinar organizers: Please run a rehearsal. It will save you a lot of stress.
How do you see conferences for your community working in 2021 and beyond? What changes in conferences forced on us by the COVID pandemic do you think are here to stay?
An outcome of the pandemic is the higher acceptance of virtual meetings. Thus, virtual elements will remain a part of future conferences, offering an attendance option for those who do not want to or cannot travel. In-person events will take place again, but they might have a more local/regional focus in participation, and overall people will attend fewer in-person events than they used to.
Many thanks to Daniela and the RSA for sharing their experience with us. We hope that this is of benefit to the wider academic, society, and events community. Please feel free to use the share this blog through your networks on social media.