Where next? Things to consider when choosing conference format (Katie Tindle)

In this post, Katie Tindle of SRHE shares some behind-the-scenes insights of academic conference organising, in particular the process of choosing a conference format which works.

Helen Perkins introducing Dr Neil Harrison, Dr Foluke Adebisi, Dr Ibrar Bhatt and Dr Elizabeth Hauke at the SRHE International Conference 2019, the most recent SRHE Conference.

Here at the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE), we’re in the curious position of planning both our 2022 and 2023 conferences simultaneously. The next conference is taking place imminently, in December 2022 online (more information available here), and the next for December 2023.

To give some context, the 2021 conference was held online for the first time ever. The 2020 conference was cancelled entirely due to Covid. Cancelling the 2020 conference was not a decision taken lightly, nor was the decision to hold the conference entirely online in 2021. Our annual conference is incredibly important to us as an organisation. It’s an opportunity for us to bring together our international community of researchers working on higher education and to foster connections for future collaborations between members. It’s usually the last conference of the calendar year, and a major part of the conference is the chance to celebrate the achievements of our presenters before a new year begins. Conference is one of our major member benefits, as we offer discounted member rates to our in-person conferences, and free attendance to members when the conference is held online. All this has been at the top of our minds when choosing a format for 2023. 

As those of you who are involved in the running of conferences will know, you need to start to plan far in advance, and so for almost the entire period of planning for 2022 we’ve been thinking about 2023, specifically what format it will take. As we watch the world open up with the lifting of Covid-related travel restrictions, we’ve worked hard to keep abreast of the successes and challenges facing colleagues hosting their own online, hybrid and in-person events. SRHE is a member of an Academy of Social Sciences working group on the subject, we’ve attended a number of events as delegates and as sponsors, and we’ve discussed our options at length with our trustees and standing committees. All that being said, the exercise which gave us the clearest steer was to ask our members what they wanted. 

In June of 2022, SRHE issued its first member survey in over 10 years. We issued this survey to help gain insights in order to strengthen our member offering, refine our current activities and design new ones. We received 175 responses to our survey, which is around 21% of our membership. These were individuals from a range of career stages (from early career researchers, right through to retired members) and roles. We surveyed our members on a range of topics, but I’ll focus on our events and conferences here.

Preferred formats for events

SRHE hold events in a variety of formats throughout the year including: 

  • Network events Seminar style events which are convened on a range of topics by our Network Convenors. These tend to be discursive events where a number of academics present their research on a particular theme. During Covid these were moved online, but we have begun to host some events in our offices again. Click here to learn more about our Networks.
  • Professional Development Programme (PDP) events Our PDPs are more often workshop style events, mostly smaller in scale and more interactive. Again, during Covid these were moved online, but we have begun to host some in-person.
  • Annual Conference As discussed above, our conference is an annual event focussed on the dissemination and discussion of research into higher education.

Members were asked to rank their preferred format for our Network events, PDP programme and conference. 

Network events: Most respondents first choice was ONLINE, then IN PERSON and finally HYBRID. HYBRID was most often users second choice. 

Professional Development Programme: Most respondents first choice was ONLINE, then HYBRID, with IN PERSON coming last. Again, HYBRID was most often users second choice. 

Conference: In a slight change to the pattern, half of respondents would like to see the Conference take place IN PERSON as their first choice, then HYBRID, then ONLINE. Again, HYBRID was most often users’ second choice.

We were anecdotally aware of a desire to get back to in-person conferences, so IN PERSON being the most common first choice of conference format was not surprising.

We had heard from colleagues that they missed the incidental conversations and networking, and newer researchers were finding it difficult to make professional connections online which larger face-to-face events afford. What was more surprising was the preference of members to stay online for Network and Professional Development Programme events. It seems perhaps that a minority of members asking for in person events, and our own desire to get back to hosting, had skewed our impression of what our members wanted and needed. Using this data we resolved to maintain our online events as a central SRHE activity, particularly across the networks and PDP programmes, and to return to face to face at a lower frequency.

Dr Chantelle Lewis introducing the work of Leading Routes in preparing the next generation of Black academics for SRHE International Conference 2021, (Re)connecting, (Re)building: Higher Education in Transformative Times

Likelihood of attending in-person

We asked our members whether there are any factors that would make them more or less likely to attend an event in person. 

There are several recurrent themes which are off-putting to those who are thinking of attending an event in person. The main reasons for not attending events are:

  • The cost and time to travel to London (where our offices are located) was the most cited reason 
  • Other commitments, particularly taking time off work but also family commitments
  • Covid and other health concerns
  • Uncertainty around travel due to recent rail strikes

There was an overall sense from all the responses that, to travel for an event, it had to be worthwhile in terms of time and cost.

Respondents expressed willingness to attend events for which they felt had:

  • Value for money in terms of cost and time – members are more likely to travel for a full-day or two-day event, or would prefer a short journey to shorter events
  • Relevant and quality content
  • Built-in opportunities to network
  • Assured Covid safety protocols
  • The opportunity to present (and therefore potentially be sponsored by their institution to attend)

This appears to explain in part why our members preferred to attend an in person or hybrid conference, but were less ready to go back to in person for our shorter events. Longer, larger events appear to be easier to justify in terms of cost and travel in a number of contexts, for instance justifying funding and time to employers for instance, or when personally organising time and expenses. 

Forward planning

With the above in mind, we have a clear steer from our members that they would like us to keep online events as a central SRHE activity, particularly across the networks and PDP programmes. That being said, appetite for in-person networking is there, and there is sufficient interest to support our plan to return to face to face at a lower frequency. 

In terms of Conference, this is a little more complicated. There is much more enthusiasm for going back to an in-person conference, but a large enough contingent which is interested in online and hybrid options to warrant considering a variety of hybrid models. 

There are many other factors we need to consider when making a decision on the format for such an event, not least including costs and concerns about the environmental impact of international travel for delegates. We also have to mitigate against the risks associated with holding an event in the winter months, and participants dropping out or changing their style of engagement due to illness. Although we are still in exploratory stages, SRHE is looking to hold a conference which has both online and in-person elements in 2023. What that will look like exactly, we’re still working on. We look forward to sharing more information with members soon about how we will come together for next year’s annual event.

We welcome your comments and feedback; feel free to drop me a line at katie.tindle@srhe.ac.uk.

About Katie Tindle

Katie Tindle is SRHE Business Development and Engagement Lead. Her role includes expanding and implementing the Society’s communications strategy, growing membership engagement internationally and systems development and integration for conferences, events and membership. Katie is also a lecturer in Creative Computing for Goldsmiths, University of London, and a visiting tutor at Arts University Bournemouth. She also works with QArt, a non-profit organisation working to demystify fine art education and has her own creative practice with arts and technology collective In-grid. Follow SRHE on Twitter: @srhe73. Katie can be followed on Instagram via @ktwindmill and  @in_grid___/.

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