We’re Back! (Kind of). A Look at L&D Conferences in 2021

L&D conferences 2021The Learning & Development world didn’t do a lot of things last year. The COVID-19 pandemic kept us from going into the office, from conducting training in person, and pretty much from seeing anyone who wasn’t our immediate family.

It kept us from doing something else as well – connecting in person at L&D conferences. That’s changing this year, although things aren’t quite as simple as they were pre-pandemic; 2021 is still a bit complicated when it comes to big live events.

How was last year different for L&D?

The COVID-19 pandemic meant that many much-anticipated conferences weren’t able to take place as they’d planned. This didn’t mean those conferences didn’t happen at all; most pivoted to an online format.

Take ATD, which hastily cancelled its 12,000-attendee April conference, but quickly built a five-day virtual event in June: the ATD Virtual Conference. Not everyone who’d planned to attend ATD 2020 went to the virtual sessions, and the speaker line-up changed, but the virtual event was a way for L&D professionals to safely gather during a time when they were hungry for interaction with like-minded professionals.

ATD is not the only L&D conference that went digital last year. DevLearn shifted to an online format as well, as did Training Magazine’s TechLearn Conference.

What can we expect this year?

The availability of the vaccine means that many people are able to attend live events again; almost 50% of the United States population is vaccinated, but that’s not everyone. In fact, just about 14% of the global population is vaccinated, and conferences tend to draw attendees from all over the world. The contagious Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus may also give potential conference-goers pause; anyone who has ever caught a cold after attending a conference knows how infection can spread in a crowd.

So how are L&D conferences responding to this new set of circumstances? Well, some events will be live, others will be online, and some are trying slightly different approaches.

Live L&D conferences this year

Hooray for being able to see other people face to (optionally masked) face!

ATD’s ATD21 International Conference and Exposition is back in person this year in Salt Lake City from August 29 to September 1 with keynotes from Angela Duckworth, Patrick Lencioni, and CNN’s Mel Robbins, as well as the Expo floor (yes, Litmos in Booth 421!), author chats, receptions, and all the networking opportunities you’ve come to expect from ATD. Things will be a little bit different, however. There will be wider aisles so people can keep socially distant, electrostatic sprayers will be used to clean session rooms, and medical services will be on site. Also, ATD is adding two other options for those who don’t feel comfortable at the Salt Lake City event – local events and a virtual conference. We will mention those a bit later.

DevLearn is also back in person in Las Vegas from October 20-22 with keynotes from Jennifer Arnold and astronaut Chris Hadfield, as well as sessions on everything from BYOD (Bring your Own Device) to augmented reality. DevLearn’s health guidelines are still evolving, so if you’re planning to head to Vegas, keep an eye on their site.

Virtual L&D events

There are a lot of virtual events this year, and for good reason. They’re a good bet in uncertain times; people who may not have been able to attend can get to virtual sessions and organizations now know how to do them well.

Take ATD for example: ATD is hosting a live conference, but is also offering an online version. ATD@Home gives attendees the same access to the keynote speakers, as well as more than 50 sessions, and 20 sessions exclusively available to online attendees, programmed in time slots that make sense for multiple time zones. Attendees can also watch many of the videos on demand. There’s an ATD kit that will be mailed to virtual conference goers and online networking opportunities as well.

Chief Learning Officer’s Symposium 2021 is also online this year on October 5 and 6. The speakers are still being announced, but so far Ashley St. John and Elliott Masie are scheduled, as is a full schedule of workshops, hands-on sessions, and networking opportunities.

TechLearn went virtual last year, and the event is virtual this year as well with some wild, fun-looking features. The TechLearn 2021 Virtual Conference will be online from October 25-29 with several keynotes and a packed schedule. Features include the Training Technology Test Kitchen, eLearning makeovers, and an Adobe Maker lab. There’s also an additional, related conference tacked on: Camp GamiCon 2021 on November 3 and 4.

SAP Litmos LIVE was virtual this year as well. Although Litmos LIVE happened back in May, you can still watch sessions on demand. We had some pretty excellent speakers (if we do say so ourselves): Jill Popelka, Bruce Temkin, Cecelia Herbert, John Leh, David Perring, and Mike Martin, just to name a few.

Other events

Some conferences are trying different things when it comes to providing safe spaces for learning and connection this year.

Take the L&D Accelerator, which is just wrapping up its live sessions. The L&D Accelerator (LDA) is an offshoot of the L&D Conference. Rather than going virtual for a few days, the LDA holds a six week virtual event, with more than 40 speakers, and both synchronous and asynchronous sessions. This year the conference ran from June 21 to July 30, but the LDA offers memberships to those interested in year-round content.

ATD also got experimental this year by offering smaller, regional conferences as well as the large conference and the virtual event. There are currently eight regional events planned in the U.S. and globally. Most are one-day events, featuring livestreams, local workshops, and networking opportunities.

Moving forward with L&D events, post pandemic

The phrase “new normal” is used a lot when it comes to life after COVID-19. And clearly, we’re not out of the woods yet. New strains are stressing people out bigtime and returns to social health protocols such as mask mandates are emerging all over the world. That may be what’s happening in the world of L&D events, as well. While some events are happily returning to the expo hall, others have used this opportunity to explore what the future of learning conferences might look like.

That probably means more online events in the future; after all, many people can’t make live events even when there’s not a pandemic. Parents might have childcare issues, workers might have scheduling conferences, and organizations may be able to afford to send workers to a virtual event but not a live one. Virtual events also create possibilities for smaller organizations to host events that might not be possible for them to hold in person. (Not everyone can rent out a convention center for three days).

This means that going forward, there will likely be a range of different types of L&D events, and that’s great for everyone, because no matter your comfort level, there will always be an opportunity for you to connect with other L&D professionals.