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Embrace conference season

Now that the world is opening up after years of Covid-19 border closures, you should take the time to expand your horizons argues Mark Roberts

I am writing this while in an airport in Sweden, not that I’m bragging – much. I am here because the world of conferences has resumed. For the 20 years or so before Covid, I had been attending and presenting at conferences. It was just something that I did and I never gave it much thought – until, that is, they were taken away from us. I had always enjoyed the networking side of conferences.

‘Networking’ is a tactful term for eating and drinking, with perhaps slightly more emphasis on drinking. But it turned out that I liked the educational sessions, so when face-to-face conferences resumed, I didn’t need to be asked. I polished my shoes and dragged out my suitcase and was on my way. Two and a half years of Covid-induced zoom-meetings, virtual workshops and online community engagement were over. Face-to-face meetings had returned, and I was there.

When it comes to conferences, we find ourselves in a new era. The learnings of the past two and a half years have not been wasted. Whether we wanted it, or whether we liked it, being thrown into the ‘virtual’ world has changed how we do things and conferences are no different. Conferences, just like the new normal, have a new look. We are now in the era of the hybrid conference: all the best bits from the old with the new, but without facemasks and hand sanitiser.

Back in the swing of things

I re-joined the circuit in the UK, where I was invited to present at the Arboricultural Association’s ‘What is a Tree’ conference. The theme was so open that almost everything was on the table and industry experts and academics were talking on all matters of tree things; it was an arboricultural conference after all.

There was a talk about the history of pruning as shown in the Bayeux Tapestry and the place names of Brittany – and it was fascinating, who would have thought? There were talks on ‘structural soils’ (which is growing media installed under footpaths and roads), we learnt about the importance of dead logs in the landscape (we have known about the importance of deadwood in trees for many years but retaining dead logs may be just as important).

There were science sessions and workshops aimed at the practitioner and business owner (the Association knows its audience and catered for them). I took part in a panel discussion, where one of my fellow panellists joined us via the internet from Mexico, and another streamed in from Kenya. The discussion (on international tree preservation) had a ‘live’ illustrator turning the entire thing into an ideas-poster. It was mad but it somehow worked.

The comfort of community

From there I flew across to Sweden, where I presented at another conference. This was a conference on a much larger scale, with three sessions running simultaneously.

There was so much to see and do. To accommodate those who could not attend, talks were live streamed. If you missed one session because you were in another (or because you were drinking schnapps… as one does when in Sweden) the sessions were recorded. Not only was it the best of both worlds, but you could also ‘network’ at the same time. The hybrid conference is the future, and the future is good.

But apart from the learning and networking, there is a more discreet yet equally important aspect to conferences, especially now. Alone in our Covid bubbles, we could almost start to believe that our issues were ours alone – but they probably were not. It seems that no matter what, where, or which industry you are in, the challenges we face are all the same: finding and retaining staff, accessing materials, complying with regulations, dealing with stupid… you name it, others are faced with it too. One shouldn’t underestimate the importance, and bizarrely enough, the comfort of finding out that we are all in the same boat together. There may not be a single silver-bullet fix, but it’s great to find out what other people are doing or have done, what works and what didn’t.

Unexpected delights

And while most of it will be irrelevant, every now and then there will be something. A tiny gem or useful snippet that fits or answers a question that you’ve not even asked. Something that could turn good to great or stop bad from becoming worse. In my mind, it is these gems that are the real worth of conferences, especially now. Getting access to these is something that the virtual can never replace.

So, if you’ve never been to a conference, then give them a go. If you stopped, then seize

the moment and invest in the business expense. The hybrid conference is here to stay and never underestimate the importance of face-to-face networking.

Mark Roberts is a qualified arborist and tree risk assessor with 25 years’ experience. Mark is also former President of the International Society of Arboriculture, and a past

President of the NZ Arboricultural Association. Mark now heads an arboricultural collective based in Dunedin:

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