Lessons learned from the shift to online

Dave MacLellan, executive director of AILU, shares his experience in hosting and participating in virtual events

Although most people are hungry to travel, hug, meet up and network over drinks and meals, the prospects of continued travel restrictions and social distancing means that webinars and online events are set to carry on throughout 2021. Recently, AILU’s Industrial Laser Applications Symposium (ILAS) went online for the first time – and, with a handful of webinars completed, AILU is now taking stock of the benefits and disadvantages of the virtual format.

Platform progress Within days of the initial 2020 pandemic lockdowns, meetings were taking place on Zoom – a platform that most of us were ill-experienced at using. Weeks later, the software had pivoted encryption processes to address its perceived security weaknesses. By early October, the stock price of Zoom on NASDAQ was close to nine times higher than its price had been at the start of the year. In the same way, with webinars and online events, we can expect rapid development during the next 12 to 18 months towards improving the experience. For example, as well as improvements to real time speech and video bandwidth, in the past 12 months development has shifted towards 3D virtual coffee tables, avatars, chat functions and virtual presence at an astonishing pace. Expect to experience more exciting technology emerging in 2022.

Online vs in person Despite being virtual, ILAS 2021 delivered a state-of-the-art event offering almost everything expected of the standard in- person format. What was most obviously lacking however, looking back, was the drinks, lunches and dinners over which people are normally used to networking.


overlooked. To round up missing speakers online, one simply has to jump from one screen to another and send a message (no running around a hotel seeking speakers) and the fact that online events are time- efficient, near carbon-zero and open to all nations without borders is surely refreshing in contrast to live events!

The captive audience enabled by holding an event in a hotel which many people have travelled for a few hours to reach, makes for easier introductions and better ice breaking. It also allows the sales force to ‘move in for the kill’ more easily. Many new project partnerships have been born at ILAS in past years – yet it was hard to imagine this happening online at ILAS 2021. Nevertheless ILAS delivered excellent satisfaction, with many saying it was the ‘best event they had attended online’. The most challenging aspect of online

events is the online exhibition. In the same way that shopping has moved online and people can interact with the website to

“The most challenging aspect of online events is the online exhibition”

get the information they want, the virtual exhibition is a very efficient way to view and download information without interacting with exhibitors. Even when the means to chat are provided, there seems to be a reluctance to talk to the salesforce, unless there is a pressing need for information or support. As the technology improves, and salespeople and delegates become more familiar with the tools, perhaps we will see an uplift in online networking, which peaked a few months after lockdown in 2020? The benefits of online are often

Presentation skills In an online event, whether you are a host, exhibitor, presenter or participant, it is essential that you have good content (eye-catching short videos and picture-rich slides) and a good presenting voice, with the capability to project and entertain being every bit as important as a fast internet connection. However, less is definitely more, change is good and a picture or video is worth a thousand words. Finishing on time and maintaining a steady (but jaunty) pace will keep the delegates engaged. If the content is interesting (and tailored to the audience) they will want to learn more and pick up the conversation outside the room.

The future starts now It seems highly likely that there will be a larger volume of online events in future in between physical events, in the same way that universities have discovered that online teaching can complement the face-to-face even if it cannot easily replace it. What is needed is a creative approach to content, timing, style and presentation to keep people engaged and deliver the maximum value in the minimum time. Attention spans are getting shorter so expect to see this reflected in future events.

Payment models Online events risk losing value if every webinar and conference is free. Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is no such thing as a free webinar. If you are not paying for the product then you are the product (and nobody reads the small print). Thankfully, the ILAS 2021 content is available on Vimeo, where it can be seen uninterrupted by adverts. If you missed ILAS, but would like to see the content, you can subscribe to the content post-event. l


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