Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Marco Marabelli. Marco is is an associate professor of Information and Process Management at Bentley University where he currently teaches graduate courses on business analytics; PhD classes on information systems theories and qualitative methods.

This post was triggered by a recent Scholarly Kitchen article concerning what many call “back to normal” for academic conferences (in this case, primarily the 2022 Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) conference). The contributors to the post are enthusiastic about the return to in-person meetings. Zoom fatigue was mentioned by several, although some also have concerns, for example, about the risks for vulnerable colleagues.

I was so pleased to hear all this enthusiasm concerning travel and in-person meetings. I share this feeling of happiness for finally gathering in person. However, COVID has also revealed the potential of gathering (also) remotely. As I recently wrote in the European Journal of Information Systems, with my colleague Emma Vaast, from McGill University, and Lydia Li, my PhD student at Bentley University, several technological consequences of the pandemic are here to stay (which, incidentally, echoes Alison Mudditt’s considerations in the abovementioned post). These often relate to technologies unleashed quickly for emergency reasons and then kept in use. For instance, telehealth has become the norm, even as COVID may be starting to vanish (at least in some countries). According to a McKinsey report, in the US, as of June 2021, telehealth services had been used 38 times more often than before the start of the pandemic, with Forbes indicating that 95% of healthcare facilities are currently able to serve patients online, compared with 43% before the pandemic.

Healthcare, I believe, taught us a very important lesson during COVID, as it served as a natural experiment in how current technologies were being underused before an impelling need required their adoption. And a similar consideration should apply to conferences. When the pandemic first forced most, if not all, scientific gatherings to move online, it became apparent that the population attending (online) conferences was substantially different than in the past. More people from less wealthy universities (in the US) and worldwide were joining international conferences for the first time. This also included PhD students (generally with low travel budgets) and junior faculty, for whom it is extremely important to attend conferences and build networks.

attending hybrid meeting on a laptop

Our investigation

Lydia and I, together with Drs. Sam Zaza, and Kathy Chudoba, decided to investigate the extent to which online conferences would improve inclusiveness and whether hybrid conferences could perpetuate this trend. Sam, as president of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) chapter of the Association for Information Systems, deployed a broad survey in several MENA countries and other low-income countries in South America and Central Africa. She asked scholars about their experience with online conferences and their willingness to attend conferences remotely in the future, including hybrid conferences. The countries surveyed were: Bangladesh (20 members), Brazil (49 members), Ethiopia (44 members), Malaysia (84 members), Pakistan (26 members), and the Middle East and North Africa (110 members). Data collection spanned 19 days in May 2021, yielding 72 valid responses (response rate was 24%). Respondents included PhD students (2%), tenured (53%), and untenured (16%) faculty. We also surveyed several colleagues (mostly from the US) who served as conference/program chair of large-scale international gatherings in the past.

The attendees’ perspective

The results were extremely interesting, somewhat surprising, and to some extent counterintuitive. Some confirmed our hypotheses that offering remote access to conferences would promote inclusion. Others, however, made us reflect on the drawbacks of hybrid conferences. Our data analysis highlighted three distinct issues related to attending conferences, which were substantially mitigated by remote options. First, financial issues: most people reported that they were able to attend an international conference for the first time, as they couldn’t otherwise afford travel costs. Second, flexibility: several study participants noted that they could better manage their professional and personal (family) commitments by attending remotely and being able to watch recordings of sessions (this was especially true for women, who are still, for the most, the primary carers for children, as indicated by a 2020 Nature paper). Last, safety: this concerned health (because of COVID), but also other aspects of travel safety. For instance, people reported being afraid to travel because of their citizenship, sexual orientation, and religious beliefs –  also documented by a recent study – not to mention travel bans and other political reasons preventing free movement of people, which were lifted in the US in 2021, connectivity issues and more challenging ways to network during “around the clock” meetings were mentioned as downsides. But, overall, the message was clear: hybrid conferences would increase the attendance of people from low-income countries, with benefits substantially outweighing the challenges.

The organizers’ perspective

While supportive of more inclusion through remote participation, conference organizers also raised some important concerns. First, they noted that online-only is a much better environment than hybrid because there is only one audience type. Challenges associated with hybrid conferences include technical equipment and capabilities: conferences run in hybrid mode need ballrooms with large screens, diffusion/ceiling microphones, etc., and stable internet connections. These requirements could lead organizers to pick expensive locations where convention centers can offer these technologies which would, paradoxically, prevent travel from low-income countries even more. This would lead to first and second-class attendees, with the latter attending systematically online (because travel to such fancy locations is too expensive), unable to enjoy post-session social events, informal chats, etc. Another concern is conference fees: if hybrid conferences require more technology, conference fees may become more expensive, preventing more people from attending (in-person or remotely). Privacy issues were also raised. Perceptions of privacy vary from country to country. For example, some people may not feel comfortable being recorded. Also, laws and regulations such as the GDPR may pose issues that need to be dealt with during registration, where organizers always need to provide clear information on how they will treat personal data. As the chair-elect of the CTO division of the Academy of Management, I directly experienced dealing with international issues associated with GDPR, privacy, and international regulations.

What both attendants and organizers pointed out was that limiting long distance travels will positively impact the environment, current jet fuel being a relevant source of global pollution. Having said this, we also need to remember that scientific conferences may specifically relate to the environment. In-person conferences, while detrimental to the environment in the short-term, may be beneficial in the long run. Overall, hybrid vs. in-person conferences represents a challenging tradeoff.

In summary, based on the responses to our survey:

  • Online conferences are preferred over hybrid ones, by both attendees and organizers. However, it is not realistic for all conferences to be online only for the future. Human beings are social by nature, and in-person contact, informal chats, etc. are fundamental to our personal wellbeing, as well as to our social interactions (think of how you felt when you were able to hug for the first time someone not in your household, in the aftermath of the “bad days” of the pandemic.)
  • Hybrid, therefore, may be a good compromise…but with a few caveats. Not everyone may be committed to giving up some of the “fun” of in-person only conferences to accommodate remote And hybrid conferences add complexity, not just for organizers but also for live attendants who also need to manage two audiences. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are not everyone’s top priority, and we should be realistic about it. This begs the question of how to engage the most skeptical and how to persuade them that long-term benefits of inclusion will positively affect scholarship.
  • We need to be careful not to take for granted that hybrid conferences are the solution to all DEI problems. For example, the option to attend conferences remotely might be more affordable, support flexibility (especially for women), and address travel issues (i.e., LGBTQ+ community) for those from low-income countries. Yet, it might also represent a way for universities to deny travel funds that would otherwise typically be awarded.
  • The onus will be mostly on live attendees to make “the others” comfortable in hybrid contexts. We, academics, have long-standing experience of hybrid However, participating as attendees will require us to be more considerate of our remote colleagues, who have limited possibilities to interact. A good exercise could be for everyone to attend at least one hybrid conference remotely, to feel what it is like to participate in this way.
  • COVID is not yet over — it is very much still present in many countries worldwide, especially where initial vaccinations have just started or are still underway. We should all be willing to accept that full in-person gatherings must increasingly take a back seat, in order to accommodate people from less wealthy countries who cannot travel – including, because they can’t show proof of vaccination when entering the US.

A more comprehensive analysis of these issues is currently under review at a journal in our field. We hope to be able to share the published version of our work soon.

Marco Marabelli

Marco Marabelli, PhD is an associate professor of Information and Process Management at Bentley University where he currently teaches grad courses on business analytics; PhD classes on information systems theories and qualitative methods. Marco’s research focuses on the ethical/DEI implications of the use of emerging technologies (social media, sensor technologies, the metaverse) in organizations and society and the reasons behind institutional inertia in addressing potential misuses of algorithms. Marco is currently studying automatic (algorithmic-led) decision-making processes in large organizations and negative effects for underrepresented populations. Marco is also interested in the future deployment of the metaverse, the platform’s privacy implications and its potential to exacerbate surveillance and discriminatory practices. In the past two years Marco conducted COVID-related research concerning the role of algorithms in access to care disparities (in the US) and unequal availability of vaccines (US and worldwide).


8 Thoughts on "Guest Post — Hybrid Versus In-person: What Will Be the Future of Academic Conferences?"

Based on my own experience an organiser of the hybrid Researcher to Reader (R2R) Conference in February, and on the delegate feedback we have received, I agree heartily with the majority of points in this article, précised below:
• The return of in-person is being enthusiastically welcomed by most.
• We are seeing persistence of the online tech intended for emergency use.
• The chance this gives poorer delegates to participate is very valuable.
• The advantages in flexibility, safety & inclusiveness cannot be abandoned.
• Online-only (or physical-only) is indeed better for that one type of audience.
• Hybrid can mean complexity, inconvenience and ghettoization for all participants.
• Hybrid definitely adds (massive) complexity, cost and risk for organisers.
• Hybrid could be seen as an environmentally unsound compromise.

In passing, I would also add that sales tax is a significant issue for organisers (and some participants) as many countries seem to have clear tax rules for physical conferences and online delivery, but highly ambiguous rules for hybrid events.

As we continue to explore these issues we also need to be clearer about what we really mean by ‘online conference’ and ‘hybrid conference’. We all know what a ‘physical conference’ means, I suppose; but we are seeing that a so-called ‘online conference’ can be just a few recorded online webinars, and a so-called ‘hybrid conference’ can just be an online view of the plenary sessions from a physical conference. I feel we need to be much more challenging about how these terms are used, and expect ALL ‘conferences’ to be real collaborative meetings, with hybrid events also delivering collaboration across the online-physical boundary, despite the human, technology and cost challenges.

At R2R we feel that, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, “Hybrid is the worst form of conference there is; apart from all the others.” Online-only is too limiting, and physical-only is too exclusive, so we have to make real hybrid meetings work.

IMV any research in this space needs to include a wider range of views. (Potential) Participants and organisational hosts are two stakeholders, but so are the views of those responsible for budgets and conference funding, event managers, and exhibitors or sponsors (who may effectively subsidise large parts of conference registration fees).
The sarcastic comments about “expensive locations” and “fancy locations” is unhelpful, and suggests both a potential source of bias and a lack of knowledge around realities of event management.
Once organisers factor in costs for hiring conference and exhibition space, tech requirements, catering, accessibility (in terms of people with disability or impairments), proximity to accommodation, proximity to travel hubs, and catering, seemingly “low cost” venues quickly become completely inappropriate and / or more expensive than a dedicated, “expensive” or “fancy” conference venues.
As to the views of exhibitors, I can say that companies in my industry have simply not seen a viable return on investment in the virtual conference space, and even less so for a hybrid model.

People can indeed be sarcastic or sour when commenting on ‘fancy’ venues, suggesting that a ‘fair’ conference would be at a mythical free venue, with bring-your-own lunches. I don’t think this was the author’s intent here, however, where their point seemed to be about the challenges of hybrid requiring good-quality (and therefore expensive) infrastructure and services.

The author is reporting on results of their research. The words do not appear in quotes, which would suggest they were participant responses. That suggests the words reflect the authors’ (non- neutral) opinion on these venues.

Regarding exhibitor returns, many of the past or potential sponsors of our R2R Conference were nervous or cynical about the potential value of supporting or attending online or hybrid events, disappointed by some other events merely providing a low-res logo on a webinar screen. But I think that where an organiser makes the effort to deliver a real hybrid meeting, with good interactivity, this can potentially offer INCREASED value to sponsors or exhibitors, allowing them to fully engage with both physical and online delegates, using both travelling and remote staff. Our sponsor testimonials certainly suggest it is possible deliver a ‘viable return on investment’.

I’d be interested to know more about your R2R conference for exhibitors and sponsors. We found the expo costs were only marginally lower for the hybrid model, yet the number of in-person delegates dropped substantially. For a very small company (~40 employees, with only 5-6 in marketing/ sales roles who could work the booth), the RoI just isn’t there.

The key for R2R has been to offer real hybrid engagement. Speaking as an ex salesperson, I have never liked the necessity to ‘work the booth’, which seems so commercial and distancing – we try to offer an environment that enables real online and physical interactions amongst all the delegates, including sponsors/exhibitors.
I would be happy to discuss further: https://r2rconf.com/r2r-contact/

Interesting. I used to be an academic (in two different disciplines), now I am an indexer. I have three careers of conferences behind me.

For my entire academic life, in-person networking was the entire reason to attend a conference. I’d present my work (an hour, two, or three, of three days) and the rest of the time was the conference — seeing people I only get to see once a year, talking to folks about their work and new projects and making the interpersonal connections which grease the wheels of academic life. Interview for jobs, pre-interview, find out about potential openings in compelling places. Seeing new places, eating good food with good friends, great conversation, and leaving with new contacts, new places to publish, new research partners and collaborators.

Because that was the value of the conference, the content didn’t much matter. I went because the value for the money was the hallway networking.

THAT is going to be the challenge for virtual conferences. I will not register for a virtual conference without seeing the entire program and determining that there is enough useful content to make my money a good value. That means a session **useful to me in almost every time slot.** (As an editor, I pay my own way, no one else does. Other professions are the same to greater or lesser degrees. I’m also not making money while I am at the conference, so the conference cost also includes lost income.) So far, every virtual conference in my new field runs their conference calls while registration is open and doesn’t have the program until very close to game time. That means I also have to see, or short notice, if I can attend, as I will not have blocked that time out on my calendar. And I think I have seen one conference during COVID that had enough content of interest to me (my specializations, my knowledge level and gaps) to even make me consider attending.

Without the incalculable value of in-person networking and one-on-one conversations in the hotel bar and hallways, conferences must have more, better, programming. That may mean more conferences in more targeted niches, or some other solution. But the value proposition of virtual conferences is not the same as the value proposition of in-person, which will have to change everything. (not to mention the exhibit halls!)

Yes, virtual conferences are more convenient, more inclusive, and more affordable. But they are going to have to be much much BETTER events than they ever had to be in the in-person era.

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