Like a shimmering mirage on some lonely two-lane blacktop, the end of our global pandemic remained out of reach during the last academic year. No backyard barbeque with humans from another pod. No hockey games or theatre. No going anywhere sans facial covering. In my circle of fellow plant nerds, in-person trade shows and educational conferences topped the list of favorite social events that vanished. Remember those days? Striding up to the registration desk, receiving your official conference name badge, pawing through a complimentary tote bag filled with an eclectic assortment of swag, and then rushing off to the opening plenary session and, without giving it a second thought, sitting next to, or even shaking hands with, your randomly chosen seatmate.

As 2020 dragged on and the 2021 conference season loomed on the horizon, it became abundantly clear to conference planners that in-person, traditional educational events were not a possibility, at least not for events scheduled for prime conference season between January and March. But the show must go on, right?

This was my challenge as I contemplated strategies for keeping the flame alive for an educational conference I’ve managed since 1995: the annual Iowa State University Shade Tree Short Course, held on the university campus in Ames, Iowa. The event, which was heralding its sixty-fifth year in 2021, was the brainchild of Harold “Sande” McNabb, a forest pathologist at Iowa State. As the story goes, Dutch elm disease and its assault on our American elm (Ulmus americana) provided the impetus for the first gathering, which occurred at the McNabb residence. Now, many years later, the short course has become the can’t-miss event for arborists and allied industry professionals in Iowa and surrounding states, drawing well over six hundred participants annually and featuring notable presenters like the late Alex Shigo, who encouraged us to “touch trees” and learn about their biology, care, and responses to wounding via compartmentalization. The themes, points of emphasis, and methods of instruction (hands-on workshops are always popular) vary from year to year. So, too, does the number of presenters (approximately thirty). But we never stray too far from discussing the benefits and maintenance requirements of these large, life-breathing, woody friends.

Not to overstate the importance of this conference or my hand in bringing it to fruition, but there can be no denying that the Shade Tree Short Course has earned its reputation as a trusted platform for arboricultural and horticultural education in Iowa and the upper Midwest. As the new year dawned, I felt an almost parental responsibility for the conference—in part to continue McNabb’s steadfast tradition, but also, even more importantly, to continue serving our loyal audience, some having attended since the late 1970s. Of course, our short course was not alone in facing this dilemma. Seemingly every educational conference around the country (even the world) was simultaneously confronted with the same set of circumstances and arrived at the same conclusion: “If we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna have to go online.”

The world of video conferencing is a frightening place—or at least it was for me. My fear was born out of the personal experience of witnessing even the simplest of virtual meetings with a handful of participants devolve into real-time lessons in frustration and futility. Who hasn’t experienced the same? Poor or indecipherable audio. Low bandwidth prompting the meeting host to switch faces and voices into muted squares with names. Video conference platforms requiring tedious and sometimes confusing downloads—and yet another password. If the downloads had required social security numbers and bank account information, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Of course, I’m exaggerating for effect, but for those who grew up using technological advances such as the telephone, fax machine, electric typewriter, and those cute little personal computers (a.k.a., word processing machines) from the mid-1980s, receiving a link that, if it worked, would transform desktop computers into portals to another realm could be a bridge too far. But what other choice did I have?

Enter my grand plan. Historically, the Shade Tree Short Course takes place over two full days, but I knew that convincing an audience accustomed to working outdoors to stare at a computer screen for two solid days was going to be a nonstarter and, by extension, could have a dampening effect on attendance. Instead, I reasoned smaller chunks of virtual interaction and educational content would be far more palatable. Therefore, with wise counsel and advice from a university conference coordinator, we devised a week-long event at the end of February. Presentations would begin at eight in the morning and wrap up most days by eleven.

Next, we needed to determine a fair registration fee for a virtual conference. Because I no longer had to worry about transporting and feeding my presenters, nor feeding participants, and because the number of educational sessions was reduced from previous years, I knew the registration fee used in 2020 ($170 early and $220 late) had to be reduced. With the intent of covering my remaining expenses (conference management fee and speaker honoraria), we decided on $40 for early registration and $55 for those coming late to the party. We also offered a reduced fee for university staff and students. But had I gone too far? In my attempt to provide an affordable product that would maintain registration numbers at least at a break-even point, had I committed the unforgivable sin of devaluing my own conference?

As it turns out, full value for conference attendees was never in doubt thanks to the impressive lineup of speakers who, to a person, agreed at once to participate. And, to their credit, many graciously reduced or declined to accept their standard speaker fee, an acknowledgment perhaps of the reduced time commitment for a virtual conference. As the first day of the Shade Tree Short Course approached, however, one problem continued to silently orbit my conference, and its threat was potentially devastating: we needed to find the right video-conferencing platform. My unease was validated during a preconference practice session when our chosen video-conferencing platform performed in a less-than-satisfactory way. Most of my presenters were unfamiliar with the platform and found it user-unfriendly. When the same old audio problems surfaced, I knew it was time for plan B.

Much to my relief, equipped with an alternate and reliable virtual conferencing platform and even a dose of unseasonably good late-winter weather (a nice touch even though we didn’t need it), everything went swimmingly. No, we weren’t able to offer the traditional scope of topics and workshops (over forty-five concurrent sessions spread over two days), but the aforementioned cadre of top-quality speakers made up for any deficiency in quantity. In the end, we attracted an audience of over 370 participants, including many longtime attendees and a few who’d never attended the short course before. In fact, many first-timers remarked that they attended in 2021 only because the program was offered online. And therein lies my next problem. Now that we’ve explored the realm of virtual education and witnessed its many benefits (the chat room was incredibly popular), many attendees would like our short course to preserve and integrate aspects of virtual programming in all future conferences. Ideally, a hybrid version could allow attendees to select from in-person sessions that would either be livestreamed or recorded for viewing later. In the end, cost and practicality will dictate the feasibility of such a hybrid model. Honestly, my preference would be for a return to our tried-and-tested in-person roots; however, I also must allow for and accept that, in so many ways, the world has changed.

This not-so-sudden immersion into the world of virtual conferencing has transformed the thinking of this reluctant conference chair. I now possess a new set of skills and have thoughtfully reconsidered what an educational conference should be. Just the same, while I can freely agree that learning doesn’t necessarily require in-person, face-to-face interaction, virtual conferencing will always fall short as a replacement for engaging conversation around the coffee dispenser, in the buffet line, or gathered inside the pub at day’s end.

Jeff Iles is professor and chair of the Department of Horticulture at Iowa State University, in Ames, Iowa.

Citation: Iles, J. 2021. The conference must go on. Arnoldia, 78(4): 7–9.