We all know how conferences begin. You walk into a hotel. The concierge gives you a friendly wave. Charming conference staff welcome you from the registration desk, beckoning with lanyard and badge. You see your colleague. Catch sight of an old friend.

The day looms large, rich with possibility; a mix of great content and faces old and new await.

There’s no day job to distract as you set your phone to silent. This desk jockey is liberated; your inner spreadsheet junky silenced.

Then needle scratches across the record. You are not in Kansas anymore. In virtual conferences there is no hotel lobby. No moment to acclimatise and smooth your way into the experience. It’s on. Password entered? What now?

TIP #1 Get orientated:

Don’t wait till the day of the virtual conference to work out which way is up and which way down. There are now almost as many virtual platforms as hotels, or so it feels. Each with their own nuanced approach. Spend some time understanding how the one you have paid good money to attend works. It won’t take long, but you’ll get a better bang for your buck if you have familiarised yourself before the day.

There’s always one at every conference. The Bag Man. You know the guy? Bag Man! That crazy fellow who turns up to every discussion session with a conference goody bag. On his head. Wait! What? You don’t know the delegate with a bag on his head?

TIP #2 Turn your camera on:

Be present. Participate. You wouldn’t sit in a conference roundtable with a bag over your head, so don’t do the online equivalent. No lurkers. Truly you’ll get more out of the experience if you get involved. Of course this means you’ll have to get dressed. At least top-dressed. And maybe tidy up the home office. Make the bed.

Fantastic. We’re online. On camera. Ready to mingle. But with whom?

TIP #3 Plan your time:

Your conference does not begin on the day of the conference. The networking begins much earlier. For sure online events should allow for a laser focus to networking. You don’t need the Brownian motion of a packed exhibition hall to bump serendipitously into the people you want to meet. You can look up fellow attendees in an online directory and message them. But they are more likely to be in front of their computer if you have arranged that virtual hook-up in advance.

There’s always a few people who come to a conference just as their fund is closing. They have just bought a very expensive buffet lunch, which they eat between calls with colleagues stuck in the office. Of course the myriad distractions of work are harder still to swerve if you have not had to leave your desk to attend the virtual conference.

TIP #4 Block out your calendar:

Put some headphones on. Shut your office door (if you have one). Close down your email client. Make like a bandit, steal some time and space and commit to the conference. Sure it’s virtual and no one’s pretending it is the same thing as in-person event that literally transports you. But if you don’t give it some focus, invest some time in it, you’ll get a poor return on your financial outlay.

So far, so much better, but we all know that you can have too much of a good thing. So…

TIP #5 Take a break:

Zoom. Screens. Virtual conference. More screens. Zoom. We are all going to have square eyes come 2021. So make sure you find time in your schedule to stand up, stretch and disconnect. Get some fresh air. And then head back for the keynote. Or not. PEI’s platform gives you good time, post-event, to catch all the content on-demand. Perhaps take a meeting instead with your old colleague, who you only ever see at the conference.  Crack open something cool and refreshing. Just from your own fridge, not ours.