Current Affairs

Can a Virtual Congress be Successful?

As the medical community around the world is racing to find a vaccine for COVID-19, it’s never been a more crucial time to share knowledge and findings. But with closed borders and shelter in place orders still standing in some of the world’s major meeting destinations, associations are finding that physical conferences may not be a possibility in the near future. Rather than postpone, associations are taking meetings online and opening up the dialogue to a larger group of delegates around the globe.

Words Lane Nieset

In mid-May, Boardroom joined the #IAPCOImpact Dialogue, where Kenes and AIM Group International, Dr. Carlo Poggio, president of the Italian Academy of Prosthetic Dentistry (AIOP), and Abraham Fisher, president of the AAT-AD/PD (International Conference on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases), shared case studies from recent medical congresses that made the decision to go virtual. Over 550 people from over 55 countries registered for IAPCO’s digital event, part of the association’s goal to offer a platform for communication for members to share experiences and learn how to tackle the impact of coronavirus. “The main advantage of virtual conferences is to expand the audience and reach places you never reached before,” says Fisher. “This is important during coronavirus since physicians can’t travel and have to remain in hospitals.”

The first AAT-AD/PD Focus Meeting was held in Torino, Italy in 2018 and featured 1,337 participants. The second focus meeting was slated for 3-5 April in Vienna. The congress chairs decided it was impossible to postpone, and they needed to share the novel findings in the field. Three weeks before the physical event was scheduled to take place, they decided to take the congress virtual, despite not having a virtual platform. “What other choice did we have? There are too many unknowns if we postpone,” says Fisher, adding it was important the virtual meeting occurred on the same dates as the live one.

Many events in Italy were also postponed of cancelled, and AIOP initially thought to postpone its XII Mediterranean Meeting, planned for 27-28 March in the Adriatic coastal town of Riccione, by a few weeks. Dr. Poggio says it immediately became clear that they couldn’t postpone. If they couldn’t host the congress before summer, they would have to cancel. “There was a willingness to do something for our members,” he says, explaining that when the lockdown started, there were a lot of webinars tacking place in the dental industry, but many were poorly executed. “We thought it was necessary to do something at a higher quality.”

One week to train

Most speakers were on board from the start, but the organization only had one week to train them for the new platform. There were less sponsors (11 instead of 15) and they had to rethink the format and plan a strong digital communication strategy. As an effort to maintain a human connection, they also organized social moments like virtual aperitivos and offered interactive experiences like Q+As and chats. In the end, registration was up 130% (to 1,826 registrations) and delegates were engaged and online for 75-100% of the time.

This article was written by Boardroom editor Lane Nieset. The right to use it, in parts or in full, has to be granted by the Publisher.

While AAT-AD/PD was planning its meeting, one of the challenges the organization faced was not having enough time to shop and test systems and learn the platforms, explains Tami Gaon, director of client accounts for Kenes Group“We searched the market and realized that no one platform really works,” she says. So, they combined four platforms. The next challenge: replicating the experience from a live meeting. They recorded over 250 sessions, which were available on demand for attendees to watch at their convenience. “Meetings are parallel platforms, but [with this format] you no longer need to sacrifice one talk over another—you can listen at your own pace,” Fisher says, adding that this advantage is why pricing should remain “more or less the same.”

As an effort to keep sponsors and exhibitors on board, AAT-AD/PD highlighted the advantage of branded digital booths so attendees could chat and connect in real time. There were 130 e-posters and 22 virtual exhibition booths in total, and 1,143 members attended—the majority of which were logged in at any given time during the event. “We are getting exciting feedback from the industry, and they want a hybrid model of both live and virtual [offerings],” says Fisher. “Since it has been successful, I think in the future a hybrid meeting will be a must.”

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