Washington State University is making its mark in the world of conference event management, offering cutting-edge virtual conferencing opportunities that exceed what is available in the industry at large.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused all large gatherings, including professional conferences, to go virtual. This has caused most event management firms to cancel or cut back their conference offerings to only a streamed keynote speaker or series of single sessions. In contrast, WSU is providing an experience that goes beyond what many others in the industry are offering.

In addition to live-streaming keynote speakers, WSU’s virtual conferences can include concurrent “breakout” sessions, a virtual registration desk and a virtual, interactive vendor exhibit hall.

“We’re one of the first in the conference management industry to provide all of these features virtually,” said Jennifer Cook, director of WSU Professional Education. “Our innovation in this area has really established us as a leader in the field.”

WSU Professional Education, formerly known as Conference Management, seeks to extend education and professional development opportunities by providing online certification classes as well as event management and conferencing services to a wide variety of clients, including government agencies, academic and professional associations, and nonprofit organizations.

“When COVID-19 hit in March, we knew that we needed to act quickly to come up with a plan for continuing to deliver services for our clients. Fortunately, we were uniquely positioned to do so,” said Brianne Wyatt, senior conference manager for WSU Professional Education.

With clients counting on WSU to deliver, staff worked with technology and media experts in WSU’s Academic Outreach and Innovation (AOI) division, who run the university’s nationally ranked Global Campus and helped prepare the five other WSU campuses to deliver classes at a distance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Many organizations rely on their annual conferences to connect with their constituencies and fund their annual operations,” said Cook. “Without a conference, their organizations face serious risk to their longevity. Being able to host hundreds of people through various virtual platforms allows the conferences to continue without missing a beat.”

The addition of a virtual vendor exhibit hall is particularly important to the conference experience, according to Wyatt.

“The virtual vendor exhibit hall allows for continued, curated industry connections between the hundreds of attendees and their organizational partners,” she said. “Participants still can choose which vendors to visit and engage with them one-on-one like they would in a physical exhibit hall. Vendors still get to present their products and services, just as they would in person.”

Reaction to the new technologies has been widely positive, Wyatt added.

“From what we’ve seen so far, one benefit of being virtual is that attendees have the ability to talk to each other via chat during the live sessions, gaining additional insight by asking and answering each other’s questions,” said Wyatt. “Naturally, in-person events have many benefits, but it seems that virtual events have the advantage in this respect. We work hard to foster that kind of interaction, and we are happy to hear about it in the feedback we receive.”

Going into 2021, WSU Professional Education has conferences planned in both virtual and in-person formats and will continue to adapt their delivery methods as the COVID-19 response unfolds.

“We want potential client organizations to know that even though converting an in-person event to a virtual one can seem daunting at first, it can still be very successful in meeting your needs,” said Cook. “Until we can gather again in person, we’ll use our unique resources and expertise to supply the best virtual conferencing experience the industry has to offer.”

To learn more about WSU conference management opportunities, visit the WSU Professional Education website.