Column: Virtual formats open virtually endless opportunities

The past year sure made things look different. Like a mirror, it flipped everything.

I won't pretend that I'm still a big fan of Zoom wine and cheese nights. They were a lot of fun a year ago. We even had a high school class reunion over Zoom. Some of us haven't seen each other in a few years, as we all live in different countries now, and it took a pandemic to come up with a "genius" idea to meet online. It was good. But after several months of Zoomed life, I lost the taste for it. 

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Some events really lost something when they switched to an online format. Some of them we lost completely. Hopefully, just for now.  But when I started thinking about it, I realized that there are so many events and activities that are winning and that are progressing with the speed of light now.

I know that if I have a choice, I always will choose an in-person meeting with friends over a virtual one. However, I also realized how many opportunities we have now. The technical potential was already there, and the new situation just sped up the process of integrating it into our lives.

Friendly and family gatherings are one thing, but all types of general or just organizational meetings are a completely different story. In most cases, they don't involve much interaction outside the agenda, so in these cases, I was grateful to save a few hours on the road and join from my cozy home office.

One friend of mine is an eager learner. She takes a lot of workshops to perfect different aspects of her professional skills. The booming development of online education even further intensified by lack of any in-person options turned her into a real guru in her profession. She learned a lot, and I think by now she has enough diplomas and certificates to cover at least one full wall at her work.

I also took a few webinars, training sessions and classes over the past year. The experience was very different from what it would be if it was a normal event. But if it was in-person education, I probably wouldn't even think of taking it as some of it was produced in Russia, some in the U.S, some in Europe and some in Latin America.

This year, the Souris Valley Museum also started rapidly exploring the new opportunities brought to us by the pandemic and technology. They started doing virtual tours and also hosted their first-ever virtual workshop last week with about 500 students and teachers attending.

Summer is traditionally their busy season when they get tourists and locals stopping by just to have a quick peak at the museum’s collection of artifacts or to seriously tour the building and learn about the history of the area. They also have summer camps, where kids get a chance to learn something about the museum. But even at the busiest times, I don't think they had 500 people coming through their doors in a week or even a month on a regular basis.

With a virtual format, they were able to share what they have with students from all across Saskatchewan. It probably wasn't as exciting as a field trip would be, but I bet some of the participants didn't know much about Estevan before. They probably didn't even know where Estevan was. Now they do, and maybe one day they will come to check out the museum and everything else Estevan has to offer in person.

Saskatchewan fire chiefs recently participated in an online professional conference. Of course, the networking wasn't there, but at least they were able to get on the same page as to what the main focuses are this year and share some experiences.

It seems that over the past 14 months we mastered the technology, we learned how to hold virtual conferences for thousands of people without any major hiccups, we figured out online education and, of course, the virtual sales industry.

The latest sector is just booming. According to Insider Intelligence, neither numerous economic challenges nor flat retail sales overall could slow down the progress and last year Canadian ecommerce grew 20.7 per cent, reaching over $52 billion, which is equal to 8.1 per cent of all retail.

Many small businesses that weren't actively present in the online world joined ecommerce giants. By no means they can compete, but I enjoy shopping at a local store I like and whose quality I trust without a need to physically go anywhere. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who was grateful for the flexibility of the businesses.

Now we need to find a way for successful networking in the world where, for some time yet, we will have to stay separated by at least six feet.

I don't know if it's possible, but the victories of the last year suggest that nothing is impossible when we really want to.

© Copyright Estevan Mercury

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