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Conferences: Virtual vs. In-Person – Inside or Outside the Octagon?

By SRAI News posted 04-06-2021 03:38 PM


Conferences: Virtual vs. In-Person – Inside or Outside the Octagon?

With the pandemic’s arrival and transformation of the way we do business, one aspect has not been addressed: that of professional conferences. While in-person meetings clearly were not recommended, a clear alternative was not evident. We spoke with two SRAI members on the benefits/drawbacks of virtual vs. in-person conferences.

With the pandemic’s arrival and transformation of the way we do business, one aspect has not been addressed often, that of professional conferences.  While in-person national meetings clearly were not recommended during this time, a clear alternative was not evident.  Most organizations have attempted virtual meetings.  While not a replica of in-person conferences, this replacement has offered its own unique benefits.  We spoke with two SRAI members about their thoughts on the benefits and drawbacks of virtual vs. in-person conferences. 


While I thoroughly enjoy the various facets of in-person meetings, over the past year I have grown affectionate of virtual conferences.  The best seem to have mitigated many of my pet peeves about having to schlep across the country for a few days, lose sleep, identify child-care or animal care, and just about totally disturb my home and professional schedules.  I would agree that virtual meetings are no replacement for in-person meetings.  Nor should they be.  However, the whole purpose of a national conference is for information exchange and updates. The best virtual conferences provide a streamlined version of an in-person conference, with the focus on speakers and talks.  This way, I can get the content and still be able to conduct work in the office.  While travel is fun, it is often challenging to block out almost a week of one’s schedule (inclusive of travel time).  Another advantage of virtual meetings is in cost savings.  Inclusive of travel costs, a conference may cost upwards of $2,000.  A virtual conference only costs the nominal registration fee.  In this way, I can attend multiple conferences over a year or my colleagues can also attend meetings.  Finally, while the networking aspect is not possible in virtual meetings, it also eliminates the unacknowledged discomfort that accompanies those who travel solo.  After living in a virtual environment over the last year, I have come to conclude that I enjoy the virtual environment in that it provides an open door to more experiences online and eliminates the unnecessary aspects that may not be needed.  I think it provides a more egalitarian world for our colleagues.


I may be old fashioned, but I find that the greatest benefit of attending national conferences is in the networking arena.  From the time when I first began attending meetings, I discovered that I was not alone!  There were many, many others just like me, with similar professional concerns, challenges, and needs.  I was able to chat with like-minded individuals about problems and in shorthand obtain ideas for solutions.  There is also something to be said for sitting in large rooms with colleagues and interacting, while listening to talks in a collective environment.  I relate this to home streaming a movie vs. watching it in a theater.  I also find all the tangential aspects of a national meeting beneficial.  Meetings are often aspirational, held in large conference centers or hotels, allowing one to become part of a larger whole and feel part of something greater.  Regarding the travel aspects, I agree that it is difficult to lose almost a week out of the office.  However, the ability to visit a different city, to escape one’s familiar environment, and to explore something new, is valuable to mental health and enhances attendance at a conference.  I believe the engagement aspects of an in-person meeting are what makes it so valuable.  While a virtual meeting will provide content, it cannot provide much additional.  Are the additional costs worth the benefits to an in-person event?  I believe so.  This is the differentiation between learning from a book vs. learning from a class.  There is something tangible added when collectively learning with others.  I have personally made many strong connections and have gained professional growth through these interactions. 


Authored by Mark Lucas, Chief Administrative Officer, Department of Neurobiology
University of California, Los Angeles