The Challenges (And Surprising Benefits!) Of Attending A Virtual Conference During A Pandemic

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2020 was a difficult year for educational conference attendance, no doubt, but what about 2021? As vaccines start to roll out and the world begins to return to whatever the new normal is, how has the convention experience for educators changed? What are some of the challenges organizers faced during the pandemic and what are some of the obstacles they foresee in the near future?

Here at Fit and Fun Playscapes, we attend countless educational conferences throughout the year -- physical education conferences, health-focused sessions, teacher conferences, parent volunteer conferences, etc. -- so we were saddened to see so many of them shelved during 2020 due to pandemic restrictions and low turnout.

Early in 2021, however, some educational groups like SHAPE America, AHPERD, Active Schools (part of Action For Healthy Kids) and others, decided to hold virtual conferences. A virtual conference was a conference with the same general idea as a regular, in-person conference, but without people coming together. Instead, from laptops, iPads, and desktops at home, educators could "zoom" into a virtual meeting space and join specific lobbies to hear keynote speeches, tour exhibitors, and attend lectures on all things education. This month, we got a chance to speak with an organizer of one of these events and discuss the challenges, and perhaps surprising benefits, of attending a virtual conference during a pandemic.

Judy L. LoBianco is the convention manager for the 2021 NJAHPERD (New Jersey AHPERD -- now SHAPE New Jersey) Virtual Conference. In addition, she's something of a legend among the educational community.

Judy LoBianco is a consultant and former Supervisor of Health and Physical Education and Nursing Services for the South Orange-Maplewood School District in NJ. Through Judy’s leadership, her district secured two back-to-back US DOE Federal physical education grants for a total of $2.74 million, revolutionizing the program and bringing national recognition. Prior to that role, she taught high school health and physical education at the district’s Columbia High School for 10 years.

Judy was the Past President of the New Jersey Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (NJAHPERD), the Eastern District of the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE America) and recently served as the President of SHAPE America in 2018-2019.

"You're talking with someone here who I think has had the most experience with what it's been like transitioning to virtual, to navigate virtual, to speak in a pre-recorded way, to interact live virtually, and to actually plan a massive convention," LoBianco told Fit and Fun Playscapes in a live Zoom interview on Friday, March 12. 

"We're one of the only states [New Jersey] that's been able to invest in a virtual platform and say 'The bar is here.' If you're doing a convention for the first time, you'd better be willing and ready to invest in the professional services that our members come to expect."

One of the challenges of setting up a virtual convention during a pandemic, she told us, was the "unexpectedness" factor of it all.

"It was very routine," LoBianco said of pre-pandemic conventions. "You know what to expect of the venue, you knew what you had to do and in what week you had to do it, and you knew, for the most part, who was going to come because they come every year."

"You know exactly how much revenue is going to be coming in, so you just sort of tweak it a little bit each year. You do that because you want to make sure not just that the program is updated and appropriate for that particular year, but also to bring in certain social elements that people aren't used to."

That changed this year with coronavirus restrictions still in place.

"I couldn't be in-person, but I had to give them the look and feel of being in-person," LoBianco said.

The first thing she changed were the sessions themselves, opting to pre-record all of them because of associated cost. However, she decided it would be best to have all the presenters physically present during the actual session so they could be active in the chat and engaging with the audience. Secondly, she made herself available at all hours of the day for presenters who were trying to get their virtual booths and sessions set up. In the weeks leading up to the convention, she said, she spent endless hours answering emails, hopping on Zoom calls for one-on-one sessions, teaching presenters how to operate the virtual platform, and getting on phone calls with exhibitors. 

"This is a service," she told us. "If you're going to get frustrated and angry with the people who are responsible for making [the convention] a success, you don't belong in convention management."

"I was happy to answer everyone's questions. I wanted them to feel comfortable. I can't do this without these people."

One of the surprising benefits she found about virtual conventions, though, was timeslot organization. During in-person conferences, there's limited space about what sessions can fill what specific timeslot. With a virtual conference, you could theoretically have an infinitely scalable convention hall. Plus, virtual conventions allow pre-recorded sessions to be replayed for 60 days, meaning that for the money paid, an attendee has the ability to hear every session offered.

"A normal convention is over in a day or two," LoBianco said. "The virtual convention is the convention that keeps on giving."

In addition, if an attendee misses the registration deadline, they can register after the convention is over, then gain access to all the materials from that convention for a period of time.

"Plus, it allows us to log more professional development hours, which is very important to us in New Jersey," LoBianco said.

Finally, LoBianco was glad to not have to worry about putting up huge monetary amounts in overhead costs to book blocks for the hotel, restaurant, and convention hall that would normally host in-person events. It allowed her to expand SHAPE New Jersey's budget into other avenues to benefit the organization in the future.

In the end, the COVID-19 pandemic has tested educational conferences, but it would seem that the lessons learned over the last year will help better them in the future. For instance, though LoBianco is skeptical about an in-person conference in the fall, she is planning for a "return to normal" by next spring. She's hoping, though, that by the fall, something small will be able to take place in-person, but virtual meetings are not going to disappear.

Here at Fit and Fun Playscapes, we certainly hope to get back to in-person conventions soon! But until then, we are adapting to the new norm, just like the rest of the educational community.

 

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