We interviewed Organizing Committee Chair Professor Kimiro Meguro to learn more about the benefits and challenges of organizing hybrid conferences.
Organized by the Japan Association of Earthquake Engineering under the theme “Towards Disaster Resilient Society,” the conference was attended by 271 people in person and more than 3,000 online. It featured 172 online sessions and 35 onsite booths represented by 32 related organizations.
“We actually never considered cancelling the conference,” said Professor Meguro. “Holding the event in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, where most of the damage of the Great East Japan Earthquake was inflicted, was too important for us to simply give up.”
The 17WCEE began with opening remarks from Professor Meguro, followed by a welcome speech by Japan’s Emperor Naruhito, who attended online with the Empress. Held for the third time in Japan since its launch in 1956, the event brought together global experts to discuss the latest developments and studies in the field, including infrastructure safety and disaster mitigation through trans-disciplinary and international cooperation.
About a dozen legendary figures in the field also participated online from all over the world and gave lectures as keynote speeches or in Meet the Masters sessions.
Ensuring impeccable safety measures was of course one the top priorities. In-person participants were asked to take their temperature and disinfection at the different entrances to the venue.
The venue also carried out countermeasures, such as social distancing, cleaning, ventilation, compulsory mask wearing, including when speaking on stage. Attendees’ movements were carefully monitored, thanks to a specialized QR code system. Meanwhile, all staff at the venue underwent an antigen test every day during the conference. Meals were served bento style.
Embracing the benefits of hybrid conferences
While the conference incorporated hybrid components with most activities being held online, the conference organizers were strongly committed to ensuring the discussions were as vibrant and engaging as they would have been had the event been held in person. From the outset, the organizing committee made a point of making the best of the situation, allowing them to leverage the advantages of a hybrid conference. Rather than aiming to hold a conference that resembles a traditional face-to-face event, the organizers focused on creating new value, and used the hybrid format as a means to an end.
Hosting lectures remotely, including keynote and invited lectures, parallel sessions, poster exhibitions, and corporate exhibitions allowed for greater involvement of experts in locations worldwide. To accommodate attendees in different time zones, the conference timing was extended until 9PM Japan time.
In a rare move, the organizers asked each presenter to submit their presentation material – and the video recording of it – in advance. This meant the schedule did not run over time and there were no delays during the conference. Doing so provided the opportunity to use video animations instead of still images and diagrams, which allowed for easier understanding from the part of the delegates.
The online program was set up about one week prior the conference and made available up to one month later initially. It was further extended until December 24, making the conference ten times longer than usual. Organizers also created an environment where attendees could freely ask and answer questions interactively using the online bulletin board. As attendees and moderators were able to view the presentation material before each live session, they had time to understand it and better prepare.
The presentation material was then placed into a database, with the presenters’ approval, which was made accessible after the conference. Until now, the standard procedure of keeping records of conferences was to store papers listed in the conference proceedings in PDF format. With the measure introduced at 17WCEE, however, the organizers accumulated much richer information, which is expected to contribute significantly to the future development of the field.
Last but not least, a major factor that contributed to the success of the conference was the flexibility with paper submission. By the time the postponement was decided, the paper submission deadline had passed. But, in order to avoid any delay in their publication, research papers were anyway approved. Research papers that were submitted as originally planned were published in the 2020 edition of the conference proceedings. Experts were then given the possibility to fine-tune their research during the one-year postponement period, as well as to submit new material. The new deadline was set to allow for more paper submissions, creating an ideal environment for knowledge transfer.
Local Support & Flexibility are Key to Success
The move to hold a hybrid event was expected to result in the loss of a certain amount of subsidy from Sendai International Center, which it grants for a 1,500 pax in-person conference including 300 pax from overseas. But in July 2021 it was decided that the offer would be upheld regardless of the number of in-person attendees due to the conference’s critical theme and content. “The bureau was highly flexible throughout the unfolding of the situation, providing additional help in the area of the initially planned gala dinner, cultural events and the dispatch of volunteers throughout the 17WCEE, which was crucial to the conference’s success,” Professor Meguro said. Even though organizers had to cancel the renting of the Sendai International Center for 2020, fees were waived because of the COVID situation.
With COVID-19 infections in Japan ahead of the event unfortunately rising and the re-issuance of a state of emergency, the decision on how to go ahead was made at the very last possible moment, said Professor Meguro. He recalled that the organizers explored the possibility of holding social events such as the gala dinner “until the last possible minute.”In the end, given the circumstances, there was no other way than to cancel them.
Reinforcing the value of in-person meetings
The value of in-person attendance at business events is widely accepted but lessons from hybrid conferencing demonstrate that organizers are likely to increasingly opt for this format going forward, with or without the presence of COVID-19. Hybrid events can open up attendance to a larger pool of people, potentially giving all attendees an even more excellent international experience.
The hybrid conference was highly successful, but face-to-face will continue to remain significant in the field of earthquake engineering as people need to see places on the ground that are closely related to the topics of discussion, such as the site of earthquake reconstruction in Sendai, or other areas that might experience damage from earthquakes in the future and the prevention measures associated to them. “Face-to-face conferences are invaluable,” added Professor Meguro. “For instance, in-person meetings provide young scholars with the rare opportunity to meet and interact with experienced professionals, facilitating the possibility of joint research.”
The new features implemented at the 17WCEE, including video conferencing and data submission in advance, can be replicated in future WCEEs, regardless of their format. As an event held successfully with stringent COVID-19 countermeasures, the 17WCEE also has lessons to offer event organizers not only during the pandemic, but also for in-person meetings in the new normal.