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                      Going Virtual: A Retrospective on UXPA Boston’s 2020 Annual Conference

                      Last week, Kanda’s Director of Healthcare and Life Sciences and UXPA Advisory Board Member Chris Hass was leading UXPA Boston’s 2020 Annual Conference.

                      In this article he is sharing his thoughts, takeaways and challenges organizations face while being forced to switch complex conferences online.

                      The Boston Chapter of the User Experience Professionals’ Association is a professional membership organization that supports UX students and practitioners. The chapter has more than 4,000 members and a 20+ year history of monthly meetings, events, and a signature annual conference that is one of the largest and most well-regarded in the country. This conference typically draws 1,200 attendees and features approximately 40 presentations (and a keynote) on a single day in May. The 2020 conference was the organization’s 19th annual conference. When Covid lockdowns began early in 2020, the UXPA Boston advisory board had to decide whether to cancel the annual conference or take it “virtual.” For my part, in addition to being a Director of Health and Life Sciences for Kanda Software, I’m a member of the UXPA Boston advisory board. As a result, I had a unique vantagepoint for learning how an organization takes a complex conference online, the challenges it faces, and the opportunities afforded by a successful proof of concept event.

                      While evaluating virtual conferencing platforms and approaches, it became clear that there were some inherent advantages to hosting a conference online. Notably, costs were significantly lower, since the organization wasn’t paying for physical space, food, and other in-person expenses. As a result, registration fees could be two-thirds lower. A virtual event invites a broader geographic range of participation, since travel expenses weren’t a factor, so we wondered: how large a crowd might the event attract? Another benefit of being online was the fairly effortless ability to record the presenters’ talks. For an in-person event, capturing presentations typically requires a host of AV equipment, camera operators, and attendant expenses. Being virtual meant that for the first time we could record every session with the touch of a button, which has a singular benefit: It’s physically impossible under in-person circumstances for attendees to attend all the sessions. With ~ 40 presentations happening five or six at a time every hour, in-person attendees get to experience only a portion of the presentations. With a virtual conference, recorded sessions could be offered to registered attendees for post-event viewing. For the first time in nearly twenty years, attendees could attend every session! In addition, automated event analytics are detailed and easily captured to support future planning.

                      There are, of course, potential drawbacks to a virtual conference. We wondered if experiencing nearly nine hours of content in a single day would be prohibitively tiresome. We wondered if sponsors would shy away from sponsoring “Expo booths” in a virtual environment. (This turned out to be true- sponsorship was robust, but not as robust as the in-person events. Sponsors who deferred cited uncertainty around the value of “virtual” sponsorship.) Additionally, we had concerns about whether a single platform could meet the event’s complex needs.

                      Furthermore, we were concerned about technical snafus, not only in our hosting platform, but with presenters’ internet connections. The platform we ultimately selected, Hopin, had a robust feature set that would in theory support the kind of event the organization wanted, but to provide a robust experience required the simultaneous use of other platforms: Eventbrite (for registration), Sched (for displaying the session times and details, Slack (for networking, event coordination, one-on-one networking, and job postings), and Zoom/Zoom equivalents (for the presentations themselves). We addressed these concerns through detailed and repetitive messaging to attendees, easily available procedural documents, and in-the moment technical support to help attendees understand how these systems were being used in concert. To combat confusion, UXPA Boston put together an extensive team of volunteers (~40), engaged a virtual conference technical team, and held multiple Hopin trainings for presenters, volunteers, team leads, and others. Behind the scenes, Board members, volunteers, mentors, and team leads used What’s App and Slack on the day of the event to allow instant individual and group communication for response coordination.

                      So how did it go? Very well! The 2020 UXPA Boston annual conference was held on October 23, 2020, and garnered approximately 850 attendees from across the globe, with an engagement rate of 97.7% across participants. At any given point during the day about 650 attendees were online participating in sessions, chatting with sponsors, and taking advantage of Hopin’s “networking roulette” feature for speed-dating style chats with other attendees. (Attendees rated this feature highly.) Technical snafus were minimal, and primarily associated with feature limitations that were able to be worked around. (We emplore Zoom to enable meeting co-hosts to manage breakout rooms.) Hearteningly, sponsors gave the conference high marks, and reported meeting their sales and hiring goals for the event.

                      A successful event is always attributable to the quality of the speakers, the engagement of attendees, and the generosity of sponsors. Equally important is the organizers’ ability to envision a successful event, tailor it to the organization’s culture, and plan, plan, plan for engagement and contingencies. After 18+ years of in-person event planning, the organization knew what success would look like, and had a strong logistics-based history of achieving it. The virtual format offered significant potential challenges on a relatively fast timeframe, and required the adoption of a variety of technology solutions that weren’t inherently interoperable. Coordinated planning and execution, and a willingness to embrace new challenges led to a highly successful event, and one I am proud to have been able to support.

                      The bottom line from my perspective is: it is absolutely possible to have an engaging, impactful virtual conference that meets the business, financial, and intellectual needs of attendees, sponsors, and the host organization.

                      As virtual event technology evolves, it offers tantalizing possibilities as logistical challenges – being able to include attendees from a wide geographic distribution, being able to keep registration fees low, and supporting a plethora of presentations not only on one day, but over time for comparatively modest costs – has appeal. How might the organization apply the lessons of a virtual event to a future in-person event? Should it continue to offer virtual events in post-Covid circumstances? We look forward to finding out!

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