These last months of the year are customarily a time for reflection. This is certainly true at AFS, as we work to close out the 2021 annual meeting and shift to preparing for next year. In that spirit, we’ve compared notes and offer these preliminary observations about our experiments of the past year.
The 2021 AFS Annual Meeting unfolded in three full days of virtual programming and three full days of in-person programming, with plenary events live streamed and recorded for our virtual audiences to join live or watch later. Anyone may see the full details of the schedule, but only registered attendees can access conference proceedings, like live sessions (now past) or recordings, which will be available through May 1, 2022.
This year’s format was decidedly ambitious: we knew that taking on both virtual and in-person programming, with some hybrid events, might be too much. Maybe it was. But our goals this year were two-fold, in response to the disparate needs of our members: to host a smaller in-person meeting for those who could travel to Harrisburg (thus satisfying our hotel contract and members’ urge to meet, network, and present face-to-face) and also to hold virtual sessions for those who couldn’t travel, providing access in a second year of upheaval, limited travel budgets, limited capacity, and health concerns.
About 750 have registered for the conference to date (registration is still open for those who choose to access conference proceedings asynchronously), which is slightly less than last year. Other professional meetings/conference organizers have reported a similar decline, presumably due to Zoom fatigue and competing obligations. In Baltimore, by comparison, we had nearly 850 registrants and we had nearly the same last year for the 2020 virtual meeting.
Knowing that folks attending the Harrisburg sessions were choosing to travel to be with colleagues, we planned the program to prioritize networking and interaction. We were delighted to see the in-person meeting unfold as we hoped and predicted. Roughly a quarter of our registrants attended in person, and most of them were present in events and sessions at any given time. Nearly 75% of the Harrisburg attendees came to the welcome ceremony and reception at the Pennsylvania State Museum and to our closing reception and dance party, compared to the 25-35% we would expect in a “regular” year. We anticipate that Tulsa will be similarly well attended because we will greet so many more of you who could not travel this year. We look forward to that!
We also saw greater participation in Harrisburg in sessions planned to highlight local communities. Our larger, in-person meetings pull attendees in many different directions, and often the sessions with local community members are sparsely attended, which has been a concern for planners for several years. This year, however, the sessions programmed by our local arrangements committee were easy to find and were well-attended, including the Pennsylvania Dutch Liar’s contest, session 44-01 “Politics of Heritage,” Local Learning’s workshop with regional artists, the Spiritual Messengers concert, and the hybrid memorial session for Hmong artist Pang Xiong Siriratasuk Sihoun.
Thanks to the team at Folkwise, virtual attendees were able to take part in some of the in-person experience. They applied their live-streaming know-how to connect the audiences in Harrisburg and online. The sense of the larger, shared community was especially important for featured events, such as the Presidential Address, the Don Yoder Memorial Lecture, and the memorial sessions for Leonard Primiano and Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun.
We arranged meeting spaces to accommodate social distancing, which meant we could practically accommodate around 25% of the usual capacity at any given time. We required masks at the meeting (and provided masks with the AFS logo!), and provided extra time between sessions for improved room ventilation. Attendees of Annual Meeting in Harrisburg complied with the conference-wide mask requirement without complaint. One happy by-product of these arrangements was that the round tables set to help create the possibility of physical distance between attendees oriented them to each other, further fostering conversation.
Virtual Meeting Takeaways
Virtual meetings are probably here to stay. We have learned a great deal about managing virtual meetings, and there are undeniable advantages, especially in creating opportunities for participation by colleagues who cannot travel and for making it possible to engage throughout the year. A cursory glance at the responses to our meeting participant survey make it clear that participants valued the experience, and intend to take asynchronous advantage of recorded conference proceedings.
The same early survey results make it clear that in-person meetings are also here to stay. Even virtual meeting enthusiasts express a longing to participate in in-person gatherings, noting that they miss not just the social interaction, but also the intensive, immersive experience. Though virtual meetings remove the travel barrier, other, corollary barriers to participation emerged as especially significant this year. We’re hearing that many have been prevented from full participation, especially in live sessions, due to other obligations, like personal responsibilities or their daily work load, since most do not or can not take time off to attend a virtual meeting.
Going forward, we will continue to explore how virtual events can complement in-person meetings.
We’re pleased to report that we built our virtual meeting hub ourselves, saving approximately $30,000 this year in third-party vendor fees in the process. This infrastructure project was also an investment in the future, since any use of proprietary platforms would be an annual cost. More than that, doing it ourselves allowed us to build a platform customized to our present needs that is also flexible and robust enough to be refined and rescaled for the future. We’re now not only less dependent on service providers, but also more capable of shaping the tool to emerging needs.
Our virtual platform was not perfect. Building the thing ourselves took time, and unfortunately, “construction delays” backed us into a launch just in time for the conference, which cut short our time to test and refine the user experience. However, we learned a lot and are eager to put these lessons to use making further improvements and adjustments so that future virtual programming runs more seamlessly.
We will continue to be vigilant and adaptable in the coming year, but we plan to offer an in-person meeting in Tulsa, October 12-15, 2022. We also recognize how essential it is to capitalize on the momentum for virtual gatherings and the skills that we’ve gained since 2020 to broaden access to and participation in the conference. Additionally, we hope to use our meeting hub to feature virtual programming throughout the year, like the Fellows-sponsored webinar series, to maximize our community’s connectivity beyond the intensive moment of the AFS annual meeting.
This has been a year of development, between our new website, the new member database, and the virtual meeting hub, and all these tools and our effectiveness with them will get much better as time goes on. We worked very hard to get things together in time to use them this year, and we’ve got a lot of potential to continue exploring and developing in the coming years.
- Register for follow up discussion of the AFS Fellows Utley Panel, “Heritage, Tourism, Community: A Conversation with Owe Ronström,” sponsored by the AFS Fellows. Learn more here.
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