Computing Profession

Virtual and the Future of Conferences

Making conferences more accessible.

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, conferences quickly transitioned to virtual. Based on our own virtual conference experiences and a survey we conducted in spring 2022, we see virtual conferences increased attendee access by reducing costs and travel time. However, the overall virtual conference experience during COVID was disappointing for some conferees. While technology and social norms will take time to evolve, we believe conference attendees should have a choice that includes virtual.

Access and Costs

Access is a challenge for prospective conference participants because many have fixed budgets and schedule constraints. Virtual conference attendance options will lower barriers to access. Our viewpoint is based on personal experience with recent COVID-era public conferences and internal corporate conferences,5 where a hybrid blend of virtual and in-person conference options have been embraced for more than 20 years.

Companies organize multi-site internal virtual conferences to promote collaboration and knowledge transfer. Companies employ virtual technology to reduce their total costs by reducing or eliminating travel.

In contrast, for in-person public conferences, organizers focus on delivering a program rather than overall attendee costs. Even so, organizers should be sensitive to attendee costs (travel, hotels, and food) and environmental impacts (carbon costs). The carbon cost of air travel was identified as a factor in climate change by the Kyoto Protocol more than 20 years ago. Some companies, governments, and universities have limited employee travel as a part of their “green” initiatives or cost-containment strategies.3 Additionally, virtual conferences enable contributions (keynotes, panels, workshops, tutorials) from experts who would not normally have the time or interest to attend an entire conference.

Even when organizers and attendees are faced with higher costs, there are many reasons for them to prefer in-person conferences. In-person conferences have intangible attractions for attendees that go beyond the serendipity of making new connections with other conferees. Early-career attendees enjoy the novelty of attending a conference and being inspired by experts in their field face-to-face. Conference regulars value informal in-person synch-ups with their colleagues. Many attendees learn from serendipitous hallway discussions.

The impetus of COVID-19 changed the equation, and it triggered a wave of experimentation and improvisation. Some conference organizers reported hybrid sessions improved access and increased conference participation.11,12 The adoption of virtual participation options can help reduce costs for attendees and open new markets for conference organizers. On the other hand, virtual options may add new expenses associated with IT infrastructure and video production staff.

On the negative side, many conference participants during the pandemic felt disappointment. There were many logistical problems when conferences adopted virtual strategies at the last minute. Although virtual conferences and lower registration fees sparked increased registration, many attendees longed for in-person networking and social events. Screen fatigue, audio glitches, schedule snafus, and other unexpected experiences proved disappointing to attendees accustomed to in-person conferences. Additionally, virtual conference attendees missed opportunities for “bleisure” travel (combining business travel and leisure travel into one trip).10

Conferences with virtual options are not automatically successful. Both presenters and attendees face a learning curve for new virtual interaction models. Attendees must learn new hybrid interaction etiquette. For example, at a conference with a mix of in-person and virtual participants, in-person attendees might forget that when they ask a question, they need to use a microphone—so the virtual side of the audience can hear the question. Moderators, presenters, and audiences will need time for adoption of new virtual conference environments.

Across every area of science and technology, it is essential to encourage diversity and the engagement of underserved parts of the community. The ACM Code of Ethics1 calls on us to be an inclusive community: “Computing professionals should foster fair participation of all people, including those of underrepresented groups.” Some members of the global computing community face economic or political barriers to conference access. For students, early-career professionals, and people who are physically challenged, access to in-person conferences may not be easy. Of course, even a registered conference attendee might miss an in-person conference due to illness or a work or family schedule conflict. Another barrier to conference participation is long-term family responsibilities, such as childcare or elder care. Family-care responsibilities disproportionately affect women, at a time when our community wants to encourage equal access. Virtual and hybrid conferences lower the access obstacles and help serve a global community.


There is a growing body of literature on the challenges and best practices for virtual and hybrid conferences.2,4,9 This literature reveals many strategies, but one size does not fit all. Each event is different, and each sponsor must analyze the needs of that conference’s stakeholders, so the program is accessible to all prospective attendees.

Virtual conference interaction is challenged by “invisible audiences.” Without tacit audience feedback through facial expressions or body language, presenters may unknowingly “lose” their audiences. Virtual meetings must evolve to better support interactive dialogues such as those we experience in person.

While virtual conferencing platforms can deliver conference content to a global audience, session moderators, and to a lesser extent audiences, need to adopt practices to foster increased engagement. For example, hybrid conferences need to balance questions from in-person and virtual attendees, where it is too easy for in-person attendees to miss or (deliberately ignore) input from virtual meeting participants. A session moderator must give both local and virtual questioners an equal opportunity to be heard.

For informal virtual conference interactions, new mechanisms will undoubtedly emerge as social norms and technologies evolve. Session recordings will help mitigate time zone issues, or conferences might be reorganized with shorter sessions spread over more days.

Some prospective conference attendees will continue to be motivated by bleisure travel opportunities. These attendees will resist the transition to virtual.

Academic conference organizers face a special challenge if virtual conferences become more common. Pre-COVID, acceptance of a research conference paper required the presence of at least one author. However, if virtual presence is sufficient, as proposed by Jason Harline in a July 2023 CACM Blog item,8 then it may be more difficult to attract in-person audiences given travel and environmental costs.

Community Survey

Motivated by curiosity, the authors ran a community survey in spring 2022 with the goal of learning more about in-person and virtual conference attendee attitudes.6,7 Responses covered a range of geographies and included input from industry practitioners and university researchers.

The survey results indicated more than 60% of respondents preferred either virtual or hybrid conference options. Among the 331 survey respondents, the split was 54% preferred hybrid, 36% in-person, and 9% virtual. Respondents shared a wide range of opinions. Some respondents were in favor of hybrid meetings so they could be flexible in their choice of how to attend, other respondents could not wait for in-person meetings to resume.

Respondents also ranked potential conference obstacles. For virtual conferences, two-thirds of respondents identified “ineffective support for casual discussions” as a major obstacle. Almost half (49%) reported that “fatigue due to long virtual meetings” was a major obstacle. For in-person conferences, the most important obstacles were (in spring 2022) “ongoing pandemic related health risks” (45% rated as a major obstacle) and “registration and travel costs” (40% rated as a major obstacle).

Survey respondents indicated their near-term plans for attending conferences. Many respondents were planning to attend more conferences per year—based on their experiences with virtual and hybrid conferences in 2020 and 2021. The average number of conferences attended per respondent was 2.0 in 2021, and the respondents planned to attend an average of 3.5 conferences in 2022. The authors plan to run a follow-up survey in spring 2024.

Trends and Call to Action

Conferences will continue to be an important catalyst for attendees to share ideas and make connections. Increased adoption of virtual conference platforms will help reduce costs, increase access, and extend global reach. However, as with virtualization of retail commerce, health care, education, and government services, change will take time.

A conference platform should be more than a meeting portal. To recreate the dynamics of an in-person conference, a virtual conference platform needs to support the serendipity of personal and group interactions and enable complex presentations and discussions. Recorded presentations not only enable asynchronous conference viewing but also serve as a post-conference record—much in the same way journals and conference proceedings served in the past.

We foresee these trends for future conferences:

  • More virtual options

  • Fewer barriers to attendance

  • Increased global participation

  • Experimentation with session design and attendee engagement

  • Evolving attendee expectations

We feel that without some platform standardization, different conferencing applications will create unnecessary challenges for both organizers and participants. ACM and other conference sponsors can help by encouraging platform vendors to enhance the usability and interoperability of their meeting platforms.

Conferences must become more accessible to a prospective global audience by reducing financial and environmental costs. Our survey suggests there is a community desire for a blend of virtual and in-person conferences.

However, while not every conference must include virtual options, conference sponsors should not ignore the economic, technological, cultural, political, and climate forces at play. Our connected culture has changed our work environment, and while a wave of nostalgia may motivate a short-term return to in-person conferences, we call upon the community to take greater advantage of the accessibility and economics of virtual conferencing.

    • 1. ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. (2018); https://www.acm.org/code-of-ethics
    • 2. ACM Presidential Task Force on What Conf. Can Do to Replace Face to Face Meetings. (2020); https://www.acm.org/virtual-conferences
    • 3. Eriksson, E.et al. On the necessity of flying and of not flying: Exploring how computer scientists reason about academic travel. In Proceedings of the 7th Intern. Conf. on ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S2020), (2020); 10.1145/3401335.3401582
    • 4. Ferlin, S.et al. Reviewing Best Practices in Online Conferencing. (2021); https://arxiv.org/abs/2212.11619
    • 5. Fraser, S.Strategies for the future of work: Accelerating innovation through tech transfer. Agile Alliance Experience Report. (2021); https://bit.ly/47LxEjD.
    • 6. Fraser, S. and Mancl, D.Report on the Future of Conf. (2023); https://arxiv.org/abs/2301.03544
    • 7. Fraser, S. and Mancl, D.The Future of Conf. Research Survey. (2022); https://manclswx.com/survey2022.html
    • 8. Harline, J.The dissemination game: Incentives of in-person vs. virtual participation. BLOG@ACM, (2023); https://bit.ly/3Rw3dbw.
    • 9. Lopes, C.The Future of Conf., Strange Loop 2021 conf. (2021); https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkJNA88R_5w
    • 10. Morgan, B.What is bleisure travel, and how is it transforming the hospitality industry?Forbes, (Jun. 27, 2022); https://bit.ly/41lFzSr
    • 11. Potanin, A.Hybrid SPLASH 2021 Retrospective (2022); https://blog.sigplan.org/2022/08/25/hybrid-splash-2021-retrospective/
    • 12. Skiles, M.et al. Conf. demographics and footprint changed by virtual platforms. Nat Sustain5 (2022). 10.1038/s41893-021-00823-2

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