Live Education Events Are Back. But if They Host It, Will You Come?

After a grueling and prolonged pandemic, the days of stacked education conference calendars spanning the globe and events pulling in thousands of attendees might almost seem like a relic of bygone era.

Yet recently, a light at the end of the tunnel has flickered into view. Fourteen months after lockdowns and seemingly endless uncertainty sent the events industry into virtual hibernation, a cautious cluster of education conferences now list in-person dates through the rest of the year, according to an education events tracker co-managed by EdSurge.

With a few exceptions, including the higher-ed behemoth Educause and the startup- and investor-focused ASU+GSV Summit, most are small specialty conferences expected to attract a few hundred attendees at most.

There’s the annual summit for the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents slated for Washington, D.C., in October. An annual conference for the Association for Middle Level Education in Louisville, Ky., the following month. And not one but two live events for the National Council for the Social Studies in November and December.

But first there will be DLAC, the Digital Learning Annual Conference, set for June 14 to 16 in Austin, Texas—with a parallel track running online. It’s what’s known as a “hybrid” conference, blending both live and virtual elements similar to how many schools slowly filtered back to full-time learning last fall.

“Being in digital learning, we always talk about the importance of relationships and engagement,” says John Watson, the founder of the consultancy Evergreen Education Group, which started DLAC (pronounced dee-lac) in 2019, making it one of the newer conferences on the circuit. “I actually really feel like we are practicing what we preach in the field with a hybrid conference.”

DLAC’s live event portion does come with some caveats. Attendance is capped at 500, about half the number that attended in early 2020. To encourage social distancing, tables and chairs will be generously spaced out. Standing room during sessions is strictly verboten. And a popular buffet-style lunch is off limits.

As for other safety precautions, organizers are leaning on city and state health guidance, as well as requirements from Austin’s Hyatt Regency hotel, which will host the event. “We don’t intend to be either more or less aggressive than what the guidance is,” Watson says.

Currently, the in-person portion is almost sold out—although Watson notes that until May 1 attendees could change their mind about how they wanted to attend. “We had a lot of churn, a lot of people going in both directions,” he adds.

By design, most sessions at DLAC are short—lasting only 20 minutes, including discussion time. Some will have a live emcee behind a laptop encouraging cross-participation between presenters and online attendees following along at home. Others will take place entirely online, leading perhaps to the odd scenario of live attendees traveling long distances to watch sessions they could have seen from home.

“When you think about why people go to conferences, I think there’s two overarching use cases,” Watson says. “One is people who want to go because they want all the content that comes out of sessions, and then the very different type of person who’s going almost entirely for the networking.”

Attendees won’t have to make such fraught choices at the annual Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition conference in Arlington, Va.—scheduled for Oct. 27 to 29—simply because there won’t be an online adjunct at all, says John Windhausen, executive director of the organization, often known as SHLB (pronounced shell-bee) for short.

“We’re not a huge conference,” he says. (Attendance usually tops out at about 350 people—though membership has spiked, along with broadband subsidies, during the pandemic.) “Our budget really doesn’t allow us to have a virtual version. That would add to our costs quite a bit.”

Given that the conference is still more than five months away, Windhausen doesn’t have reliable attendance figures. Though a number of broadband experts in his orbit have already asked to confirm the dates so they can lock in airfare rates before they rise. And encouragingly, a recent call for proposals yielded about three submissions for every session slot—an increase over two years ago. Still, he adds, about half of all attendees typically register just a few weeks beforehand.

That’s a luxury the investors, startup founders and educators hoping to attend the large ASU+GSV Summit might not have. California currently limits gatherings to 5,000 people, all of whom must provide proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test. Already 3,000 people are registered for the event, set for Aug. 9 to 11 in San Diego, including carryovers from last year—a strong showing considering marketing for the live event only recently began in earnest.

Last year, during the height of the pandemic, the ASU+GSV Summit was entirely virtual, and not without some success. More than 15,000 people registered from 70 percent of the world’s countries, says Deborah Quazzo, managing partner of GSV Ventures and a co-founder of the summit. “It was totally cool and something you’d never be able to do physically,” she adds. “That having been said, we all knew we wanted to do the best we could to try and achieve a live event” in 2021.

That will mean some compromises. International travelers must show proof of vaccination to attend, instead of a negative test. And those from China and India—a fertile investment ground for GSV—will likely stay virtual due to travel bans. Live attendees may even watch as remote speakers are beamed into sessions, such as one featuring Pinterest co-founder Ben Silbermann in conversation with Marc Brackett of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

Safety precautions, including masks and distancing, are still being ironed out.

“We haven’t actually gotten to a place yet on what kinds of rules we’re going to establish,” says Quazzo. “I’m vaccinated, and I’ll probably keep wearing a mask at least in enclosed settings. And I’m guessing many of us will choose that path.”

Like any year, Quazzo says her team is putting a lot of pressure on itself to get things right. The changes will be noticeable, but hopefully not distract from a welcome return to live events after a tumultuous year-and-a-half. It’s a sentiment echoed by other event organizers, whose business model perhaps depends on a certain degree of sunny optimism.

“My hope and my expectation is I’m going to feel like this is fantastic,” says Watson. “It’s nice to be back out. It’s nice to be connecting with people again from across the country.”

“And yes, that means we’re getting to-go food instead of the buffet lunch. And yes, it means that I couldn’t get into that session because there was no standing room—things like that. It’s just going to be a little bit different than what you’d expect out of that pre-COVID conference.”

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