As we navigate life during a global pandemiccountless industries are hosting virtual networking events, and the solar industry is no exception. After attending a couple of his first virtual conferenceslike the Virtual Oregon Solar Energy Conference 2020 and the 2020 Virtual Washington State Solar Summit, our Business Development Manager Raphael Schiffman shares his opinion on what went well and what fell short.

What I Liked:

Travel Time and Cost: Unless you like using the better part of a day travelling to a hotel only to realize you forgot your toothbrush, the time and money it takes to get to a virtual solar conference can’t be beat. 

Conference accessibility: Going virtual means anyone, anywhere can participate. I attended a virtual networking event from my home in Denver, Colorado and “sat next to” someone in Sun Juan Puerto Rico on one side, and someone in Portland Oregon on the other…. yes, I know the internet has existed since the 90s, but I still found this to be really cool!    

Avatars: The Virtual Oregon Solar Energy Conference took place in a completely immersive virtual environment. Attendees were place in a virtual “dressing room” to create avatars that looked like them, which I found was a fun experienceAt one point during the conference, decided I was a little overdressed and changed into a short sleeve shirtSee Exhibit A below- can you even tell which one is the avatar!?!? You can also throw an impromptu dance party for about 15 seconds at the push of a button, which I think needs to start happening at in-person conferences moving forward.

 Raphael Schiffman_HeadshotRaphael Schiffman_Avatar

Great Seats: I found it easy to engage in presentations with the slide deck taking center stage on my own screen and the presenter coming in loud and clear on my headphones. If there was information I found particularly useful, I could screenshot and save it in about two seconds or download it later after the event organizers made it available. 

Presentation accessibility: Do you ever realize that a presentation at a conference just isn’t what you were hoping it would be? Or finding two interesting topics scheduled for the same time? In a virtual conference you can jump in, out, back, and forth between different presentationswithout having to worry about hurting the presenter’s feelings by walking out on them. The fact that all the presentations are made available to attendees after the conference means you really didn’t miss a thing.  

Multi-tasking: We’ve all been there: sitting in a presentation, in the middle of a packed row, and we get an email on our phone that requires our immediate attention. And not just a quick response, files need to be opened, some email correspondence needs to be reviewed, and a smartphone app won’t cut it. It can be a hassle at an in- person conference to find a place to plug in and get a little work done. Not so much in the virtual world. It was nice to be able to jump right into work mode if I needed to, whether it meant getting something done on my computer or answering a phone call.   

What Fell Short:

Networking: An important reason for attending conferences is to network and I didn’t think there was enough emphasis on what is such a significant draw for many attendees. While conference organizers tried to schedule in blocks of time for networking and even facilitatenetworking through virtual meetups or by sending people to zoom breakout rooms, in either case, the networking time allotted was too short to really get to know much about fellow attendees and their interests.  

Attendee Profiles: Virtual conferences have the potential to make it easy for attendees to identify who else is there, what they do, and who might be worth connecting with. I felt the organizers could have better communicated what options attendees had in making profile information available to others. While some attendees navigated to the profile edit function and provided a profile that would make LinkedIn profiles pale in comparison, most profiles were blank (other than the attendee’s name). As a result, it was really hard to decide if I should approach “@Doug” or not. And to be clear, I don’t think sharing attendee name, company or contact info should be required, but I think many more people would have taken advantage of the opportunity to share more about themselves in the professional virtual realm if they knew they could.

There will be lasting effects from a pandemic that forced so many aspects of our lives to go virtual, and I wonder if virtual conferences will stay around long after we can all get back together in person. I’m curious if there will be an “attend virtually” option moving forward, in fact, I hope there isI would certainly attend more conferences if attending virtually was an optionI have no plans to attend any other conferences right now, and I really hope they’ll return to an in-person formatbut I would not hesitate to register for another virtual conference. 

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