Popularity of virtual conferences may mean a permanent shift


Fifteen days. That’s how much time the American College of Cardiology (ACC) had to convert its annual conference, scheduled for the end of March this year in Chicago, into a virtual meeting for the estimated 17,000 people who had planned to attend.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Illinois announced restrictions on the size of gatherings on March 13, causing the ACC to pivot to an online-only model.

“One big advantage was that we already had all of our content planned,” Janice Sibley, the ACC’s executive vice president of education, told Medscape Medical News. “We knew who the faculty would be for different sessions, and many of them had already planned their slides.”

But determining how to present those hundreds of presentations at an online conference, not to mention addressing the logistics related to registrations, tech platforms, exhibit hall sponsors, and other aspects of an annual meeting, would be no small task.

As medical societies have pivoted from in-person annual conferences to online meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have found that they are mostly up to the challenge of disseminating research results and clinical education on par with in-person presentations. But according to a Medscape poll, many physicians think that, while the virtual experience is worthwhile and getting better, it’s never going to be the same as spending several days on site, immersed in the experience of an annual meeting.

As one respondent commented, “I miss the intellectual excitement, the electricity in the room, when there is a live presentation that announces a major breakthrough.”

Large medical societies have an advantage

As ACC rapidly prepared for its virtual conference, the society first refunded all registration and expo fees and worked with the vendor partners to resolve the cancellation of rental space, food and beverage services, and decorating. Then they organized a team of 15 people split into three groups. One group focused on the intellectual, scientific, and educational elements of the virtual conference. They chose 24 sessions to livestream and decided to prerecord the rest for on-demand access, limiting the number of presenters they needed to train for online presentation.

A second team focused on business and worked with industry partners on how to translate a large expo into digital offerings. They developed virtual pages, advertisements, promotions, and industry-sponsored education.

The third team’s focus, Ms. Sibley said, was most critical, and the hardest: addressing socio-emotional needs.

“That group was responsible for trying to create the buzz and excitement we would have had at the event,” she said, “pivoting that experience we would have had in a live event to a virtual environment. What we were worried about was, would anyone even come?”

But ACC built it, and they did indeed come. Within a half hour of the opening session, nearly 13,000 people logged on from around the world. “It worked beautifully,” Ms. Sibley said.

By the end of the 3-day event, approximately 34,000 unique visitors had logged in for live or prerecorded sessions. Although ACC worried at first about technical glitches and bandwidth needs, everything ran smoothly. By 90 days after the meeting, 63,000 unique users had logged in to access the conference content.

ACC was among the first organizations forced to switch from an in-person to all-online meeting, but dozens of other organizations have now done the same, discovering the benefits and drawbacks of a virtual environment while experimenting with different formats and offerings. Talks with a few large medical societies about the experience revealed several common themes, including the following:

  • Finding new ways to attract and measure attendance.
  • Ensuring the actual scientific content was as robust online as in person.
  • Realizing the value of social media in enhancing the socio-emotional experience.
  • Believing that virtual meetings will become a permanent fixture in a future of “hybrid” conferences.

New ways of attracting and measuring attendance

Previous ways to measure meeting attendance were straightforward: number of registrations and number of people physically walking into sessions. An online conference, however, offers dozens of ways to measure attendance. While the number of registrations remained one tool – and all the organizations interviewed reported record numbers of registrations – organizations also used other metrics to measure success, such as “participation,” “engagement,” and “viewing time.”

ACC defined “participation” as a unique user logging in, and it defined “engagement” as sticking around for a while, possibly using chat functions or discussing the content on social media. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual conference in May, which attracted more than 44,000 registered attendees, also measured total content views – more than 2.5 million during the meeting – and monitored social media. More than 8,800 Twitter users posted more than 45,000 tweets with the #ASCO20 hashtag during the meeting, generating 750 million likes, shares, and comments. The European League Against Rheumatism (EULAR) annual congress registered a record 18,700 delegates – up from 14,500 in 2019 – but it also measured attendance by average viewing time and visits by congress day and by category.

Organizations shifted fee structures as well. While ACC refunded fees for its first online meeting, it has since developed tiers to match fees to anticipated value, such as charging more for livestreamed sessions that allow interactivity than for viewing recordings. ASCO offered a one-time fee waiver for members plus free registration to cancer survivors and caregivers, discounted registration for patient advocates, and reduced fees for other categories. But adjusting how to measure attendance and charge for events were the easy parts of transitioning to online.

Priority for having robust content

The biggest difficulty for most organizations was the short time they had to move online, with a host of challenges accompanying the switch, said the executive director of EULAR, Julia Rautenstrauch, DrMed. These included technical requirements, communication, training, finances, legal issues, compliance rules, and other logistics.

“The year 2020 will be remembered for being the year of unexpected transformation,” said a spokesperson from European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO), who declined to be named. “The number of fundamental questions we had to ask ourselves is pages long. The solutions we have implemented so far have been successful, but we won’t rest on our laurels.”

ASCO had an advantage in the pivot, despite only 6 weeks to make the switch, because they already had a robust online platform to build on. “We weren’t starting from scratch, but we were sure changing the way we prepared,” ASCO CEO Clifford Hudis, MD, said.

All of the organizations made the breadth and quality of scientific and educational content a top priority, and those who have already hosted meetings this year report positive feedback.

“The rating of the scientific content was excellent, and the event did indeed fulfill the educational goals and expected learning outcomes for the vast majority of delegates,” EULAR’s Dr. Rautenstrauch said.

“Our goal, when we went into this, was that, in the future when somebody looks back at ASCO20, they should not be able to tell that it was a different year from any other in terms of the science,” Dr. Hudis said.


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