Congratulations to the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) for putting on their amazing Online Fall Focus Session on 9/15 and 9/16 on "Blended Learning: The 21st-Century Learning Environment ". This virtual conference came at an ideal time for my institution, as we are in the planning stages for our first fully blended  degree program.
We were very impressed with the innovation and skill that the conference organizers brought to this online event. Running a virtual conference is devilishly difficult, as so many things can go wrong. The ELI team did an amazing job of planning for contingencies, and of keeping the conference discussion lively and active. I particularly liked the "compressed" presentations, with lots of time for discussions and debate. EDUCAUSE and ELI  are doing the most innovative work in the virtual conference space.
But how good are virtual conferences in general?
It is early days yet for virtual conferences. Participating in, or putting on, a virtual conference is like driving in Boston. We can see the destination (say the Prudential building), but trying to actually get there is incredibly frustrating. Or maybe a better analogy is raising teenagers. We can see the future (college / virtual conferences), the question is how we are going to survive the next few years (they go to college / we have great virtual conferences).
Nobody would argue that today virtual conferences are anywhere near as good as "physical" conferences. The direct and opportunity costs for physical conferences are high, and growing higher, but the physical conference experience is still better than anything that a virtual conference can offer. But, we know that we need to figure out how to make virtual conferences better - due to the increased costs of traveling and the increased costs of leaving work - and the only way to improve the virtual conference experience is to keep doing them. We need to meet across institutions (and disciplines) more often, but we cannot afford to travel more.
My recommendation is to take some portion of each virtual conference and have a discussion about methods, techniques and technology. Give up, say 10 percent of the conference content, and spend that time reviewing and brainstorming around the method of delivery.
I think that this is such a huge market that the for-profit motive will help us here. Companies like Cisco, Citrix, Adobe, Blackboard will continue to drive improvements in the synchronous meeting / virtual conference space. High end systems will trickle down to consumer grade platforms.
Academics will also get better at using virtual conference / synchronous meeting tools. We will learn that it is not a "common sense" thing to hold or run a virtual conference, that we need to hire experts who can help us plan and execute our meetings. We will spend more resources in order to have good experiences. A market for virtual conference professionals and synchro consultants will emerge (if it hasn't already). We will seek to hire people who have talent and experience in designing and orchestrating virtual conferences.
What have you learned about designing and hosting a virtual conference? What has been your best virtual conference experience?