Balancing Act: When & How to Take Events Hybrid

1st September 2020

In mid-June, the Netherlands started welcoming international travellers back to its borders. While there are no limitations on the maximum number of attendees at meetings and events, associations are wary of organising anything too soon, without a potential vaccine for COVID-19 in place. While countries like the U.S., India and Australia are still unable to travel, organisers are considering the best strategy for events this fall, and what the future of a face-to-face looks like in a post-pandemic world.

Words Lane Nieset

In the height of the pandemic, the International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP), based in The Hague, was preparing to host the FIP Regional Conference for the SEAR & Asian Pacific Region in Bali in April, followed by the Pharmaceutical Sciences World Congress (PSWC) 2020 in Montreal in May. The organisation decided to postpone the conference in Bali, and take PSWC 2020 completely virtual in October, since the keynote speakers wouldn’t be able to travel to Canada. 

FIP also decided to postpone the 80th World Congress of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and Spain’s 22nd National Pharmaceutical Congress a full year, to September 2021, in order to keep the sessions and programme the same. “If you ask me, we don’t see a hybrid version of events happening this year because of the limitations,” says Carola van der Hoeff, COO & Congress Director at the International Pharmaceutical Federation and chairperson for the Dutch Pre-Finance and Guarantee Fund for international congresses. “People aren’t so willing to travel, that’s my feeling at the moment, and while it may get better in Europe in September, pharmacists and those in the hospital play a key role that it’s quite difficult to leave for a conference.”

Van der Hoeff says that it’s key associations change their mindset and add a virtual aspect to their offerings. “It’s only positive; we are first to do it now, and the reach for us will be much bigger, since the cost of travel and accommodations can be high, and it’s easier for people around the globe to connect virtually,” she says. “PCOs are having a difficult time because everything is either postponed or going virtual, and that’s a big change for everybody, but I do hear and see that associations who have already decided to go virtual had more attendees than they normally would at a face-to-face event.”

Van der Hoeff is interested in seeing how the turnout will be for FIP’s first virtual event in September, which normally attracts around 2,500 delegates to the live version. During the pandemic, FIP started offering between two to four virtual events per week, and it now offers one webinar a month that attracts around 600 to 700 viewers. It’s a lot of work, since it’s something new for the team and they need to learn a different skill set, but Van der Hoeff says it has a huge impact for the organisation. “Sponsors want to do something because they can’t reach out face-to-face to doctors or health suppliers, so they are eager to work with us, and it goes quite well,” she says. “We have to change our attitude and have more online offerings, education and maybe even specific, smaller digital events. Now, because of the pandemic, people are used to doing more online, and people are thinking, ‘Should we be travelling by plane?’”

The majority of associations have membership income, but congresses are quite important for a lot of organisations. But Van der Hoeff, president-elect at AC Forum, a not-for-profit association whose goal is to assist with advancing association leadership and management, is finding that people are still hesitant to travel without a vaccine, and many are waiting to see what the situation looks like later this year. “If there’s a vaccine, I’m 100-percent sure face-to-face will come back again; people want to travel, they want to see each other, they want to network,” she says. “But even if there is a vaccine, it will take time for it to be distributed, and those in the field say it may take a couple of months before people feel safe to travel freely again.”

Funding the future

As conferences are being postponed, associations are offering delegates incentives to attend at a later date by transferring registration fees, assisting with hotel reservations and waiving the change name fee, since positions and delegations may change in the uncertain time ahead. 

Over 25 years ago, the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions (NBTC) set up an incentive fund designed specifically for these cases. The Pre-financing & Guarantee Fund (VGF) was designed to entice scientists who were considering hosting a conference in Holland by offering a pre-financing scheme through an interest-free loan of up to €90,000 to cover initial costs, as well as a guarantee scheme capped at €90,000 to assist with any loss on budget due to conference attendance. As Paul Gruijthuijsen, project leader at VGF, puts it: “We think we offer a unique proposition to the international convention market. As far as we know, no other country offers a similar combination that provides a loan free of charge as well as a financial surety if the conference suffers a loss due to disappointing attendee numbers.” 

The initiative has been successful in the past, offering financial backing for events like the 25th International Congress of Vexillology (ICV) in Rotterdam in 2013 and the 7th and 8th International Symposium on the Diabetic Foot in The Hague in 2015 and 2019

. “The VGF gives many organisers that little bit of extra support required to persuade them to go ahead with the organisation of the conference in the Netherlands,” testified Nicolette van Erven, managing director of Congress by design, the PCO behind the Eleventh Congress of the European Society for Research in Mathematics Education (CERME11), which was held in 2019 in Utrecht. 

Holland’s new health & safety measures (as of August 2020)

+ Face masks required on public transport

+ Required capacity per person per event: tradeshows, 10 sqm; meetings and conferences, 5 sqm

+ No maximum number of attendees unless event isn’t organised (in which case it would be 100 per venue)

Hotels have adopted cleanliness protocols and measures, and many hotel chains have developed their own cleanliness programme to deal with the reopening situation

Niels Klinkhamer, owner of Klinkhamer Conference Management, the PCO for the 3rd European Rett Syndrome Conference in Maastricht (2013), agreed: “The VGF affords me, the organiser, and my client, more scope during the preparation stage to make the conference an even bigger success.”

Considering the unpredictability swirling around the situation caused by COVID-19, there have not been many new applications for the VGF. “I love face-to-face events, but this is the new world,” explained Van der Hoeff, adding that several members of universities already know they can’t travel until at least the end of the year, and some scientists are concerned that they may not even be able to travel come January. Associations have to look at new business opportunities and rethink their business models.”

Case Study: A new alignment for PCOs & Associations 

Since the start of the pandemic, Netherlands-based PCO Congress by design (Cbd) started working remotely and taking meetings virtually over Zoom and Teams. As Operations Director Niels Fundter, explains: “We needed to shift to an adaptive PCO with clients asking for out-of-the-box advise and new strategies in order to achieve their goals. This is not only for their upcoming events, but also for their long-term future, which includes uncertainties in relation to the pandemic, changing demands of association members and the world economic situation.” 

As the strategic partner and supplier for NHG, Dutch General Practitioners, Congress by design was working with NHG’s events team and stakeholders on the annual meeting, slated for December 2020. But as its members stood in the frontlines during the first wave of the pandemic watching their patients suffering and offering aid and rehabilitation, they faced another issue: how to proceed with the annual meeting. After consulting with members, NHG found that a face-to-face congress didn’t make sense considering the regulations at the time, and members were already working around-the-clock shifts due to COVID-19. An event could result in the potential spread of infections amongst general practitioners. “We discussed the options to go forward, going fully virtual or try to go for a multi-hub hybrid option, but to continue as planned with a physical conference was no longer an option,” Fundter explains.

To keep members updated and offer continuous education, as well as attract new members, NHG will launch a series of accredited webinars leading up to the next annual congress in December 2021. In addition to assisting with the organisation of the congress, Cbd is working closely with the team to provide the platform for the webinars. It took three months for this concept to come to fruition and find a platform, marketing and the financial paragraph. Both organisations were open to entering this new territory and the idea has been well received by members who were consulted. As Fundter puts it: “This is a great example of resilience and close cooperation between PCO and association, a new world demands flexibility and new techniques to be implemented.”

For more information about the Netherlands as a conference destination: /

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