At the turn of the year, the world was a quite different place. We were looking forward to another good year that would include major sporting events such as the Olympics and EURO 2020. We were planning our largest ever conference that was due to take place in Berlin in June. Then everything changed and the coronavirus pandemic confined us to our homes.
As a response, we took the decision in early March, only 11 weeks before the planned start of the conference, to run our first virtual conference under the theme of “Innovating in Times of Crisis”. It is worth remembering that a conference is usually a couple of years in the planning, and this time our community chose to come together in an entirely new way in under three months.
Never mind the uncertainties and risks that everyone has felt, we must be extremely proud. Proud about the presentations and contributions from a staggering 400 people over the 4 days running in up to 17 parallel sessions involving 630 people from 53 countries. And everything was delivered live without a safety net, with little past experience and under the constraints of confinement and significant stress for many.
So how did we make this work?
From 1-4 March we ran a conference in Bangkok which was badly affected by the pandemic. We lost 50% of our conference delegates but took the decision to run the conference anyway, given that many people had already booked their flights and there were very few confirmed cases in Thailand at the time. We did, however, take the necessary precautions recommended at the time including measuring all delegates’ temperatures on a daily basis and having hand sanitiser and face masks available at all times. We also allowed presenters to send in pre-recorded presentations if they were not able to attend in person.
Whilst in Bangkok, we discussed a contingency plan for Berlin. On our return from Thailand on 8 March, it became increasingly clear that we would not be allowed to hold the conference physically as things had escalated very quickly in Europe. We contacted our venues and were able to agree dates in 2021 so we quickly decided to postpone the Berlin conference and run a virtual event instead.
When we took the decision to go 100% virtual, we had no idea really how we were going to do this. We learned in Bangkok that pre-recorded presentations did not go down too well so we took the decision to do the conference live, if possible.
We researched a number of different platforms and were quoted some hefty prices. In the end we decided to go with Zoom as it offered the best functionality and it was within our budget. Remember, as a not-for-profit association, we rely heavily on the income from our main conference to survive.
Having decided on Zoom, we needed to figure out how people would access the conference and decided to use the desktop version of our conference app, Eventsential, provided by RD Mobile. This required our delegates to register for the app separately as this was the only way they would find the links to the 203 separate Zoom sessions we had set up. On the whole, people managed this very well and so now we had our “virtual venue” in place.
We then needed to figure out how to run the event. Fortunately, we already had 11 laptops, as we always insist on using our own laptops at our events. We set these up around a dining table with each laptop assigned a Zoom account which was, in turn, assigned to a series of “meeting rooms”. We controlled all sessions technically from one physical location and relied on a facilitator and technical support person to run the sessions virtually.
We organised a dry run the week before where we ran all sessions exactly at the times scheduled for the following week. Had we not done this, the conference would have been a disaster as we learned so much about how to run the conference and people also learned the difference between a Zoom Meeting and Zoom Webinar. One unforeseen but positive outcome of doing this was that presenters were able to meet their fellow presenters one week in advance which actually led to more cohesive and engaging sessions during the actual conference. This is something we will endeavour to do for all future events.
We also found that we were able to attract some high-level speakers who were willing to give up 30 minutes of their time to present virtually. This is something we would not have considered in the past but will for future events as this has now become acceptable. It also means that we do not have to fly people in which is going to be better for our budget and also better for the planet.
So that’s how we did it.
The ISPIM team is proud of our community coming together in this time of crisis. Proud that we all chose to accept the challenges, take risks and step forward. Standing by with the message of “sorry, see you next year” was not an option – crisis always requires action, dedication and acceptance of new ways of doing things.
As individuals in our community we have learned about ourselves, and we’ve learned many things about the possibilities and limits of virtual interaction and the role of technology in our lives. With these new skills and insights, we are well-placed as a community to embrace the opportunities that a “new normal” world might give us.