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October 13th 2020


Heather Lishman image by Heather Lishman

The Royal Statistical Society and Worldspan


In early September, for one helter-skelter-paced week of programming and delivery, the Royal Statistical Society International Conference, with more than 150 speakers and 540 attendees from over 33 countries, went online. 

As the week-long conference drew to a close, RSS Conferences & Events Manager, Paul Gentry and Worldspan Digital Project Manager, Danielle Davy realised that their end-of-day wrap-up featured this oft quoted phrase “it is just like in real life”. 

At the formal de-brief they revisited the theory that for every online occurrence or eventuality, an opposite and equal parallel existed in real life.  They concluded that virtual conferencing mimicked real life conferencing in all ways bar none.

Day-to-day, the virtual conference threw up real life parallels ranging from typical attendee types (bizarrely as easy to spot online as from behind a registration desk) through to audio-visual and technical red flags (and who is allowed behind the technical desk and who is definitely not) !

For our ABPCO friends and colleagues and in the interest of sharing our learnings, we’ve shared some of our virtual versus real life observations here.

  1. Attendees are multi-taskers.  Just as we know that, on average, attendees are using up to 2.5 devices at any one conference sitting, so they do at home or remotely.  We were pleasantly surprised at how engaged our attendees were online and offline and on many devices.  Don’t underestimate the ability of attendees to multi-task on a single platform and aim to keep them busy to keep them engaged.
  1. Speakers are distracted.  Just as we know that the speakers who appear the most confident and calm are often the ones who are ill-prepared and nervous in real life,  so they are in the virtual world.  Remember that there is more for a speaker to do for themselves  in a virtual conference and rehearsals will – and should – take longer.
  1. Rooms need to be managed.  Just as a room is managed in real life, so it is in a virtual setting.  Use a Voice-of-God to call people in and out of your virtual conference room and help them to connect with their virtual environment with icebreakers, countdown clocks and more.
  1. Your Chair is your new best friend.  Just as an accomplished and super confident Chair can make or break the mood in real life, so he or she can in virtual.  Set aside dedicated time to rehearse your Chair and technical team.  They will be working together to keep the virtual show on the road.
  1. Attendees need to be managed.  Just as some attendees are vocal in real life, so they are in virtual.  Use the Chat Live and Helpdesk functions to separate out personal requests for help from those that might benefit the whole group. Filter your Chat Live to make sure it is relevant and on topic for all.
  1. Plan for any eventuality.   Just as in real life, best made plans can and do fail.  Extend your scenario planning to virtual conferencing and agree what happens on screen when the unexpected can and does happen.
  1. Determine ground rules.  Just as in real life, a good opening address will help to set expectations of conference and so it should in virtual.  Help attendees to understand that they will (and possibly won’t) get from their online experience.  Remember to put the real life conference brochure and all good advice online for them to find.
  1. Don’t assume attendees are old pros.  Just as in real life some attendees are more confident in a conference setting than others, so it is in virtual.  It might be harder for some to raise a hand in a virtual setting.  Make sure attendees know how to use the Chat Live to raise a hand, show their appreciation for a speaker and more.
  1. Be more kind.   Just like in real life, some speakers and attendees are first-timers.  Remember that welcome and orientation for first time attendees is as important for virtual as it is for real life. Consider a specially hosted welcome and orientation for first-time attendees before others join.

Finally, remember this.  All the vagaries of virtual conferencing – the unique view of people in their home or remote office setting – are what could and should bring conference to life.  Building community through conference will only happen if we let people and their personalities shine through on screen.  Don’t over streamline or sanitise your conference. 

Keep conference a little bit more real than virtual to help membership communities to make a meaningful connection.


The RSS International Conference regularly attracts more than 600 attendees from over 40 countries, providing one of the best opportunities for anyone interested in statistics and data science to come together to share knowledge and network.

Due to the impact of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, the decision to move the conference online was taken at the end of May and Paul Gentry, Conferences & Events Manager, quickly looked for the necessary help and support to be ready to host the full programme, virtually, by September. Gentry managed the procurement of the virtual conference platform, onboarded and coached new suppliers and had oversight of all project deliverables across the Summer months. Despite the challenging combination of a short lead time, pandemic uncertainty and reliance on new technologies, the conference went ahead as planned and was a complete success. One session organiser said “The virtual platform worked particularly well for RSS compared with several other virtual conferences I have attended lately, and the technical people made it easy”.

The RSS chose Virt-US Live a virtual platform product developed specifically to replicate the unique features and functionality of a content and participant-led conference with networking and interaction for attendees as key design features.

Over 150 speakers contributed to four days of knowledge sharing and many who would not ordinarily have had the opportunity to join conference physically were new, first-time attendees. Both client and agency were breaking new ground amid the uncertainty of the pandemic and necessary restrictions but the temporary move to online meant that the RSS was able to bring their membership community together to share specific learning including additional COVID19 specific content.




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