AAS 2021: Your Virtual Conference Questions, Answered

After the cancellation of our 2020 Annual Conference in Boston due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all of us at the Association for Asian Studies had high hopes that we’d be able to hold our 2021 conference in Seattle as scheduled. We started making plans for a hybrid event—one which would enable attendees to participate either on-site or virtually—and spent a lot of time researching and talking about how our conference would need to adapt to a post-pandemic reality. 

By the middle of this past summer, however, it became clear to us that holding a face-to-face conference in Seattle next March might not be possible: COVID-19 has not subsided in the United States, many countries are prohibiting or strongly discouraging travel to the U.S., and a vaccine against the coronavirus is not yet available. The city of Seattle is still only in Phase 2 of its reopening plan, with no timeline for progressing to Phases 3 or 4—and until Phase 4 is reached, no gatherings of more than 50 people will be legally permitted. (An AAS conference involves approximately 3,000 participants.) Although March seems very far away, the AAS staff spends nearly an entire year planning each annual conference, and it’s not easy to change course at the last minute (which is why we had to cancel the Boston event rather than shift it online). We also wanted to ensure that our members would know well in advance if our plans changed, so everyone could adjust their schedules and preparations with plenty of notice.

We started discussing three alternate scenarios: a fully virtual conference in March, a hybrid conference in July (when our venues in Seattle had available dates), or a virtual conference in July. Each option had its pros and cons, and we also wanted to get input from our membership on which one would be the best for them. On August 19, we sent a survey to all AAS Members; of the 5,740 who received the email (some members have opted out of receiving our communications), 1,900 completed the survey by the deadline one week later, for a 33% response rate.

Most respondents had either submitted or planned to submit a proposal (43%) or had not submitted but planned to attend the 2021 conference (25%), with the third largest segment (22%) undecided about attending. Over 51% of respondents indicated that their first preference for conference format was a virtual meeting, and 1,118 (58.8%) said that they were likely to participate in a virtual conference in March. When asked if they would be comfortable traveling to Seattle in either March or July, the majority of survey respondents either said no or replied that it was too early to tell. Many institutions have also reduced, frozen, or eliminated support for travel, making a large portion of our members uncertain as to whether or not they would have the financial resources to attend an in-person conference.

The AAS staff and Board of Directors then reviewed and discussed the survey results, concluding that it is highly unlikely we would be able to hold an in-person conference in March 2021, and impossible to predict if one would be possible in July. As always, our top priority is making the annual conference a safe, productive, and collegial experience for everyone who attends. In these uncertain times, we have decided the best way to do that is to turn AAS 2021 into a virtual conference, while keeping it in March. We have adjusted the dates a bit, as explained in more detail below. 

On the survey, we invited respondents to share comments, make suggestions, and ask questions about the virtual conference experience, and we received nearly 900 write-in responses. Our staff members read through these comments and have identified some of the most frequently asked questions, which we answer—to the best of our ability at this point in time—below. We don’t have complete answers to all of these questions just yet; a virtual conference is a new venture for our organization, and we are taking care to ensure it will be a smooth and valuable experience for everyone involved. We’ll provide further updates as soon as we can; in the meantime, please don’t hesitate to contact the AAS conference staff (AASconference@asianstudies.org) with any questions or concerns.

What platform will the virtual AAS conference use? 

The virtual AAS 2021 Annual Conference will use eventScribe Live (ESL), a dedicated online conference platform developed by CadmiumCD, which already hosts our abstract and speaker management system and has provided the online program for our recent conferences. EventScribe Live offers attendees a dynamic, interactive conference experience with features far beyond those of Zoom, WebEx, BlueJeans, or other video conferencing providers. Our virtual platform features include streaming of live and on-demand sessions, video chat rooms (group and private), networking, Q&A and discussion features, virtual exhibit booths, and more.

How will the online conference platform protect participant security?

Many survey respondents expressed concern about the security of video conferencing platforms—concerns that the AAS leadership shares, as explained in our recent statement on remote teaching, online scholarship, safety, and academic freedom. Only registered conference participants will have access to sessions, with the exception of a small number of plenary events such as the Awards Ceremony, Presidential Address, and Keynote Address—events that are always open to the public at our in-person conferences. Sessions will remain available in ESL from the time of the conference through April 30, 2021, to allow attendees the opportunity to catch up on sessions they missed. Conference attendees are not permitted to record sessions, and will not be able to download presenter PowerPoint slides. 

We take issues of online security and academic freedom very seriously. We want AAS 2021 participants to share, debate, question, and collaborate freely, and we are working with Cadmium CD to ensure that attendee security is protected to the greatest extent possible. However, we also know that no online platform is 100% secure.

Will participants in mainland China be able to access the conference?

CadmiumCD regularly tests its platform in mainland China and, to date, has not seen any issues regarding access within the PRC. However, digital access in China is a fluid and frequently changing situation. The AAS does not have any special insight or influence that would enable us to guarantee that AAS 2021 will be available to all participants in China. What we can promise is that we’re aware of these questions and will communicate with all conference participants as quickly as possible if the situation changes.

How will presenters and audience members know how to navigate the virtual conference platform?

We will teach you! In the coming months, we’ll share how-to guides and offer AAS Digital Dialogue webinars designed to familiarize you with all the ins and outs of the platform before the conference starts. Information about those materials and sessions will be posted at the conference website later in 2020 and early in 2021. All of us at the AAS want to make sure that conference attendees have a smooth virtual experience, as well as a productive one—we don’t want you to miss out on anything AAS 2021 has to offer.

Will there be tech support?

Yes! You’ll be able to contact our staff members with any technical questions during the conference.

Will the conference schedule change?

Yes. A virtual conference offers us the flexibility to spread out sessions over more days than would be possible for a face-to-face event, so we have adjusted the conference dates to Sunday, March 21 through Friday, March 26, 2021. This change resolves the previous scheduling conflict with Passover, and should also help mitigate the incidence of video conferencing fatigue caused by long days spent online. 

How will this work logistically, given all the different time zones AAS members live in?

There’s no perfect time zone for our conference. AAS Annual Conference attendees are located around the world, and the approach we’ve selected allows all attendees to combine live attendance at sessions whenever possible with the option to view other sessions on-demand at the time most convenient to them. Some main events will be scheduled at the most opportune time that will allow the greatest number of attendees from many time zones to participate in live interactions. All sessions will be available for on-demand viewing for additional 30 days.

What will a virtual Exhibit Hall look like?

We’ll work with AAS 2021 exhibitors to provide a full Exhibit Hall experience. Each exhibitor will have a virtual booth, where they will display information about new publications and products, share any conference discounts they’re offering, and hold live meetings with AAS 2021 participants who want to discuss projects or have their questions answered. 

Will there be a Film Expo?

Yes! A Call for Films will be circulated later this fall. Movies selected for inclusion will be available to stream online.

My favorite parts of an AAS conference are networking and meeting people in between sessions. How will you facilitate those kinds of experiences online?

This was one of the most frequently asked questions from survey respondents, many of whom are concerned a virtual conference will lack the opportunities for connection and collaboration that are the hallmark of an in-person event. Using the features of the ESL conference platform, we will create virtual spaces for “Hallway Conversations”—informal discussions during session breaks. Registered attendees will have the opportunity to join live video chat rooms dedicated to each specific session where conversations about the sessions may continue after the presentations conclude. We encourage attendees to take this opportunity to connect with fellow participants and arrange additional independent meeting times to continue the conversation further. Additionally, we will offer other live video networking opportunities throughout the conference dates. 

How will the switch to a virtual conference affect registration fees?

The AAS Secretariat staff regularly reviews and discusses the entire cost of conference attendance for participants—not only registration fees, but also hotel rates, travel expenses, dining, and so forth. We have always been committed to staging affordable conferences. At the same time, our organization doesn’t have unlimited resources; we must strike a balance between affordability and sustainability. 

A virtual conference, done well, will still entail significant expenses for the AAS. Our 2021 conference will not simply be several days of do-it-yourself Zoom meetings; we are dedicated to creating a robust interactive experience that will nourish and strengthen the global AAS community. Such an undertaking carries costs: we have to pay for the eventScribe Live environment in which AAS 2021 will be held, and for the A/V company that will help produce and support our event. Additionally, there is the annual expense of the Secretariat staff, who spend a full year designing and planning each of our conferences. 

The ability for us to not only offer a platform to host session content but also feature virtual exhibit booths, film screenings, live Q&As, video chat features, and more all come at an expense. There is a misconception that Zoom is free (it is not, save for the most basic personal account); even if the AAS were to simply host the conference on Zoom, there would be a significant expense to host an event of over 3,000 individuals. While we will charge for participant registration, virtual registration rates will be lower than for one of our in-person conferences. We’ll post more information about those rates at our website soon.

For more information and updates, please view the full Frequently Asked Questions page at our AAS 2021 website.

The AAS Secretariat will be closed on Monday, May 27 in observance of Memorial Day