The months of October and November 2020 saw a slew of virtual Intellectual Property conferences all over the world. From AIPPI to AIPLA, PTMG to FICPI, from WTR Connect to the latest INTA conference - all have endeavoured to use various virtual formats to connect with audiences. It seems to have become the norm during Covid times but are virtual conferences here to stay for good?

The conferences were a mix of paid-for and free events. AIPPI in fact offered the entire 8-day conference for free to its members. The same was the case with 2-day FICPI which was free for its members with a nominal fee of $50 for non-members. PTMG charged about GBP 320 for a 2-day 2-hour seminar and three podcasts whereas INTA charged $750 for its Annual and Leadership conference combined making a total of 10 days of virtual time spent together.

So how successful have virtual conferences been? That depends on the metrics by which one measures success. If it was attendance, then the success has been variable. For example, I know for a fact that INTA saw far fewer participants and firms attending although the total number was still in the many thousands. This could have been primarily due to people not seeing how they would be able to network virtually, the access to copious networking being one of the key attractions of INTA.

Another measure of success could be how seamlessly the conference was conducted and the networking opportunities offered. Many conferences such as AIPPI and INTA built customized landing and networking pages while using the Zoom application to conduct meetings. There were even elaborate virtual chat rooms available for networking. For example, AIPPI had the Chat Lounge function where one could contact any and all attendees and engage in a textual conversation. Email addresses could be exchanged on this chat and meetings thereafter set up on Zoom or other video conferencing applications. INTA provided dedicated hospitality areas where one could video chat live with other participants from all over the world. INTA also built an Artificial Intelligence powered networking tool called INTAConnect to allow attendees to connect to each other and even schedule video meetings on the platform. These tools were executed flawlessly and the organizations deserve a lot of credit for the hard work put in to make these conferences a productive and pleasurable experience for attendees. With the time and effort that it has taken to build these platforms, a helpful suggestion however is to keep them open to attendees rather than only allow access for up to a month after the end of the conference.

There were many noteworthy features and aspects of the conferences that added to the enjoyment and their utility. In addition to the standard educational sessions, some conferences hosted social networking events. For example, the Women in AIPPI event was structured to have a subject expert talk about management styles, then for everyone to go into breakout rooms in order to be able to interact one-on-one followed by a dance party. It was also possible to network with attendees during this event on the private Zoom chat. Similarly, AIPLA hosted a successful Women in IP Law Committee Breakfast meeting which allowed both junior and senior attorneys to interact with each other. INTA similarly hosted a successful Women’s Initiative session and the break out rooms made it possible to connect to other attendees in smaller groups and forge a real connection. INTA also hosted various fun ‘social’ sessions discussing myriad topics such as tea, coffee, wines, FIFA, chocolate, photography and also playing online games and quizzes. AIPPI adapted itself to allow for online voting on its Study Questions.

Another technique for fostering interaction were INTA’s Table Topics and AIPPI’s Virtual Roundtables. These included 10 to 15 people getting together virtually to discuss a relevant IP topic and thereby getting to know each other as well. Furthermore, INTA’s Speed Networking format allowed attendees to meet each other in an informal environment and learn novel, personal things about each other. Another benefit of having the Speed Networking happen virtually is that it allowed people who don’t normally attend the event physically at the in-person INTA conference to join in and this included normally very busy INTA Board members. The sharing of email addresses during such events encouraged networking.

It helps to have a few basics covered for virtual conferences. Dressing well and as far as possible keeping a professional background. Remember, having virtual meetings many a times means inviting people into your home. What do you want people to see? Seeing that one’s name is displayed alongwith the name of the firm and preferably country too.  It is a good practice to exchange contact information as often as possible and if this is not possible, then at least to jot down the names of people you see/meet and find their contact details on their website or on LinkedIn.

The important question of course is whether virtual conferences can generate business. In my personal experience, I met an attorney during a Speed networking event for the first time and the very next day received instructions for multiple trademark renewals. I was pleasantly surprised and it increased my engagement with virtual conferences. Perhaps this could work.

So what worked for me and what didn’t? Interactive sessions where I could converse with other participants and come away with contact details were most effective. Sessions that were webinar-based were not too helpful as it was impossible to see who the other attendees were - the only saving grace being able to send questions via the Q&A box to the panelists which weren’t always answered. Still, it was better to have a diverse set of speakers than one or two who spoke for long periods of time.

There was plenty of real life feedback from attendees during my interaction with them on the advantages and disadvantages of virtual conferences. Firstly, there were time zone clashes. It was not uncommon for me to be up at midnight attending a session. Neither was it too unusual to find South Korean colleagues up at 4am their time to join into the conversation on Zoom. Their dedication was indeed remarkable! But the question remains as to how sustainable is this process.

Many attendees also found it difficult and tiring to attend a full day of work and following that up with hours of virtual conferencing. They suffered from Zoom fatigue. Passively listening to a virtual event for hours can take its toll on anybody. Some people however preferred the virtual format and enjoyed not having to rush about looking for their next meeting contact. Some liked the idea of working from the comfort of their own homes while others chose to take their conference to their offices to avoid distractions at home (we all know at least one person with a barking dog don’t we?). This was also done to maintain a distinction between private life and professional life.

Many people expressed their approval of virtual events as it allowed a larger number of people than normal from their firms to attend the conferences. Many were happy about the saving of transport and hotel costs and also the time involved in travel. However, many missed the personal connection and the sightseeing in exotic places that IP conferences usually take us to.

With CLE credits becoming available virtually, the need for attorneys to travel to conferences reduces significantly. There has been a paradigm shift as more and more people become comfortable with video conferencing and it becomes more acceptable as a business development tool during this pandemic. If virtual platforms become more refined to the extent that they take care of all educational and business requirements of attendees, it may be that the benefits of virtual conferences outweigh their shortcomings. In any case, there is a growing trend amongst attorneys to contact each other outside of conference timings and thus develop year-round relationships with their peers. People are starting to take video conferencing as the norm and are less likely to feel like they’re disturbing the other person by initiating contact during non-conference times.

It remains to be seen whether with successive iterations, online conferences get more adept at catering to the needs of their attendees and thereby minimize if not completely replace physical conferences.