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4 ways to get the most out of a virtual conference

Amplify the benefits of the virtual format while reining in distractions.
By Hannah Pitstick

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, and professional conferences are no exception. Many conferences have shifted to an online or hybrid online/in-person format until at least the second half of 2021.

Perhaps the brightest silver lining of virtual conferences is a wider variety of conference choices because travel time and travel budgets are no longer a significant consideration. For example, the number of participants increased in 2020 for the Oregon Society of CPAs Strategic Leadership Forum, according to conference speaker Rosie Brammer, CPA, with Beemer, Smith & Munro LLP in Clackamas, Ore.

“I noticed the attendee list increased from prior years and noticed many more attendees from rural parts of Oregon. I believe the increase was achieved partially because firms and attendees didn’t need to commit to travel time and costs,” she said.  

Of course, there are also downsides to virtual conferences. In a virtual format, it’s more difficult to make spontaneous connections, it can be tricky to tune out the distractions at home, and it’s often harder to stay engaged through a computer screen. But despite their imperfections, the information and insights these conferences can provide are arguably more important than ever right now.

“There are many things that are changing so rapidly in our profession that we really need to take that time to learn and be aware of what's going on,” said Rebekah Brown, CPA, director of development for the Maryland Association of CPAs.

If you’re planning to attend a virtual conference this year, try these four tips for maximizing learning, expanding your network, and achieving professional development.

Prioritize participation. Traditional conferences enable attendees to literally step away from their daily lives and completely focus on professional development, but virtual conferences don’t offer that same delineation. If you’re attending a virtual conference from home, you’re likely to face distractions on multiple fronts. To ensure your family, co-workers, and managers give you the space you need, it might be necessary to lay the groundwork ahead of time.

If you have children, see if a partner or babysitter can look after them for the duration of the conference. And be sure to let your boss and co-workers know well in advance that you will be attending a conference and will reply to messages only during break times.

“Communicate with your work and home team that you're going to be at a conference and they should treat you that way,” Brammer said. “By creating that boundary, you can get more out of the conference on both the development side and the connection side.”

While it may be tempting to use a virtual conference as an opportunity to complete multiple tasks at once, that’s not a good strategy if you’re trying to get the most out of your investment.

“Prioritization begins with you,” said Cheryl Williams, senior manager–Virtual Events at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, which represents the unified power of AICPA & CIMA.

“Know your schedule. Before the event begins, preselect sessions you would like to attend based on your interest areas. To remain focused, add the sessions to your calendar, set up an out-of-office message, and limit yourself to checking emails only during breaks.”

Make new connections virtually. Many virtual conferences have been trying to re-create the social element of in-person events. The Association is “using a variety of options to help create connections both inside and outside of sessions. Chat rooms, social walls, discussion forums, along with dedicated networking times, are just a few ways we are working to enhance the virtual experience,” Williams said. “We’ve also added an element of fun to virtual happy hours by including mixology lessons, chef demos, live music, and more.”

Brown, Brammer, and Williams all recommend taking part in all the optional social sessions if you can because those are the best ways to make new connections, hear a variety of perspectives, and gain insights on how others are dealing with industry changes. You can network during a session by asking the speaker questions and replying to other participants in the chat room. And if you notice someone has made an interesting point in the chat or seems to have an understanding of a subject that you want to learn more about, Brown recommended either writing down their name or quickly looking them up on LinkedIn and sending them a connection request.

You could include a message with your request saying something like: “I really enjoyed your insights during this session. I learned a lot from the speaker, but I also learned a lot from you.”

With just a small amount of effort, it’s possible to significantly expand your network even if you can’t meet other attendees face-to-face.

Hold a post-conference debriefing session. Once a conference wraps up, it can be easy to walk away from your computer screen without fully absorbing what you’ve just learned.

Brown recommended figuring out who else in your network will be attending the conference in advance, by either posting a message on LinkedIn or seeing who else from your firm is going, and then scheduling an informal debriefing session for the morning after the conference.

Over a virtual coffee, everyone can discuss their thoughts on the conference and what stood out for them. Brown pointed out that you often learn more from what stood out to somebody else than what stood out to you. And if you’re able to articulate the main takeaways from the conference, that’s a good sign that you’ve retained the most vital information.

“A debrief session can enable you to continue the conversation, continue the learning, force you to think about what you've learned, and help you to get insight about what other people learned,” Brown said.

Follow up with action. Conferences are typically a gold mine for actionable insights, but if you don’t make any adjustments based on what you’ve learned, what was the point?

That’s why Brown always ends her sessions by asking the audience what they’re going to do with the information they just heard. She challenges attendees to commit to some sort of action after every session.

That action could be learning more about a certain topic, sharing a new insight with someone else, making a new connection, reading a book or article that was mentioned, or adjusting the way you work or do business. The key is to combine insights with action.

As Tom Hood, CPA/CITP, CGMA, executive vice president–Business Growth and Engagement for the Association, who will be speaking at this year’s ENGAGE event, likes to say: “When it comes to action and insight, one without the other is either useless or destructive.”

AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE 2021, the premier event for accounting and finance professionals, will be a hybrid event this year. Join us at the Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas or online, July 26–29, for keynotes and sessions on accounting and auditing, tax, technology, leadership, personal financial planning, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and more. Keynotes with Sir Richard Branson and NASA’s Adam Steltzner will be held online on June 8.

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.

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