Empty orange conference chairs in rows

Make the Most of Virtual Conferences

Conferences, especially big conferences, can be overwhelming for anyone. Add in a pandemic – where conferences have gone virtual – and many wonder if it’s worth it. “Do I really want to be on Zoom all day long?” In this article, I share how to make the most of virtual conferences in a pandemic. As you’ll see, many of the strategies for managing in-person conferences also translate to virtual ones. With a few caveats and twists.

WEmpty orange conference chairs in rowsHY ATTEND CONFERENCES AT ALL?

Before we dive into how to make the most of conferences, first let’s ask “why should one even go to a conference?”  Educating Today and Conference Monkey outline a number of great reasons to attend a conference. Here are some of our favorites:

  1. Explore new ideas and learn new strategies. Conferences are a great way to spark creativity and help you think outside the box.
  2. Network with others who are interested in the same things you are. Reconnecting with old colleagues-friends and meeting new ones is a great way to grow professionally.
  3. Regain your professional focus. It can be challenging staying in the same work cycle week after week. Conferences give you a change of scenery (even virtually) and a chance to freshen your perspective on your day-to-day work.
  4. Meet experts and mentors. You read their work or see them in webinars – conferences are a great way to ask a question to the experts.
  5. Showcase your work. Conferences give you an opportunity to share what’s going on at your campus or organization. Contributing to the knowledge in your field is an important way to give back to the profession. Bonus – you’ll improve your own presentation skills by presenting at a conference.


Time and money are always scarce resources – there aren’t enough of either of them in higher education. And especially now, where money is very tight for institutions, it is important to evaluate if participating in a conference will be a value-add to you.

Many organizations are offering their conference at a lower cost this year because they know funding is tight and the conference is virtual. So – this may be the year to try out some new conferences that you could not afford to attend under normal circumstances with the usual travel costs. Keep in mind – the organization may not offer a virtual option in the future – so now is your chance.

Now – how to find the right conferences??

  • Check out last year’s conference materials. Who were the speakers? What were some of the sessions? Did last year’s content interest you? Did you read last year’s program and think ‘I missed a great conference!’ Chances are that this year’s conference will be similar – maybe better.
  • Ask colleagues what conferences they attend. This is especially important if you are trying to move into new positions. For example, are you trying to be a Dean? Do you seek the coveted role of Provost? If so – ask folks IN those positions what conferences they attend. This allows you to start hearing the conversations and challenges of those in the roles that you are aiming to occupy – thus, making you more prepared for those positions.
  • Monitor LinkedIn. Follow hashtags of interest such as #highered or #higheredleadership. And then be sure to check LinkedIn regularly (at least once a week). You can also follow me on LinkedIn as I post on a variety of topics, including higher education conferences and webinars.
  • Find out where others present. Which conferences feature the higher education leaders that you admire and respect? Many people add conference presentations to their resume/CV or post the presentation on their website. So – you can check out the conferences that they are attending by looking at their recent presentations (here are my recent presentations).


Consider local and regional conferences. There is something so special about the state and regional meetings. I think it’s the way the local focus mixes with the national big picture to create a buzz of familiarity and excitement. I am excited to reconnect with colleagues, meet some new pros, and dig in to learn more about things I’ve been thinking about.


Conferences can be exhausting. But, over the years, I’ve learned a few tips that help me maximize my time at conferences and avoid feeling too overwhelmed. As part of your conference selection, ask yourself:Laptop, pen, phone, calendar- planning for conferences

  • What do I want to learn?
  • Which topics will benefit the work my department is doing or wants to do?
  • What information does my supervisor expect me to bring back to my institution?
  • Who do I want to network with?
  • Who do I want to catch up with?

Thinking about what you want out of your conference experience will help guide your selection.


Once you’ve selected your conference, take the time in advance to build an agenda to maximize it.


Look beyond the session titles as you build your agenda for conferences. Read the descriptions so you have a better idea of whether or not the session is going to be a good fit for you. While the topic may be of interest, you also want to make sure that the level at which it is being presented suits your needs. Reading the descriptions may also help you choose between sessions on the same topic, freeing you up for something else. You also might choose a particular session if the presenter is someone you’d like to network with, or whose work you follow.

Don’t forget to add the Keynote Sessions to your agenda. These are widely attended and the topics are broad and timely. So, you’ll walk away with lots of great conversation starters and topics for discussion with new connections.

What’s one way to know the session you’re planning to go to will be a good one? If the presenters have been asked back to do it again for the second year in a row! And this happens frequently with particularly popular and/or insightful topics.

Networking at a Virtual Conference

You might be thinking that networking at a virtual conference is O-V-E-R. Well – before you cast aside networking too quickly – it’s time to get creative with it. And – during a pandemic – connecting with others is even more important. Here are a few creative ways to make it work:People participating in a converence by video

  • Use built in networking opportunities. Conference planners are seeing that virtual conferences are not going away – so they are building in networking opportunities. Yes – they are not the same as the in-person events – but they are worth trying out.
  • Connect with a colleague that is attending too. Try reaching out to colleagues that you know who will also be attending virtually. Just like you did at an in-person conference – you talked about the sessions you were going to, which presenters had great takeaways, and ways you have been inspired. Do the same things for a virtual conference. Schedule some time with those colleagues before, during, or after the conference to share insights.
  • Ask a question in the session. You may not think of this as networking, but it is. Usually attendees can see who is asking the question – or the presenter will call out the person’s name. Asking a question in the chat box to the presenter is a way of being “seen” at the conference. I personally have had people reach out to me afterwards to thank me for the question and to follow up for further discussion.
  • Visit the Virtual Exhibit Hall. Sponsors have been pivoting their organizations during the pandemic – just like you and your institution. Spend some time learning about the sponsors and their new offerings. Many sponsors are offering free services this year to help colleges and universities. Seriously – for FREE. They know that institutions don’t have extra money right now. So, the overwhelming majority are trying to do brand awareness and goodwill work, so that when you do have money to spend again – you’ll remember them. So – no need to worry about endless sales pitches (for the most part).


Conference presentations regularly crack the Top 10 of my annual professional highlights list. Presenting is a great way to engage new perspectives on a topic, build on ideas or research that is already underway, and foster new and existing relationships. It even makes networking easier – folks will be coming to see/hear from you! If you’ve never presented at a conference before, there are steps to make it easier:

  1. Identify the program proposal schedule and deadlines for upcoming conferences you plan to attend (even virtual ones – we may be attending conferences this way for a while).
  2. Mark your calendar with call for programs and proposal submission deadline dates.
  3. Set internal deadlines for yourself, so that you can pull together a successful submission by the deadline.
  4. Then start brainstorming! Think about what you’re doing that’s new, innovative, or could be expanded beyond your own campus. Perhaps you and a colleague or two could collaborate on a winning proposal by offering to host a panel or sharing work along the same theme.
  5. Make sure you know the proposal requirements. I always drop the full program proposal guidelines into a Word document, and use that to develop my proposal. That way, I ensure I never omit a critical component that may prevent my proposal from being accepted.
  6. Watch the calendar so you don’t miss any deadlines. Missing the proposal submission date may take you out of the running entirely. But it will for sure leave the impression that this presentation isn’t a priority for you. Add a reminder to your calendar for yourself (and any co-pr).
  7. Begin to develop your presentation as soon as your proposal is accepted. Leaving the hard work to the last minute doesn’t pay off. Take time early to work before you’re in a crunch. We’ve all been to presentations that were thrown together at the last minute – and it shows. Don’t be the one who gives a presentation that fails to live up to its potential.


Conferences can be a great way to get out of your day-to-day routine, learn new things, meet new colleagues and reconnect with old ones, and share your own ideas with the broader field — even in a pandemic. But it’s important to take a strategic approach if you want to make the most of these experiences. Reading and planning will go a long way toward making the conference attendance memorable and valuable to you as a professional.

The Institute for Effectiveness in Higher Education (IEHE) innovates and improves higher education standards through our strategic research, publicly available resources, and partnerships with colleges and universities. We provide extensive expertise on data strategy, IPEDS, institutional research and student success to drive institutional effectiveness.