Online professional education and networking events are a current necessity — and potentially, a more cost-effective and convenient future.
In-person gatherings may not be extinct, but they’re certainly endangered. From birthday parties and graduations to the NBA season and the 2020 Summer Olympics, postponements and cancellations are now part of our daily lives, thanks to stay-at-home orders and the need for social distancing.
I serve as a regional director for the National Association of Legal Investigators and a senior board member at large for the Professional Private Investigators Association of Colorado. In those roles, one of my duties is to help decide the future direction of those organizations. That includes providing input on training events for our members.
In March, I voted to abandon more than one multi-day training event due to COVID-19. We aborted our annual training events with the health and safety of our members as the priority. Gathering in person would not be safe, and it might also be against the law.
I was disappointed to miss out on the educational and social aspects that such gatherings provide. Then, while participating in a Pursuit Magazine virtual happy hour using Zoom, I realized there’s a safe middle ground between in-person conferences and no conferences at all: virtual conferences.
The PPIAC board cancelled the in-person Colorado Investigative Development Institute, which is our annual school for new investigators held each April. In its place, on June 5-6, we will present a completely virtual course which will be open to PPIAC members and non-member investigators around the world. Attendees will be able to interact with the instructors during their live presentations, as well as having on-demand access to the presentations and a variety of resources afterward.
We also cancelled the annual NALI training conference, which was scheduled for June in Toronto, Canada. Since our board only meets twice a year, at the annual and mid-year training conferences, we scheduled a virtual video board meeting for the same date we would have met in person. NALI is also developing online education from our website to educate members and any investigator who wants to specialize in legal investigations.
A New, Virtual Normal
Many of us already attend or provide pre-recorded online training classes or live webinars of some type. But for adults who rarely used video conferencing before the spring of 2020, the pandemic forced many to quickly learn to use two-way video as a regular communications medium. Many in-person workforces have shifted indefinitely to working from home. With that change, apps like WebEx, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams have become widely used almost overnight.
Some children had only used video chat software, like Skype, FaceTime, and WhatsApp, for visits with close friends or geographically distant relatives. When schools closed in mid-March, teaching and learning left the classroom and moved online full-time. Within a few weeks, students and teachers quickly adapted to an entirely new method of interacting with each other — using Zoom. Video check-ins with teachers and classmates have quickly become normalized forms of learning and collaboration among students as young as middle school. And many adults finish four-year college degrees or postgraduate work completely online.
“Anyone reading this article can broadcast live video to the world using just a smartphone or laptop.”
The 2020 NFL Draft was 100% virtual this year, a three-day television show streamed live on the internet from all over the United States. While the NFL has CBS to thank for taking care of the tech side of that production, providing live coverage of an event to people around the world no longer requires a multi-million-dollar budget for expensive broadcasting equipment, celebrity announcers, and hundreds of technicians working behind the scenes.
Anyone reading this article can broadcast live video to the world using just a smartphone or laptop.
Larger Audiences, Greater Flexibility
Virtual conferences and trade shows are not just beefed-up webcasts. Several companies are already capable of planning, hosting, and supporting virtual events for any industry. The complexity of the gathering is limited only by the imaginations of those creating the content and messaging. Host platforms can be scaled up to handle connections with a larger audience than would attend in person. Some of the largest online events attract more than 10,000 virtual attendees simultaneously.
Current providers offer virtual theaters for presentations, virtual exhibit halls for sponsor and vendor booths, virtual rooms for networking and breakout sessions, and live chat with presenters and other attendees. The hosting companies also deliver the capability to maintain every aspect of the virtual conference or trade show on-demand. That allows attendees across all time zones to continue accessing booths, interacting with vendors, viewing presentations, and consuming content for weeks or months after the event ends.
Other Potential Benefits
In addition to the added value of access after the fact, there are lots of other advantages to virtual conferences. The most obvious is that hosts, attendees, vendors, and speakers save hundreds or thousands of dollars because they don’t travel to and stay overnight at a physical event. They also don’t lose significant income due to being away from the office for several days in a row.
For the organization holding the conference, there are no hotel contract negotiations or ballroom rental costs. There are no food and beverage minimums or reserved hotel room blocks to meet. Vendors won’t have scheduling conflicts or logistical problems associated with shipping displays and marketing materials to and from a physical event. Speakers will never be late or absent due to bad weather, traffic, or airline delays.
Pre-conference marketing is limited only by the outreach capability of the hosting organization. Post-conference marketing and prospect conversion attempts by hosts and vendors would be much easier. Vendors and sponsors can customize follow-ups with attendees by using data from event software that follows and retains each attendee’s views, clicks, likes, and duration of engagement. That information can also be leveraged by stakeholders for planning future events.
By eliminating travel and lodging as barriers to entry, the potential audience is no longer limited to those who have the time and money to leave work and travel. Investigators from anywhere in the world could attend your organization’s virtual PI conference. An internet connection and the conference fee are the only attendee expenses.
If you’re still wary of taking your next conference completely virtual, I understand. Fortunately, there’s a suitable alternative for those who prefer to dip a toe in the pool rather than jumping in the deep end: Consider creating a hybrid conference — a physical conference combined with a virtual conference for those who cannot or choose not to attend in person. It’s a way for you and your conference committee to practice hosting a VirtCon without going all in right away.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m a better investigator than I am a businessman, but even I can tell that virtual training and education are here to stay. Untapped possibilities exist for integrating distance learning with immersive content delivery and remote engagement.
If hosting a virtual conference seems like a daunting task with too many risks and unknowns, there are established companies ready to do the heavy lifting for us. I suggest that we, the worldwide industry of professional private investigators, open our minds and begin moving in that direction for our regular gatherings. There are no more excuses. It’s time for virtual PI conferences.
About the author:
Sam Petitto is a licensed investigator and K-9 consultant. Prior to embracing the PI lifestyle, he was a professional hide-and-seek player for the Durango Police Department in southwest Colorado. In his spare time he practices competitive writing, traveling absurd distances on foot, and trying to get his kids to acknowledge that he’s almost as smart as they are. You can email Sam@DiscreetDetection.com or tweet to @SamPetitto.