By Laura Bradley

As all of you know – mainly due to my incessant reporting on the topic – last Monday and Tuesday the Professional Conference Organiser Association (PCOA) held its annual conference – PCOA20.

For the first time, in response to the global pandemic, the conference was delivered in a hybrid format, with attendees either participating by tuning into EventsAIR’s online platform, OnAIR, or attending in-person at Hyatt Regency Sydney or other satellite locations across Australia and New Zealand.

And it was a success! Over the two days, more than 480 business events professionals took part in the event, including yours truly. To get right into the hybrid spirit, I spent day one as a virtual attendee and day two as an in-person delegate at Hyatt Regency Sydney. Here’s how I thought both mediums compared, including where they both had the edge.

What I liked about the online event

Virtual check in: Being able to fill out my details online through a form was much simpler and less stress-inducing than doing it at a physical kiosk. Is it just me, or is checking in in-person always a bit of a hassle? While a lovely staff member at Hyatt Regency Sydney was able to assist me with the process on day two, my email wasn’t loading my QR code, which was required for scanning, and I was standing in the registration area a little frazzled and confused. This was probably just a user error, but I did find checking in online to be preferable.

Live support: Another plus for me was the virtual support offered on the OnAIR platform. Before and during the event, a box popped up with video footage of a representative who audibly directed you around the site, advised on when talks were starting and offered general support. I felt well looked after.

Virtual hand raising: Directly underneath the live stream of the speakers talking was a little green button titled ‘raise hand’, allowing delegates to virtually stick up their hands and ask questions. While I didn’t make use of the feature, I remember thinking how much easier it would be – particularly as an introvert – to click a button and type a question rather than raising your hand and voice in a meeting room. Nifty!

Not glitchy: When it comes to virtual events, this year I have attended some SHOCKERS. I’m talking 10-minute cut outs where delegates have no clue what’s happening (is my internet down? Is this happening to everyone?!) and speakers unwittingly, and embarrassingly, being on mute for extended periods. But I didn’t experience any technical glitches on day one of PCOA20. Admittedly, I thought I did, because no one in the live audience was laughing at emcee Nick Barlett’s jokes (THE MAN IS FUNNY). But more on that later.

Saved on an Uber fare: I’m stingy, okay.

Unlimited bathroom breaks: Technically you can do this at in-person events as well… but people might judge you for scraping your chair, blocking sight lines and opening and closing the conference room door six times in an hour. At home, no such worry.

What I liked about the in-person event

The brunch: Hyatt Regency Sydney’s executive chef Sven Ullrich organised a delicious buffet-style, individually-packaged brunch on day two of the conference, complete with pork belly, salad and pancakes made to order. Much better than the $5 Coles salad I had waiting for me at home. While the individual packaging of food did have delegates asking questions around sustainability, Sven addressed this concern in a panel discussion later in the day. I wrote about his talk here:

The coffee: I’m a simple girl. Make me my regular almond latte no sugars and in the morning and I’m satisfied. Coffee on Cue provided PCOA20 delegates with their caffeine fix at a cart situated outside the conference room. It hit the spot… and I didn’t have to make it myself. Double win.

Easier to laugh: Back to emcee Nick Bartlett and his jokes that didn’t land. I was genuinely baffled – in between my belly laughs – at how no one in the audience at Hyatt Regency Sydney was giggling along with his zingers on day one. I ran into Nick during brunch to ask, and he posited the theory that with a group so small and spaced apart, laughing feels awkward and unnatural. This is an argument in favour of events that are completely in-person I suppose. While I enjoyed chuckling behind my screen alone on day one, if you want a room full of it, you’ll need all delegates to be jammed in together.

Paid more attention: I’ll admit it… when I was a virtual participant on day one I spent a fair bit of time checking my emails, texting my colleagues memes and staring off into the distance. But apparently I’m not alone.

During a panel discussion on day two of PCOA20, professional emcee Andrew Klein said: “Technology has been fantastic, but it’s created a problem for us conference organisers. It’s made us realise that all of our punters have short attention spans. We all know that when we’re watching online, 10 seconds later we will just jump onto our emails because they are literally one centimetre away. Whereas when we hold our [in-person] delegates hostage, they have to stay there until morning tea.”

I feel exposed. But agree completely. One of the biggest edges in-person has against virtual is that delegates pay more attention.

Connection in the breaks: This is perhaps the most salient argument in favour of in-person events. Connections happen in the breaks – the moments outside the conference room, when you’re checking your lipstick in the bathroom mirror, or figuring out the registration machine, or queuing for brunch. The latter was where I struck up a conversation with a lovely delegate about flat mates, Sydney suburbs and $5 Coles salads. Her facial expressions and vocal intonations indicated that she was someone friendly and worth talking to, which is something you can’t easily ascertain through a laptop screen.

CEO of the International Convention Centre (ICC) Sydney Geoff Donaghy agrees with this sentiment, saying in a panel discussion on day two that the greatest benefit of conferences comes from outside the room.

“One of the solutions to one of the great cancer problems came about not from a lecture in the room, but because one of the scientists working on that met another scientist at a coffee break and they decided to collaborate,” he recalled.

While my Coles salad discussion wasn’t quite that significant, it was nice to connect with another person in a year filled with laptops and Zoom and login screens.

By a quick tally, the virtual component beat the in-person component in my estimation by six to five. But I’m awarding the last point three marks (it’s important) so in-person won out for me.

Thanks for having me PCOA and bring on the next year of business events.