What Do People Really Think of Virtual Conferences?

In this day and time, virtual conferences are a necessary adaptation to the in-person experiences we all know and love. But even so, do people really like them?

A few weeks back, I did a write-up called “Adapting to the Times by Taking a Live Event and Turning It Virtual: Portrait Masters 2020.” It’s essentially a look at how the Portrait Master conference had to make a huge pivot to adapt to the current limitations caused by COVID. In mere months, they had to turn a large in-person conference into a virtual experience without losing what it was that made the conference so great. Now that the conference is over, I thought it would be fun to see if it worked. 

From a Speaking Veteran

Susan Stripling has been to her fair share of in-person and virtual events over the years. But she has also been involved in every single Portrait Masters event since the beginning. So, I thought she would have a pretty good understanding of how it all went. Although Susan gave the same talk she planned to do at the in-person event, she feels it went over better in a virtual setting. Because Susan was talking about money and finances, she feels that students having the ability to work through tasks at home as she was going over them lent to a better takeaway. 

Image by Susan Stripling

Susan was also part of one of the shootouts where four photographers took images of the same model, in the same space, with access to the same gear, and all with a 30-minute time limit. For this part of the show, she feels that it was only possible to do it well in a virtual setting because it’s not exactly feasible to bring 600+ people into a studio to watch them shoot. Also, the way they did the shooting allowed the photographers to somewhat ignore the production aspect, which gave students a much clearer picture of how they shoot. Transporting the same experience to a stage would have been difficult because it’s not as easy to ignore that many eyes watching your every move. 

From Outside the Industry

One of the things I love most about The Portrait Master Conference is that they bring in people outside the photography industry. One of these outside people for this year's virtual event was Trista Smith. Trista is a dress designer for Reclamation Design Company and has designed dresses for people like Jessica Simpson and Pamala Anderson. So, while Trista has no experience with the in-person event, she did have an outside perspective, having never been involved prior. 

Image by Chelsea Warren - Dress by Reclamation Designs

One of the things that were instantly noticed by Trista was the sense of community she felt. She mentions that she had no idea how big of an event it was going to be and just how close-knit everyone would be. And for me, that speaks volumes as to just how well the virtual event really went. In my article talking about the in-person event, I spoke to this sense of community. The fact that Trista felt that with the virtual event while having no past experiences or nostalgia leading her to that conclusion really shows that Portrait Masters was able to transport their in-person experience to a virtual setting.   

From Behind the Scenes

If you are familiar with portrait masters and the Sue Bryce education platform, then you undoubtedly know who Nikki Closser is. She was one of the hosts for Portrait Masters Live and has done her fair share of helping with the live events. So, while she isn't necessarily a hidden figure “behind the scenes,” she does have more time and experience with that side of the show. Nikki also has a unique perspective because she started as a student and has now found herself on the other side. 

Images by Nikki Closser

One of the things that Nikki noticed was that running the virtual event seemed to be less chaotic in comparison than the in-person event. With in-person, there is just a lot more you have to deal with in terms of hosting 600+ people. There is handling the resort/lodging, food restrictions, scheduling, and even with the in-person event, they were still broadcasting the live trade show demos. Moving fully virtual helped alleviate some of those stresses. But it also added some new obstacles to overcome, like how would they give students the same experience online that they would have in person? From happy hours to themed dance parties, they took it all virtual. And while Nikki was worried that things like a virtual dance party might not go very well, she said it actually turned into something extremely fun. 

A look at the Portrait Masters crew dressed up for the themed virtual dance party

From a Student

Last but not least, I wanted to chat with an actual student about how it all went. Through the community, I was able to find Michell Santelik. who is a portrait photographer out of Crown Point, Indiana. Michell has taken part in all of the live events as well as the latest virtual experience. When I asked her what about Portrait Master keeps her coming back, she said it had a lot to do with the community and access to the speakers. She said: “There is an excitement in the air that is almost tangible.” 

Because of this, I was curious about how she felt about the virtual event. And although she missed the ability to be together and see all her Portrait Masters friends, she enjoyed that they were able to have more speakers with the virtual show as well as the shootouts. She also loves that the platinum pass for the show gives access to download all of the content to keep and watch forever (something that hasn't been available for the in-person event). But one thing that made the virtual experience harder was that you had to watch from home. This makes it hard to remove yourself from your daily activities and responsibilities. With an in-person event, it's easier to be fully present and involved. 


As someone that attended the virtual conference as well, I do think it was a huge success. They managed to maintain their sense of community while still delivering world-class content. Not only that, they were able to deliver similar content that they had scheduled for the in-person event in addition to more speakers and multiple shootouts. Unfortunately, the event is over, but if you act fast, you can still buy the platinum pass until October 31st, which gives you access to the entire set of speakers and shootouts. 

All images used with permission.

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Francisco Hernandez's picture

I can provide a counter insight having attended Sony Kando 1-3, PhotoPlus since 2018, WPPI since 2015, Shutterfest just last year, & ImagingUSA twice. The first virtual conference available to me was Sony Kando. I skipped it entirely. I prefer to learn in person and the natural environment of being around friends learning outdoors is what I look forward to at these conferences. I don't go out much at all being an introvert even though I'm a naturally friendly guy, but these conferences forced me to be that person and experience life.

I'll wait to attend them again in person when it's safe IF they are still happening. Having spoken to people at these conferences a lot about how they are getting smaller and smaller I think it's safe to say some will stop doing them in a year or two.

David Pavlich's picture

While not a conference, our photo club has been meeting virtually. I prefer in person, but considering the time of year and the wintery conditions that hit Winnipeg, the silver lining is not having to go out in the weather. Other than that, I cannot wait for this wretched virus to take a hike.

Natalie Ramirez's picture

As an attendee to both the in-person and virtual conference, I have to say that the virtual conference was just as amazing. I missed seeing people in person, of course, but everything that The Portrait Masters is known for, education, community, and fun, was still there virtually. I am so thankful that even during these hard times TPM still was able to give the attendees an amazing conference experience.

Mike Yamin's picture

I can only speak for myself, but the virtual stuff does not interest me at all. Maybe if I were new to the game, I don’t know, but I just feel like I might as well hop on YouTube or CreativeLive if it’s going to be virtual. I’m eager to get back to normal and I hope the big event organizers feel the same way.