Navigating Virtual, Hybrid, and In-Person Conferences

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Conferences have always been an essential part of professional development for NSF ATE grantees providing opportunities for networking, learning about new developments and trends in industry, and expanding knowledge and skills.

With the advent of virtual and hybrid conferences, attendees now have more options to choose from when it comes to attending conferences. This post discusses the differences between virtual, hybrid, and in-person conferences and highlights some of the ATE centers doing all of the above. 

Virtual Conferences

Virtual conferences, also known as online conferences, are entirely online events. Attendees can access the conference from anywhere in the world as long as they have an internet connection. Virtual conferences can take many forms, such as live-streamed events, webinars, or pre-recorded sessions that attendees can watch at their convenience.

The Building Efficiency for a Sustainable Tomorrow (BEST) Center, which supports heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration, building automation, and energy/facilities management, pivoted to entirely virtual formats for their annual institute on high-performance building operations. The institutes have been a success with many speakers, events, and lots of knowledge sharing among participants. The BEST center also helps create networking opportunities for attendees by not only having impactful speakers but also providing  roundtable discussions so that attendees can connect online. The institute is always free to attend. The keynote presentation from their 2023 annual institute can be viewed here.


One significant advantage of virtual conferences is their accessibility, as the BEST Center shows. Attendees do not have to travel, and they can access the conference from their home or office, reducing costs associated with travel and accommodations. Virtual conferences also offer attendees more flexibility to choose which sessions they attend as they can watch recorded sessions at their convenience. Virtual conferences are eco-friendly, as they do not require travel or printing of conference materials.

However, virtual conferences do not offer the same networking opportunities as in-person conferences. Attendees do not have the same level of opportunity to meet and connect with others in their industry, limiting the potential for new professional relationships. Additionally, virtual conferences can be more challenging to engage in as attendees are more likely to multitask during sessions or become distracted by other responsibilities. Best practices for circumventing this includes creating opportunities for small group discussions and providing multiple formats for speakers, practices included in the BEST Center Institutes.  

Hybrid Conferences

Hybrid conferences combine elements of virtual and in-person conferences, offering both remote and in-person attendance options. Hybrid conferences can take many forms, but typically include a mix of live-streamed sessions, pre-recorded sessions, and in-person sessions.

Hybrid conferences offer the best of both worlds, providing the convenience and accessibility of virtual conferences while also offering the in-person networking opportunities of traditional conferences. Attendees can choose to attend sessions in person or remotely, depending on their availability and preferences.

Last year, the ATE PI Conference was held in-person with a virtual track. As always, the  ​​conference represented PIs from the full spectrum of high-tech fields represented by ATE.. Past years were entirely in-person and during the COVID Pandemic, entirely virtual. This year, the ATE PI Conference switched to a hybrid model. Prior to and after  the in-person events happened, a secondary track of virtual events also was held.  These virtual events featured information sessions from ATE national centers, breakout rooms, panels, and presentations. 

While there are many benefits to hybrid conferences,  for organizers they can be logistically challenging, requiring both virtual and physical infrastructure to accommodate attendees. Additionally, the hybrid format can lead to a less cohesive experience, as virtual and in-person attendees may have different experiences and interactions.

In-Person Conferences

In-person conferences are still the most traditional format of conferences, where attendees travel to a physical location to attend sessions, network, and participate in workshops and other activities. In-person conferences offer the most comprehensive and immersive conference experience, providing attendees with the opportunity to connect with others in their industry, meet potential employers or clients, and experience new destinations.

In-person conferences offer the most significant potential for networking, allowing attendees to meet and connect with others in their industry, exchange business cards, and make lasting professional relationships. In-person conferences also offer a unique opportunity to immerse oneself in the conference experience fully, engaging in a range of activities, workshops, and events.

However, in-person conferences are also the most expensive and logistically challenging. Attendees must cover travel, lodging, and meal costs, as well as manage their time away from work or other responsibilities. Additionally, in-person conferences are not environmentally friendly, as they require travel, accommodations, and the printing of conference materials.

An upcoming in-person conference is the Women in Cybersecurity conference (WiCyS) held March 16-18th in Denver, Colorado. This conference brings together women in cybersecurity from academia, research, government, and industry. The WiCyS’s first conference was canceled in 2020, but they continued in 2021 as an in-person conference. Subsequently, they’ve had two more in-person annual conferences to great success with over 1,500 participants and over 200 employer representatives. More information can be found about the upcoming conference on the WiCyS website

Attending a virtual, hybrid, or in-person conference offers unique benefits and drawbacks. Virtual conferences offer accessibility and convenience, while hybrid conferences offer the best of both worlds. In-person conferences offer the most comprehensive and immersive experience, providing attendees with the opportunity to connect with others in their industry and experience new destinations. Ultimately, the choice of which conference format to attend will depend on the attendee's goals, budget, and availability.

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