We’re living in a new world for academic conferences.
Since lockdown began on the 23rd of March in the UK, every factor of life and every industry has been forced to change in unprecedented ways. This can be said for academic conferences, which since March have either gone fully virtual or have been postponed. Today, most of us have become used to joining virtual conferences through Skype, Zoom, or other virtual conference platforms, but as lockdown eases, and restrictions start lifting, we can, in a few months, expect to join conferences again in person, and things will go back to normal.
Or will they?
In all likelihood, the next academic conference you attend in person will be an altogether different experience to conferences you may have attended prior to lockdown. Here are five ways academic conferences may be different.
Social distancing will be the order of the day when conferences restart. So, we’re likely to see universities and conference venues lower their maximum capacities considerably. This will be reflected in the venue’s seating, where you can expect chairs to be spaced further apart than they were before. It will be harder to set this up in university lecture halls, so don’t be surprised if some seats are simply marked off and not usable.
To safely limit the number of attendees, and to assuage people’s fears of contracting Covid-19, it is probable that there will be an option, or in some cases active encouragement for conference delegates to attend the conference virtually. Aside from health and safety, there are many benefits to this hybrid system; chief of which it cuts the need for delegates to unnecessarily travel to the conference venue, making it easier and more cost-effective for attendees. It is also probable that academic conferences will continue to use digital platforms for other aspects of the conference, such as using online abstract management systems.
As many conference organisers seem to be already looking towards creating hybrid events, these could very well be the future of academic conferences.
In the age of social distancing, pen and paper registration will no longer be possible so online delegate registration will be compulsory. Also, with contact tracing in mind, registration will likely require you to add extra contact details. The benefit to this of course will mean no more waiting times or queues for entry! Per government guidance, paper handouts, at least for the time being will unlikely to be offered, so make sure to bring a notebook!
Putting on masks or face coverings has become a part of most of our daily rituals. We require them for public transport, to enter shops, and you can expect to be required to wear them while attending a conference. Depending on the length of the conference, this could be difficult for some. However, in a bid to ensure that conferences don’t become vectors for transmission, it is a price conference organisers may be forced to make. This is another reason why academic conference organisers might utilise the hybrid approach mentioned earlier.
As implemented in shops, supermarkets, and museums, particularly well attended academic conferences will likely encourage visitors to follow clearly defined one-way systems of entry and exit. You will also probably be encouraged to maintain social distancing while in the conference venue. But the extent of this will probably depend on the number of potential attendees.
It will be impossible for many venues to implement all this of course, so when physical conferences are permitted again, you can expect online conferences to be the standard for some time.