Ever realize that you don’t know how much you crave something until it’s taken away?
I think that was all of us who regularly attend in-person events and conferences. While I was able to make due in 2020/21 with virtual classes and meetings – going virtual with conferences just wasn’t my jam. As hard as I tried it was difficult to focus and stay present and in the moment. So I was apprehensive, yet excited to get back into the groove and ATD 2021 conference in Salt Lake City.
It was great to get cautiously out and about again, and as I was planning this series of wrap posts I knew I wanted to incorporate someone who had successfully attended the conference virtually. Enter Jana Chamberlin, Team Lead Instructional Designer for NorthWest Federal Credit Union. We are part of the same WhatsApp group and she gamely volunteered to write about her experience.
Reading about her experience has given me hope to give attending virtual conferences another go!
Thank you Jana!
ATD 2021 Anticipation!
August was an interesting month for me. I returned to working in the office for the first time in seventeen months which coincided with the end of my maternity leave. I’d also been promoted two weeks earlier so I had a lot on my mind. Not only was I no longer at home with my kids, but I was also returning to my work family to be physically present with new responsibilities and expectations. It was time to assimilate into my new role as a leader and catch up on what developments had occurred during my absence in the L&D world both within our team as well as globally.
To say I had high expectations for this year’s ATD 2021 conference is an understatement. I was lucky enough to attend last year and by its ending, I was on an adrenaline rush of knowledge I wanted to share with my colleagues. The new network of cohorts beyond anything I could have ever imagined and I felt empowered and ready to take on anything that was thrown at me. With all of the new changes in my life this year and the ongoing presence of the pandemic, the ATD 2021 conference couldn’t have come at a better time.
Now, clearly, I can’t speak to the in-person experience but I can share my thoughts regarding the going virtual experience.
So here we go:
Going Virtual vs Hybrid
Attending the ATD 2021 conference this year was a different experience because it was a hybrid conference with both virtual (@Home) and in-person (@HQ) attendees. This changed the dynamics of the virtual schedule including what was available for participants. In 2020, each hour had something new for the attendees because, being 100% virtual, there wasn’t a restriction on the number of rooms and everything that goes into setting up and preparing those rooms. You don’t have seats to organize, a stage to set, and time needed to fill the room. With 2021 being a hybrid experience all of those factors did come into play as the majority of speakers were on-site and, therefore, conference organizers needed those breaks in between to set up and prepare rooms.
So with an average of two hours in between each speaking event those of us that attended virtually had to make a decision: Do we use this time to check our emails, put in a little work, or do we get our game on? But more on that later. First, let’s talk a little more about the schedule.
Virtual Conference Schedule
Aside from having two-hour breaks between each speaking event, there was one prominent difference that I, as an @Home attendee, noticed: There were offerings that were exclusively for @HQ attendees. Now, that might sound like a travesty, but I did find that in most cases, these offerings were being recorded and are available for a period of time post-conference for my viewing pleasure.
That doesn’t mean that @HQ had all of the fun though. Us @Home attendees also had offerings that were exclusive to us. First, the conference was set up this year to cater more to the global audience so there were scheduled speakers at 11:00 p.m., 1:00 a.m., 4:30 a.m., to ensure those on the other side of the world had the opportunity to attend live sessions without having to completely upend their sleep schedules to participate. There is a caveat to this though. In most instances, there was only one offering at these times while during the day of the conference, as you would imagine, there were anywhere from three to five offerings available.
Fun & Unique Virtual Experiences
A fun and unique @Home experience was the 8:00 a.m. Peloton ride. For those of us who rode, we were encouraged to connect and follow each other by using the tag, @ATD21Riders as we took “A Journey Through the Decades” which was part of a previously recorded series from earlier this summer. I joined the Sunday and Wednesday rides and while I never saw anyone with the tag displayed prominently I suspect they were there because my Peloton would advertise that friends from that hashtag were riding.
My favorite experience as an @Home attendee was getting to have the opportunity to get the ultimate advice from the gurus themselves. William Arruda, Wendy Kirkpatrick, Megan Torrance, Gary Mills, and many more took time away from their speaking obligations to meet with a handful of us for 30 minute Q&A opportunities in the middle of the day. The only downside is there were usually 2-3 that were happening simultaneously so you had to make your choice and miss out on meeting the others. With that said, ATD recorded those Zoom meetings and these are available on-demand.
It’s Not a Matter of “If” but “When”: Technical Difficulties
Overall, the technical difficulties that I experienced were minor though, in reading some of the chats during the sessions I recognize that my experience was not the same as others. With that said, these are the minor pain points that I experienced during the event.
The Agenda: The agenda did, I’ll admit, occasionally cause some moments of frustration. Setting aside that it didn’t recognize me as an @Home attendee, the filtering process didn’t necessarily yield the best results. As an example, if I wanted to search for William Arruda to make sure I could attend his live session and then sign up for his Q&A, I would have thought that typing his name into the search would have given me the results needed. Instead, I would only get the results of the Q&A because the search appeared to only be looking at the title, not the speaker.
The reality was unless I knew the program title exactly, I had no idea how to find his speaking engagement. This was to ensure I saw the program and be inspired with questions I could ask when I joined the Q&A. One of the filter options was to search keywords. However, low and behold, I couldn’t type in my keyword but instead had to mine through roughly 100 preset keywords. Unfortunately, some were repeated in different ways so it sometimes felt like I was trying to find a needle in haystack. As an example, “trainer” “trainer/facilitator” “facilitator” “train the trainer” were all options. Anything dealing with certification had five or six different keyword searches.
The Vendors: The vendors didn’t always seem to differentiate between @HQ and @Home attendees. I got a number of follow-up requests from the vendors asking if I had time to stop by again and speak with them in-person. The first time I got this request I was a little confused. I have since decided, whether true or not, that this must be due to the vendors having a “request for information” for both virtual and in-person. The only time it made me a little sad was when they would ask if I’d picked up any swag when I’d been at their booth. As an example, I am a sucker for a good pair of Ray-Bans and knowing I missed that opportunity was that little “ouch” of my day. But, all in all, I understand and respect that the downside to my attending virtually is that swag is, alas, not in the cards. (Shannon’s Note: If you are in the same position as Jana, don’t fear – the BIG SWAG Giveaway is coming!)
Before I wrap up I do need to take a moment to talk about conference networking. Do not for one moment think that you’re limited in your networking abilities being in a virtual space. In some ways, I felt like the networking opportunities were even easier and more fruitful because they were inspired in the moment.
Now, there are plenty that won’t agree but let me share my perspective: I am an ultra-introvert. The idea of walking into a room and meeting new people on my own would have likely resulted in my either standing off to the side along the walls silently observing or, more likely, would have had me walking right back out and to my room. Just thinking of it now has butterflies taking flight in my stomach.
Being an @Home attendee, I didn’t see one person’s face except when I was in those Q&A sessions or joining a networking event. Sadly, I froze and couldn’t come up with a single question to ask in those moments. My favorite networking opportunity was to join in the chat during speaking sessions. Not only was I learning from a goliath in the field, but I was working and sharing “A-Ha!” moments with my cohorts and learning from their personal experiences. Some of the chat you’ll see is cheeky but by and large we were sharing our knowledge and experiences and even threw out alternatives to what was being shared to inspire more thinking amongst ourselves. And we could do it without being disruptive to those attending in person and to the speaker that was taking time to share their knowledge.
While attending an event in person will have some amazing opportunities that I still have yet to experience, I have to say that being an @Home attendee has proven to be a uniquely engaging and exciting opportunity. If your budget doesn’t allow for you to be present at the live event as an in-person attendee, definitely give the @Home experience a chance.
I hope Jana has inspired you to take an opportunity to investigate more virtual conferences. I know I’ll give it another go!
About Jana Chamberlin:
As the Team Lead for Instructional Designers with Northwest Federal Credit Union, Jana spearheads the design and development of successful learning solutions for the Talent Development department of her organization.
Her pursuit to create transformative and meaningful learning interactions stems from a thirst for knowledge and growth both professionally and personally. Her desire to always be learning inspires her to share what she has discovered with those around her. Jana uses a human-centered approach to innovate and design learning solutions to align with organizational goals and increase learner engagement.