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Virtual Conferences and COVID-19: Early Lessons Learned

Regulations surrounding COVID-19 have left conference conveners with essentially three options: cancel, reschedule, or go online. Now that the first wave of these online conferences has occurred, some organizers have begun to share their strategies, lessons learned, and best practices, such as those from ICLR2020 (April 27-30), CHI Nordic (April 27-28), and Photonics Online Meetup (held January 13, 2020, prior to the declaration of pandemic; however, in their post-event review, the organizers note the applicability of their experience to mid-pandemic online conferences).

Time Zones

Champions of online conferences point to the increased accessibility of these events: online conferences lower the barrier to entry by eliminating the burden and cost of travel. However, increasing the pool of potential attendees also increases the likelihood that the audience will be participating across multiple time zones.


  • ICLR presented each poster session twice at different times so participants had more opportunities to attend.
  • POM used Slack to facilitate asynchronous collaboration across time zones between geographically distributed organizers.
  • Some organizers pointed out not all tools are available in all regions: care must therefore be taken when selecting platforms.
  • In general, recorded talks (pre-recorded or recorded live sessions also made available afterward) allow attendees to view content at will.

Networking and Interaction

One of the major challenges of moving any conference online is how to retain the crucial networking and contact-building component, without which the event becomes more akin to a webinar. Additionally, all organizers noted another impact of the lack of physical presence: it is harder for presenters to perceive the audience’s reception of the talk, and audience members may feel less inclined to participate.


  • ICLR attached chats to every event in the conference to enable communication between participants. They also used Online Town, which facilitates virtual mingling, to host a social event. They pre-recorded some talks and shifted the live component to Q&A sessions with the speakers to emphasize interactivity between speaker and audience. ICLR also created different ways to browse the conference’s content by visualizing the papers as clusters and recommending papers based on similarity.
  • POM held poster sessions over Twitter, increasing the visibility of the content. Since the POM event occurred prior to the declaration of pandemic, their participants were able to physically gather in “POM-hubs”: smaller, localized groups of attendees. These hubs allowed participants to view sessions through web conferencing software, to socialize, and to network. A conference built out of smaller distributed groups has also been proposed by others as a way forward for pandemic-affected conferences in areas where smaller gatherings are permitted.
  • CHI Nordic devoted fully half of its 20-minute talks to discussion with the audience. The organizer noted the importance of session chairs setting expectations and delivering instructions to the audience about how best to participate in the chat. They also used Zoom’s breakout rooms function to create smaller discussion groups out of the larger one.

Platform and Tools

All three conferences combined a variety of tools to build the events.


  • Talks/poster sessions: WebEx Events, Twitter
  • Chat: Slack
  • Conference website and registration: WordPress, Qualtrics, Google Forms


  • Talks/sessions/chat: Zoom, SlidesLive, Rocket.Chat
  • Social event: Online Town by Siempre
  • Sponsor hall: 6Connex
  • Conference website: developed in-house

CHI Nordic:

  • Talks/sessions: Zoom, YouTube Live
  • Conference program: Google Docs
  • Reduce the considerable amount of time involved in planning online conferences.
  • Assure attendees’ security and privacy.

Both conferences that used Zoom experienced “Zoom-bombing,” with CHI Nordic in particular detailing the challenges these disruptions posed.

Our Take

A number of virtual event platforms are positioning themselves as all-in-one solutions that make transitioning to online conferences easy and that include native or integrated webinar capabilities, registration processes, exhibitor/sponsor spaces, and networking environments. Their success will depend on presenting a compelling argument for their ability to:

Offer innovative ways to replicate the social connections and networking that conferences rely on and that webinars lack.
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