4 ways virtual conferences differ from in-person events

2020 06 16 22 09 9134 Doctor Virtual Meeting Laptop Computer 400

As in-person medical conferences have been canceled through 2020, many radiology professionals are left wondering how virtual meetings stack up. Are virtual conferences here to stay? Can they recreate the verve of in-person meetings? A new, informal study found four key differences.

A research team led by Dr. Vivek Kalia from the radiology department at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor surveyed leaders in imaging research, clinical care, and administration throughout the U.S. The group asked questions about the pros and cons of in-person versus virtual scientific conferences and published the results on June 12 in Radiology: Imaging Cancer.

"COVID-19 has shifted science and all of life to digital, rather than in-person, interactions. This likely will never reverse completely," the authors wrote. However, a "complete paradigm shift to virtual conferences would result in loss of a cornerstone of growth in biomedical research and inspiration to trainees."

In-person vs. virtual meetings

As technology advances and participants get used to digital conferences, strengths and weaknesses of virtual events are beginning to emerge.

As things stand right now, Kalia and colleagues found four key differences between in-person and virtual meetings:

  • Communication
  • Participation
  • Networking
  • Impacts on organizations

Regarding communication, in-person meetings change how a speaker presents. Speakers feed off the energy of the crowd, which cannot be replicated no matter how interactive the software. Plus, virtual conferences don't allow for eye contact or visual cues, making it difficult for a speaker to determine whether they are communicating effectively. That lack of emotional connection also affects audience memory retention, perception, learning, and problem-solving, according to the authors.

Another difference between in-person and virtual meetings is focus. In-person meetings allow people to step away (to some degree) from normal life and think only of professional work and development. During virtual meetings, it's all too easy to get distracted and multitask while a presentation runs in the background. And will institutions protect "conference attendance time" if a person does not physically leave the usual work environment?

A positive of virtual conferences is ease of access: More people are able to attend because the constraints of childcare, money, and travel are reduced. This accessibility also broadens the audience reach to those with disabilities, students, and even the general public.

More people in attendance doesn't equal better networking with other attendees, though. The spontaneous and serendipitous connections that happen at in-person meetings fall to the wayside during virtual conferences, according to Kalia and team. However, for introverts, virtual conferences may make it easier to connect with others.

Professional organizations are the most impacted by the switch to virtual conferences. For many groups, annual meetings are one of, if not the, major source of revenue. Going exclusively digital will force them to rethink their revenue models. There are also secondary costs to nixing in-person meetings: local economies. The RSNA 2019 annual meeting brought in an estimated $130 million to Chicago's economy, according to the authors.

What about vendors? In-person meetings are not only where they demonstrate new products and services but also where they make major sales.

"Pausing or even possibly ending in-person conferences will limit the growth of established companies and threaten the viability of new companies trying to enter the marketplace," the authors wrote.

Kalia et al conclude that the shift spurred by COVID-19 from in-person to digital interaction will never reverse completely, and some attendees may permanently prefer the virtual format for reasons including cost, ease of access, and other personal reasons. But virtual events may never replicate the allure and intangible benefits of in-person conferences, according to Kalia and colleagues.

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