At AFCPE, the end of summer and early fall is usually a very busy time—not only are we getting ready for the AFCPE Symposium, but this tends to be “exhibit season” for us. Typically, our staff finds themselves in hotels and conference centers all over the country, flyers and giveaways in hand, ready to set up our booth and share the value of AFCPE. While it is still very busy around here, things have looked a little different this year. Instead of rushing from the airport to set up our exhibit booth at the conference hotel, or mingling at networking events, we’ve found ourselves exhibiting virtually from our homes, networking from our keyboards.
Until recently, I had never experienced a virtual conference, not even as an attendee, and wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve always enjoyed the conference atmosphere, even the mediocre hotel food, and was skeptical that a virtual experience would come close to the real thing. However, after a few experiences with virtual conferences, I can say that with the right approach and planning, you can still have a positive and engaging experience.
As you prepare for the upcoming AFCPE Symposium, November 16 – 20, or any other event you are attending this fall, here are some of my tips for getting the most out of a virtual experience:
This is my number one tip for a reason. It’s, hands down, the most important part of having a great conference experience. I will admit that I did not have a very positive attitude going into my first virtual event. I missed the human connection, the atmosphere, and was a bit stubborn about accepting virtual conferences as the current reality. I quickly realized that having this attitude would only assure a negative experience.
After my first day of virtual conferencing, I changed my approach and attitude. I visited the networking lounges, I participated in chats, and started engaging with others. Before I knew it, I was “bumping into” people I knew and had things in common with. I started to get that warm conference vibe of being around my like-minded peers. Bottom line, don’t’ be shy—it’s up to you to engage with others. As a natural introvert, I found engaging virtually was much easier for me than in-person networking. Also, don’t forget to engage with the exhibitors, not only do they have great information, but they may have prizes or giveaways.
Upload Your Photo.
Let people see you! We can’t be face-to-face right now, but no one wants to talk to a blank profile. Take the time before the conference to upload your photo and complete your profile. Let people know who you are, what you do, and even something not work-related about yourself. Think of your profile as the small talk that we can’t have right now.
Use Your Out of Office.
Just because you aren’t travelling for a conference doesn’t mean you should work through it. Even though you’ll be at your desk (or on your couch) all day, I encourage you to act as if you are at an in-person conference. Put up your out of office messaging, turn off your phone, don’t plan to work, and let your co-workers (and family) know that you will be unavailable. This will allow you to fully immerse yourself in the virtual conference experience and provide you the time to truly absorb the content. We all like to say we are great multi-taskers, but deep down we know this isn’t true. You can’t be present at your virtual event if you’re still trying to work.
Plan Your Day.
Remember going to conferences before apps replaced conference schedules? Everyone would sit at breakfast with their conference guides circling the sessions they wanted to attend that day, collaborating with coworkers to make sure you hit as many sessions as possible. Take the time before the conference, and each morning, to plan your day—you can even print off the schedule for old times’ sake. Decide which sessions you want to attend, figure out when your breaks will be, and think about how you’ll work meals into your day. I even ordered lunch delivery for myself a few times when the schedule was tight.
Bookmark the Conference Link.
This sounds pretty basic and silly, but this will save you from hunting through your email each morning to find out where to go. By staying away from email, you’ll also prevent the temptation to start working.
Embrace the Differences.
There will be plenty missing from your virtual conference experience- hugging old friends, swag bags (unless you were one of the first 600 AFCPE Symposium registrants!), ice-cold hotel rooms—but there are a lot of pros to virtual conferences. If you find yourself in a session that isn’t what you thought it would be, for example, you don’t have to awkwardly tip-toe out of the room while carefully closing the door behind you. You can just click out of your session and join a different one. Another pro of virtual conferences is that almost everything is recorded. You don’t have to worry about furiously taking notes or missing something. Sit back, listen, and enjoy. You can always go back and watch it again. And finally, sweatpants! I definitely haven’t missed packing up several days’ worth of dress clothes. If you’re attending your virtual event from home, take advantage and get cozy.
There Will be Tech Issues.
Just like in-person conferences, virtual conferences have hiccups along the way. There will be delays, dropped audio, poor video connections, and other tech issues. Remember that most organizations are doing this for the first time and even the most planned and rehearsed schedule will experience some issues. If you find yourself with some down-time, take a minute to make a few notes about you’ve learned and what you’ll be taking back to share with your colleagues.
Give Yourself a Break.
Most of us work in front of a screen all day, so I did not anticipate screen fatigue from a virtual conference, but I found myself wanting a little time away throughout the day. Make sure you are planning some time away from your screen to recharge throughout the day. Resist the urge to check your email and take a quick walk outside instead.
At the end of the day, just like an in-person conference, a virtual conference is what you make of it. You get out what you put in. I’m confident you will have a rewarding and engaging experience with these tips. I encourage you to embrace the differences of virtual events while taking comfort in the things that haven’t changed. While I have enjoyed my virtual conference experiences, I do hope we are all chatting very soon over a cup of overpriced hotel coffee, even if it means giving up my sweatpants.
Guest contributor: Jarod Taylor, Certification Program Director, AFCPE
If you aren’t registered for #AFCPE2020, November 16-20, 2020, there’s still time. Bonus: If you register ahead of Symposium week, your registration includes 2021 AFCPE Membership!