With the inevitable cancellations of events due to the Corona pandemic, many organizers have developed contingency solutions for their online congresses with admirable speed and creativity, although they have often not yet taken this aspect into account very well. While casual communication among participants seems, at first glance, to be the most difficult aspect to replicate virtually, the careful choice of appropriate approaches offers new and sometimes even more effective possibilities than on-site events.
What constitutes personal contact during on-site conferences?
Contact with other participants during on-site conferences almost inevitably comes about through physical proximity. Typical situations include:
- Spontaneous discussion with the person sitting next to you about the last presentation
- Small talk during the coffee break or at the buffet with a person who is having their snack at the same table
- Conversation at the gala dinner with neighbors at the same table
- The exchange in the hallway with old colleagues or members of the international project team and many more…
The advantage is clear in all cases: Starting a conversation is more or less obvious in the respective situation and as a complement to a main activity (eating, listening to a lecture, …) has for many a pleasant side effect. It requires hardly any special effort to start a conversation if there is sufficient interest.
At first glance maybe, but perhaps not at second glance: body language helps us quickly understand whether someone wants to interact or not. The person being addressed does not have to do much to signal (dis)interest in talking to strangers. However, such signals can easily be misunderstood, especially in an international environment where different cultures meet. In this regard, I am reminded of a congress encounter many years ago with an Indian participant who, shaking his head, consistently answered “Yes” to my questions about whether he had had a good journey or had been satisfied with his accommodation. It took me a moment to interpret his shaking head correctly and to bring it in line with his verbal answer. A signal that is understood as rejection in the Central European context means exactly the opposite in other regions of the world. So without his “Yes,” I would have completely misunderstood his answers.
The disadvantage in many cases: With new contacts, I generally don’t know who I’m getting involved with. That’s usually appealing, but can occasionally lead to you to realize after just 30 seconds that you have very few little in common with your conversation partner, and you spend the next 15 minutes trying to find your way between awkward silences and helpless attempts at conversation until lunch is finally finished.
How can you make good contacts at virtual events?
At an online event, you don’t stand together at the buffet and you don’t sit in direct earshot of other participants. How can you still facilitate informal conversations between participants? And how can they be even more substantive than on-site? To start with: We at Converia are sure that the answer should not be that participants of online congresses should walk as 3D avatars through poorly-rendered 3D event halls and make contact with other 3D avatars there.
As is generally the case when transferring traditional on-site events to online meetings, all considerations on this topic should be guided by the question of what is the essence and purpose of it all for everyone involved and how to get the most benefit from the new situation. We see the following possibilities in this regard and also take them into account in our online congress platform Converia Virtual Venue:
1. Bring people together based on similar interests, rather than randomly
Instead of being primarily random-based, virtual or online conferences allow for a data-based approach to connect people as effectively as possible. In this context, institutions, research interests, or individual selection and evaluation of particular presentations can be good criteria for determining with which participants there is a large overlap of interests.
2. Provide opportunities for participants to continue discussing and exploring topics after the session ends
While the space available on site is inevitably limited and further discussions can flare up briefly at the buffet, at online congresses participants who see a need for further discussion at the end of a session simply start their own meeting. In addition to video and text chat, whiteboards and jointly editable documents may also be used in order to effectively discuss ideas and to be able to use the results of such rounds sustainably, beyond the congress itself.
3. Offer other places to enable like-minded people or working groups to hold spontaneous meetings
The digital meetings just mentioned can be used just as well by existing working groups or otherwise spontaneously coming together. Unlike on-site events, there are technical limits to consider in order to provide a smooth user experience that are easily managed if planned ahead of the event.
4. Offer meaningful substitutions for coffee breaks
Online coffee breaks are no longer primarily for caffeine, but also clearly focused on getting in touch with other participants. Organizers should take care to provide meetings with as small a group as possible so that each participant has a chance to speak and such situations are not dominated by participants who are particularly eager to talk. A particularly nice approach, for example, is a method based on classic speed dating: Here, two participants with potentially high overlap of interests are brought together in a video chat. There, they have time for a limited period of time, e.g. 3 minutes, to get to know each other and to decide whether they want to stay in contact in the long term. After this time has expired, new pairs come together.
With these and other approaches, organizers can make the most of the opportunities offered by virtual conferences and create an added value for the majority of participants, for whom contact with colleagues is also important.