There was concern from some at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that, in the words of research journal Nature, 2020 could be "a year without conferences." Though cancellations or postponements from some of the world’s biggest conferences – academic and otherwise – were plentiful, a number of conferences have pivoted online. A March 2021 update by Nature, showed that 74% percent of those asked wanted scientific events to continue having a virtual element. The virtual element of work conferences appears here to stay, with Bizzabo, a company that provides event services, seeing 75% of event organizers surveyed move their events online during the pandemic, 82% waiting until 2021 or later for any type of in-person event, and 97% assuming their will be an increase in hybrid events.
Positives to moving online have been well publicized in the business sector: lower cost, more opportunities for flexibility, and more obvious opportunities for asynchronous learning. As Daniel Newman wrote, "I think there’s a real opportunity here for companies to embrace change and experiment with a different way of doing things — and digital events, when done well, can be awesome." But what does it mean to make your conference digital and accessible?
Alaina Leary has a wonderful blog post at Rooted in Rights on the topic, where she highlights many of the accessibility and inclusivity practices that need to be considered, some of which include:
- Making sure that the digital platform being used is accessible to the audience,
- Ensuring that disabled people are part of the planning stages of any event,
- To budget for accessibility supports like captioning and ASL interpretation, and,
- To make sure that the content doesn’t privilege those without intellectual or developmental disabilities.
It’s important to note, with many disabled people still at significant risk due to COVID even as we return to the possibility of in-person events, that a hybrid model can create more opportunities for people with disabilities to engage with your company. This can be as both an employee and a customer.
The hosting of virtual events had doubled year over year, found Software firm Wild Apricot’s research on small membership organizations and their events, in the work of the 1,142 organizations they surveyed, according to The Virtual Event Research Report for Membership Organizations (PDF). As early as May 2020, Forbes was reporting a 1,000% increase in virtual events. Some academic conferences also saw a significant increase in attendance, with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) reporting that some conferences in their industry saw 500% increases when compared to previous years. Grand View Research’s 2020 report estimated that the global virtual event space could grow from $94.04 billion to $404.45 billion by 2027 — big money when you consider that, according to Markletic research, the average ticket for a large virtual conference is $1,000–$1,500.
The successes of accessible virtual conferences are well documented, like in this piece by Scientific American, but it requires a keen eye and a commitment to support. There is often a perception that by removing the physical barriers that pop up during a pandemic – the stairs, high tables, and endless parade of handouts in tiny font – issues like poorly designed captions or a lack of time to debrief and destress can make for an equally distressing experience. While some may miss the face-to-face interaction of an in-person conference, making sure your next event is digital and accessible could mean a significant impact for your organization and those you are trying to reach.