Continuing and Professional Education planners forced to cancel in-person events say they are seeing real benefits — including reduced travel costs and increased engagement — of moving conferences and meetings online.

During a normal summer, the team would be collaborating with university faculty, as well as leaders in education, government, business, and the community, to organize dozens of conferences, seminars, and workshops. Their task now is to turn those into compelling and engaging experiences in an online or hybrid format.

“Most of our in-person events and conferences are designed to educate, but they also serve as a platform for mingling and networking,” Continuing and Professional Education Director Shelly Jobst said. “We are now developing ways to do that online — translating the advantages of face-to-face meetings in a virtual space.”

How are they overcoming those hurdles? By combining their expertise in event planning and delivery with cutting-edge technology developed in Virginia Tech’s advanced classrooms.

“Through our experience and technical skill, we can help put attendees at ease and find connections even in a virtual meeting space,” said Zach Coffren, a project manager who wrangles the details of planning and running virtual events.

Those events are attracting wider audiences. The Lifelong Learning Institute at Virginia Tech held three virtual sessions this summer. Of the about 150 people who took part, half were participating for the first time.

“We are learning that many programs are capable of going virtual, and quite often, attendees are more engaged and are retaining more information,” Coffren said. “Not everyone likes to speak up in a crowd. We’re actually seeing more questions in the virtual environment.”

Hosted by the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, the 15th OpenFOAM Workshop, an international conference for users of open-source fluid dynamics software, saw its registrations jump from just 12 in the spring to 344 by June. More than 100 scholars and industry professionals presented their work at the multiple-day event, which included a poster session, three keynote speeches, 12 training sessions, and 24 technical sessions.

“Many users were able to attend the workshop for the first time because it was hosted online. Our goal is to reach as many users worldwide as possible, and moving the workshop online allowed us to reach a wider audience. After this year’s success, a virtual attendance option likely will be included in future workshops as well,” said Jonathan Pitt, associate professor of aerospace and ocean engineering in the College of Engineering.

Continuing and Professional Education, part of Outreach and International Affairs, manages the technical aspects and any troubleshooting that crops up before or during an event. Professional touches, such as custom-designed virtual backgrounds and presentation slides, make for a more polished event. They even take care of getting snack boxes delivered to participants.

“We allow our clients to focus on the content while we do the rest — whether it be in person or virtual,” Jobst said.

The team also planned virtual training sessions with the Virginia departments of Education, Health, and Social Services and helped coordinate a series of webinars for the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development’s Vibrant Virginia program, whose speakers included higher education and industry leaders from around the commonwealth.

Jobst sees opportunities for virtual events even after pandemic concerns have waned. “Hybrid events that have both a live and an online component could increase the reach of events in the future by reducing travel costs for participants, especially internationally, and allowing broader participation,” Jobst said.

Meanwhile, The Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center is redesigning several of its conference rooms to help meet the growing demand for virtual and hybrid meetings, using the same technology that allowed Virginia Tech to successfully move many classes online.

“By following the standard set in the university’s classrooms, we’re using technology that our faculty have already mastered. This gives them a familiar experience to increase the reach of their programs and meetings,” said Scott Farmer, director of Outreach Information Services.

Each redesigned room features specialized equipment, including front- and rear-facing cameras with centralized controls, self-adjusting microphones, new presentation systems that enable presenters to connect to the in-room projector from any location, and live-stream and on-demand viewing capabilities.

“We’ve taken the technology developed in Virginia Tech’s advanced classrooms to assist in meetings of all types, offering state-of-the art videoconferencing and networking to reimagine the meeting experience at every level,” said Tom Cupo, the inn’s managing director.

Written by Diane Deffenbaugh