July 6, 2020

Taking the Salish Sea Institute Conference online: Increasing access by eliminating travel barriers

A conversation with Chelsea Bodamer and Adam Lorio, Western Washington University

Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference logo

Background

Chelsea is the event coordinator at Western Washington University, where she works with the Salish Sea Institute to hold a biennial conference. Adam is the new lead for the conference service team.

How they went virtual

The work to adapt the 2020 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference from in person to online was all done by our Conference Services team, who worked in partnership with Salish Sea Institute and the Salish Sea Ecosystem 2020 Conference planning committees to pull off the epic effort to shift to an online offering of the conference in three weeks!  

The conference program was converted to a virtual (synchronous) and digital (asynchronous) format. The virtual component consisted of a live two-day webinar style event, held April 21-22, 2020. It brought together over 80 speakers for a mix of plenary and concurrent sessions. The digital conference invited over 500 presenters, session and poster alike, to upload their presentations in both PDF and video format where they can be viewed on the digital conference website throughout the course of 2020.

Successes

They provided technical training to all speakers and used Zoom as their platform. At least 86% of the 3,700 attendees reported no technology issues. The event was free and had more than a 50% increase in attendance as compared to in-person conferences. They had nearly 4,000 registrants after registration had only been open for one week. Many attendees would not have been able to attend in person due to travel restrictions. The content will be archived digitally for one year and will be available to anyone, not just registrants. They are using a third party platform for archiving, which means that the institute and university don’t need to maintain the information. They recommend making sure that online content isn’t static - weblinks can change quickly and unexpectedly.

Lessons learned

We’re all learning as we go! There is a reluctance toward virtual meetings, but they can be done! People are starting to recognize the benefits and there is a great deal of interest and opportunity for interactions, such as through the use of panel discussions. There was also a positive response to being able to access content without the need to travel. Moving online is a huge cost-savings because in-person meetings are so expensive. All of the fundamentals are the same in terms of planning, but the conversations of equity and inclusion shift.

Challenges

You do lose the in-person components, such as networking. There is a lot of room for technology errors. Additionally, the virtual format creates barriers for those without access to reliable internet and/or technology.

While people adapt quickly to technology, a concern is burnout. Another challenge concerns how to keep engagement going once the meeting is over, but this problem also exists for in-person meetings.

Future plans

There will always be a need for people to connect in person. In the future, there will be a need for both in-person and online meetings and hybrid models will likely be examined.