Dr Jennifer Long: Vision@WORK+play: Five tips for a memorable virtual conference experience

Maple leaves

How many virtual conferences have you attended since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic?

I‘ve attended 20 webinars, 7 conferences and 1 course since June 2021. This is much, much more professional development than I normally attend – but it is so easy to access on my office computer!

The downside is that all these professional development offerings are starting to blur into one big Zoom fog. Have I really attended 7 online conferences? Was that webinar last month? Or was it last year?


Enough is enough!

In the old days, if I travelled to a conference I would have memories and experiences of the trip. How can I make a virtual conference experience a memorable one?

In this blog I give 5 tips for a memorable conference experience. My tips are based on what I learnt from travelling from Sydney, Australia to Vancouver, Canada (virtually, of course) to attend the International Ergonomics Association IEA2021 virtual congress on 14-18 June 2021.


1.    Immerse yourself in the culture

One of the nice things about travelling to another country is learning about popular and traditional culture. In anticipation of my virtual trip to Canada, I dusted of my 1990s KD Lang CD collection and revisited some novels by Canadian authors, for example, Margaret Atwood (“The Handmaid’s Tale”), Louise Penny (“Still Life”), Yann Martel (“The Life of Pi”) and Alice Munro (“Dear Life”).

The IEA2021 congress Opening Ceremony had a cultural element, with a performance by Native American Hoop Dancer Alex Wells.

I know that watching something online is not the same as a real-life cultural experience (stand-out memories for me of cultural conference events include attending an open-air theatre production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in Winchester, England, and watching Frevo dancers in Recife, Brazil ).

But learning a little bit about the people and the place where the conference is hosted can make a virtual conference stand out from all the other virtual meetings you attend.


2.    Enjoy the cuisine

Another thing I enjoy about travelling to other countries is eating the local food.
Plan B when you can’t be there? Make it yourself!

To get into the spirit of being in virtual-Canada, each day/night of the conference we prepared a different Canadian meal in my home. The meals were:

And here is a photo montage of my food-week:

If you plan to have a culinary experience, then I suggest that you plan the meals and source the ingredients ahead of time.

I was able to secure most ingredients from my local shops, including Canadian maple syrup and Canadian salmon. But we could not find any Canadian wines and we only had a choice of one Canadian beer, which a Canadian colleague tells me is not the best beer in Canada…


3.    Pretend you are really there

And eat cake!

What self-respecting conference does NOT have cake?

I made what I thought was a healthy apple cake to eat for morning / afternoon tea so that I could pretend I was really at the conference while watching the virtual recorded sessions.

Unlike a face-to-face conference where the caterers remove any uneaten cake at the end of morning / afternoon tea, it takes a lot more discipline to not eat an entire cake in one sitting while you are alone in your office.

After more than 15 years working from home, I’ve found the best solution is to cut a slice of cake and put it in a container as my “daily ration”, and freeze the remaining portions. Although I’ve been known to defrost extra portions during an emergency cake craving, it does take extra effort and a conscious decision to break the rule.

If you prefer a healthier option, then check out the recipes by Karen Yarworsky. Karen ran a virtual Culinary Workshop at the IEA2021 congress, taking healthy to a whole new level by introducing us to her dairy-free and sugar-free “Lemon Summer Berry Pie”. I’m inspired!


4.    Use a good time zone app

You don’t want to have a memorable conference experience for all the wrong reasons. Such as getting the time zone wrong and missing your scheduled presentation.
Don’t worry. It didn’t happen to me. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t worry about the possibility.

There is a 17-hour time difference between Vancouver and Sydney. For example, 9am on Monday in Vancouver is 2am on Tuesday in Sydney. That’s a different time AND a different day. The time zone conversions were doing my head in.

I usually consult the Time-and-Date’s Time Zone Converter and Meeting Planner tool  to ensure I don’t mix up times when coordinating meetings across time zones.

But the IEA2021 conference organisers allayed all my fears by providing a conference app that automatically showed me the conference program time in Canada-time PLUS my local (Sydney) time. This very small feature took a great weight off my shoulders! Thanks guys!


5. Get in the (time) zone

By far, my greatest challenge was changing my body clock to Canada-time.

In Sydney-time, the conference ran from 11pm to 7am. The sessions I presented at were scheduled between midnight and 4am.

I’m not a night owl. How will I get in the Vancouver time zone? I don’t want this conference to be memorable because it was the one I slept through.

Initially I planned to apply some visual ergonomics tips and tricks to re-set my body clock. For example, expose myself to bright light when my body wanted to go to sleep.

In the end, I found it better to get up progressively earlier each morning (and go to be earlier each night). Although I wasn’t as sparky as during the daytime hours, I was able to stay awake and coherently field questions from conference delegates after my presentations.

If you are planning to attend a conference that is during your sleeping hours, then you also need to factor in other people in your household. Afterall, they don’t need to have memories of your conference “I remember when you attended that all-night conference. I was trying to sleep and…”

You also need to consider your pets. I avoided waking others in my household by sleeping in a different part of the house, but I hadn’t factored in my cat. He easily adapted to my night-time sojourns and enjoyed being fed at 4am (or earlier) – it was either that or risk not being able to hear the conference presentations over his very loud meowing. It took a few days post-conference to re-set his body clock and convince him that 6am is a more reasonable hour to be fed.


The next virtual conference that you attend

Get yourself out of the Zoom fog and try some of the tips I’ve outlined to make your experience more memorable:
•    Immerse yourself in the culture
•    Enjoy the cuisine
•    Pretend you are really there – and eat cake!
•    Get a good time zone app
•    Get into the (time) zone

Happy virtual conferencing!



Jennifer Long is a visual ergonomics consultant based in Sydney, Australia. www.visualergonomics.com.au

Photo of maple leaves by Aaron Burden on Unsplash