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Conferences in the COVID Era: Attending, Exhibiting, and Speaking

Head of Marketing and Operations

Like many of you, we had high hopes for 2021. By February/March new Coronavirus cases had dramatically decreased, vaccination efforts were well underway, and things were starting to open up in the U.S. So, we decided to commit to a few conferences – both in-person and virtual – to speak, exhibit, and attend. Things went sideways a few times but, all things considered, we got a lot out of all of our experiences and feel more confident about how we want to proceed going forward. If you are thinking about attending, exhibiting, or speaking at a conference in the near future, our experiences might help you decide and prepare to get the most out of your investment. 

Attending In Person vs. Online

Attending: A Software Engineers Perspective

In May of this year, Kelly and Thomas attended the inaugural Medical Device Software Development Summit. It was completely virtual with a relatively small group of senior medical device software architects, cybersecurity, and human factors experts in attendance. The focus of the event was to strategize the design, development, and validation of software that is innovative, compliant, and secure. 

Kelly attended as a software engineer looking to learn more about addressing and overcoming major challenges in the development of software for medical devices. She works on software development for surgical robotics and diagnostics as well as consumer electronics and GUI’s. Though virtual, the conference was based on east coast time so, starting at 5am her time, Kelly attended  a case study presentation on Balancing Innovation with Compliance. 

As a past speaker and attendee of in-person conferences like SCaLE, Kelly has found that an equal amount of learning and discovery can be had virtually, although she does miss the opportunity to people-watch. 

“I’m all about finding the most insightful talks, and then sitting down and giving them my fullest attention and taking lots of notes. That part is the same when brought online, and often with a better view of the slides.” Kelly Heller

The Pros

  • Total absence of travel & lodging overhead
  • More time to work – conference takes less time
  • Ability to attend an overseas conference without leaving home
  • Technical content is still top-notch
  • Nobody is blocking your line of sight to the speaker’s slides
  • Easy to take screenshots of key moments

The Cons

  • Same as for in-person: titles of some talks make it hard to guess the actual content
  • You are your own worst enemy: do not kid yourself about multi-tasking; if you don’t keep your email inbox closed and snooze all your notifications, you will not absorb the conference information you are there to absorb.

Attending: A Mechanical Engineers Perspective

Trevor traveled to Chicago to attend the Additive Manufacturing event, Rapid 3D, in September.  It is important to note that 219 Design isn’t requiring or even encouraging 219ers to travel for work at this time. Even coming into the office remains completely voluntary. 

This year, Rapid teamed up with TCT Live to offer digital content and networking opportunities. While the conference took a hybrid approach, Trevor chose to attend in person. The pitch for the conference was a promise to answer the question “Is additive manufacturing ready for production?” Trevor felt that he wouldn’t be able to answer that question in his own mind if he attended the conference virtually.  In person Trevor was able to ask questions and interact with vendors and other participants and understand the design options they presented. 

“In a discipline as hands-on as Mechanical Engineering, virtual doesn’t cut it. You just can’t see scale, experience live prints, open panels, inspect build quality, determine production vs. prototype, and feel the heat. You can’t feel the surface finish quality, how the parts flex or if they’re brittle, or see the shine and luster of 3D printed parts in a variety of materials. I would only have gotten about a third of the experience if I attended online.” Trevor Wesolowski

In addition, FABTECH, North America’s largest metal forming, fabricating, welding, and finishing event was happening at the same time in the same area as Rapid 3D. In person, it was easy to stop in over a break to check out some of the exhibits there as well.

Attending: A Sales Perspective

Thomas is our Director of Business Development. He attended the Medical Device Software Development Summit in an effort to better understand our clients biggest development challenges and to grow our network specifically in the Medical Device Software space.   

Virtual Speed Networking

“Virtual speed networking sessions are great. This conference set up one-on-one video chat rooms with a countdown, giving you ~5 minutes to chat. Because you don’t have to physically move from table to table, you can speak with more people within the same allotted time, making them more efficient than the in-person equivalent.” Thomas Illick

Here are a few tips:

  • Match Making: The best case scenario is when virtual conferences do some work ahead of time to help curate the experience. Some will poll the attendees about what they’re looking for out of this conference, while others will aim to connect people based on their titles. It’s also excellent when the conference will allow you to view the attendee list and make a set number of formal email introductions on your behalf. 
  • Pitch at the Ready: The key to get the most out of speed networking is to cut to the chase and provide a brief-but-interesting pitch that covers what you or your company are all about. This gives the other person a chance to ask a couple of detailed, relevant questions and makes the connection more meaningful. On the contrary, if there’s no feasible opportunity to work together, it’s best to determine that right away.
  • Real Time Search: It’s also nice to be able to easily pull up a contact’s website while chatting or go directly to their LinkedIn and connect that way. And, it’s easier to keep notes during a virtual conference, both during the presentations and during networking sessions, which makes for better follow-ups later. 
  • Check Your Tech: Make sure you have a good audio and video setup, such as a headset, microphone, and quality camera. You want to be sure to hear and see each other as well as possible.

Despite all the positive attributes, it may not be possible to truly replace spontaneity and the face-to-face experience. Some of the best connections Thomas has made came from chance encounters such as eating lunch at the same table or chatting in the lobby or elevator. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to replicate that virtually, but the speed networking sessions seem to come the closest.


Exhibiting In Person vs. Online

Exhibiting In Person: A Sales Perspective

DesignCon is held annually in Santa Clara, CA, just seven miles from our Mountain View headquarters. When we booked our booth at DesignCon 2021, COVID cases were falling and life was beginning to return to normal. However, not long after we signed the contract, the Delta variant arrived in California and COVID cases began to rise sharply. With no ability to cancel and no mask mandate in place, we considered not staffing our booth. However, just before the August conference Santa Clara implemented a mask requirement. Because of that mandate, we decided to attend with some changes to our prior approach. Vaccinations were not required. 

Our booth was staffed with only one person per shift (almost exclusively partners), as opposed to the usual two or three and we did not have seating set up to encourage social distancing. We showed videos on multiple screens of our company overview and gave away logoed facemasks. Compared to our previous DesignCon exhibits in 2018 and 2019, attendance was significantly lower. DesignCon hasn’t published official numbers, but we estimated attendance was a quarter to a third of what we have seen in the past.  

For 2022, DesignCon has already announced that they are going 100%  digital. They will be leveraging AI-powered technology to recommend suppliers and products that are similar to personal searches and algorithm-driven matchmaking to recommend meetups using in-platform scheduling, messaging, and video calls. 

As an exhibitor the cost is significant not only in fees, but also downtime for staff to prepare and attend. We love the innovations we are starting to see conferences test out and are curious to see how the return on investment of a virtual booth compares to the real thing. It’s unlikely that we will exhibit in-person again soon given the risks and low ROI. 


Speaking In Person vs. Online

Speaking: A Partners Perspective

Finally, just a few weeks ago, Dave (Co-founder) and David (Lead Embedded Systems Engineer) flew from the east coast to speak at the Sensors Converge conference in San Jose, CA. We were excited to share our knowledge and expertise on embedded systems and wanted to make the most of it. The conference took a hybrid approach, but our track happened to be placed in the in-person section. We did ask if presenting virtually was an option and, while they didn’t say no, they said that a virtual presentation wouldn’t give the in person audience the optimal experience. One speaker in our session did cancel. 

Sensors Converge announced in late August that all attendees/staff had to be vaccinated and that masks would be required. We were happy and relieved to hear this and decided to attend. Our presentation was in a large room with about 20 people, including other speakers. The room was less than half full so there was plenty of room to spread out. We often leave speaking engagements with good leads but we didn’t have the right audience for that this time. 

“We enjoy speaking in front of a crowd because of the energy in the room, back and forth during Q&A, and the conversational feel. But, for now, we will look to webinars and other online mechanisms if the in-person experience continues to fall short.” Dave Bim-Merle 

Here are a few tips:

  • Added Value: To create additional value, the in-person sessions should be broadcast or recorded.  
  • Multi Use Material: We used the research from our presentation to write a blog (Get Up and Running Fast with Our FreeRTOS Demo) and other content for our website so, all-in-all, it was probably worth the effort. 


Our Final Thoughts

Holding a conference must be challenging enough, but in COVID-19 times, conference planners now have to track evolving CDC guidance as well as venue, municipal, state, and federal mandates regarding health and safety. There were a lot of last minute changes, but they were all for the better (in our opinion). In researching this blog, we are already seeing an impressive adoption of technology to address many of the downsides of going virtual, ultimately improving the overall experience. 

After experiencing conferences from all perspectives, we look forward to testing out more of the new virtual technology. The adoption of AI-powered networking and algorithm-driven matchmaking could create new opportunities for networking. The adoption of technology could also optimize the return on investment for speaking as well. For our software and firmware engineers, it’s likely that our conference attendance will increase given the new flexibility and lack of travel. As for more hands-on disciplines, we look forward to seeing how conferences will tackle the need for physical interaction. 

Attending a conference in any capacity in 2021 has been an exercise in patience and flexibility. Rules and requirements changed regularly as did our comfort level in attending. Given the uncertainties that remain around COVID, it is likely that more, if not all, will move to virtual models for the foreseeable future. Conferences may never be the same but we are optimistic for what the future holds.

Date published: 10/19/2021