Last week I was supposed to be in Nuremberg with over 450 other translators and interpreters at the BP20 translation conference.
You won’t be surprised to hear that our event was disrupted by the Corona crisis, but fortunately in this case it was possible to switch to a virtual format. I’d been looking forward to the real-life event for some time. Conferences are not only about presentations, but are also a great opportunity to network with colleagues in person, so I was very curious to find out how the online version would work and if it would be as beneficial (and enjoyable!) as a real-life event.

How did it work?

What would have been a three-day conference was spread over five days.
We used Zoom for two different types of online session. The presentations were held in webinar format, two at a time in different Zoom rooms. In those sessions only the speaker and supporting host were visible, and attendees were able to ask questions in the chat. The masterclasses – much smaller sessions ahead of the conference itself – were in meeting format, with everyone on view via video. In both kinds of session speakers shared slides, sometimes linking to external content or interactive polls.
The main presentations were held in the afternoons, leaving room in the mornings and evenings for informal Zoom calls with networking, Q&A sessions and general chat.

Networking app

In addition to the Zoom sessions we used an app – Whova – for networking. This was already part of the real-life event and was great for connecting with like-minded colleagues, planning meet-ups and exchanging logistical information. But when BP20 went virtual, the app really came into its own. We were able to create our own groups for different topics within the app, so it meant that it was easy to find discussions about subjects I was interested in. That’s a big plus, especially for an introvert like me. In fact I probably connected with more people that way than I would have at the real-life event. I’m now in the process of setting up individual Zoom calls for “virtual coffee breaks” with lots of the people I met using the app.

Communication is key

Organiser Csaba Bán – who by the way did an amazing job switching a huge event to a virtual format at short notice – kept us extremely well informed before and during the event. I always felt like I knew what was going on, and even during the occasional technical hitch I felt that we were in the very best of hands.
The Zoom details for the upcoming sessions were sent out by mail and added to the Whova app twice a day. With everyone already tuned into checking their mails and messages for information, it was possible to set up extra networking sessions relatively spontaneously, or let everyone know when the schedule needed to be adjusted.

Pros and cons

Here are what I felt were the main advantages and disadvantages of the virtual format:

Pros

  • People were able to participate who might not have been there otherwise, whether for financial reasons or due to distance or other commitments.
  • I loved the networking app that allowed us to get to know each other in groups for specific topics. This was a great way to find like-minded people easily. It was already in use but took on a more important role in the context of a virtual event.
  • You can ask questions using the Q&A function in Zoom – people are more likely to interact with the speaker if they don’t have to stand up in a room full of people.
  • As everyone was in touch via email and the networking app, it was easy to announce time changes at short notice or set up an extra networking session when someone felt like hosting one.
  • The carbon footprint for the event was much lower, as nobody had to travel to get there.
  • Costs were much lower – no transport or accommodation to worry about.

Cons

  • The downside to the targeted networking described above was that there were fewer interesting random encounters, for example when you get into a chat with the person behind you in the dinner queue or exchange a few comments with your neighbour at a presentation.
  • Despite all the fascinating content and engaging speakers, I found it quite exhausting following online sessions all week. Conferences always take some (ok, a lot of) energy, but I found it takes a particular kind of concentration to focus on Zoom calls for long periods of time.
  • Speakers had to present to a camera rather than to a live audience. Although all the speakers I saw handled it really well, it’s more difficult to present if you can’t see your audience.
  • Speakers had to take care of their own tech – again, the ones I saw did a great job, but there was more to think about than if they’d been in a real-life conference situation with a tech team on hand.
  • Meeting people in person will always be a richer experience than meeting them online. It would have been lovely to see everyone in real life.
  • I always enjoy the immersive experience of a real-life conference – getting right away for a few days to live and breathe the topic in hand. With the virtual format I couldn’t immerse myself in the same way – some of the “fun factor” was missing.

More than just a ‘plan B’

Of course the biggest advantage of the virtual format was that it allowed the event to take place! Continuous professional development – or CPD – is one of my business priorities, so I was very glad that I still had the opportunity to get together with my colleagues to participate in many inspiring sessions, catch up on all the news and trends and network to my heart’s content.
But joking apart, there were definitely aspects of this kind of conference that we should keep hold of and which were more than just a compromise. The environmental benefits and the level of accessibility for speakers and attendees from around the world are huge plus points.
My impression was that for the most part the technology played nicely and Zoom was able to cope with our large sessions. And although we weren’t all in the same place, I still felt connected, learned a lot and had a good time meeting new colleagues. I came away feeling energised and excited, with lots of new ideas for my translation business.
I wouldn’t want to get rid of real-life events altogether, but perhaps one thing to learn here is that online formats are not just a “plan B”. They can work very successfully, they have a role to play and they can complement real-life events. I hope to see more of them in the future.