Medical meetings adapt

PCOs specialising in medical conferences share their insights on lessons learnt by going digital

The Voice of Healthcare Summit is moving the entire meeting outdoors this August from Harvard Medical School to Boston Winery's outdoor venue. Credit: Boston Winery

USA - Going digital for medical meetings has shown positive results despite the lockdown in many countries.

Kenes Group, a global conference management company, held a digital event for its client rather than postponing the second-annual Advances in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Therapies Focus Meeting.

Lectures were shared remotely, and posters were uploaded online. In total, 1,143 health-care professionals from 56 countries participated in the four-day virtual event - slightly less than last year's 1,337 in-person participants.

According to Kenes Group brand manager Ms Magdalina Atanassova, one benefit of holding a virtual event is that attendees have more flexibility and are not limited to viewing only a handful of sessions, as they would be in person. In addition, on-demand content can increase the lifespan of the event and boost overall reach. Kenes Group plans to move more meetings scheduled for the summer and early fall online.

"We have postponed a number of events for the coming summer months but have started to move them to virtual, as we do not see the possibility to hold international medical meetings before October 2020," said Ms Atanassova.

Four virtual conferences are scheduled this July and the company hopes that by October, live events, will make a comeback.

The Italian Academy of Prosthetic Odontology, for example, was scheduled to hold its annual congress in Riccione, Italy, in late March. When a nationwide lockdown was announced, the event organiser, AIM Group International, transformed the meeting to an entirely digital format.

The virtual event, which was held from 30 April to 2 May, included seven sessions, a live talk show and an online exhibition area. More than 1,850 attendees tuned into the three-day event - an increase of 130% compared to the 800 people who attended in person the previous year, and the average attendee consumed 8.5 hours of content.

"When COVID-19 hit, we talked with the client and the options were to cancel the meeting, postpone to 2021 or go virtual. We decided to embrace this change" said Ms Patrizia Semprebene Buongiorno, VP, AIM Group International. "We were used to going hybrid with our meetings, but this was the very first, completely virtual meeting that we organized. We have many other meetings on hold in the last quarter of the year, but I'm now seeing more and more of our clients deciding to go virtual."

Understanding time constraints
Mr Gregg Talley, president and CEO of Talley Management Group which provides event planning and consulting services for associations, has many clients in the health-care industry. He recommends that planners ask the attendees how long they anticipate being available during the day and what they would like to get out of it. The agenda should be adjusted accordingly, to include a mix of live and pre-recorded content, so busy medical professionals can come and go as they please.

"There's only so many hours in the day. We have to be mindful of that and gauge what's an acceptable time commitment given everything that's going on," he said. "You really need to understand your audience and then understand what are the prioritised elements of your meeting that you want to bring online in a live format versus what you can pre-record and have available 24/7."

He said that the meeting format and time schedule will vary depending on the audience. For the American Headache Society, one of his company's clients, a poll revealed that registrants are most comfortable committing three and a half to four hours a day to the association's Annual Scientific Meeting, which will be held online in June.

When in-person events do pick up once more, industry experts expect that smaller, localised meetings will be the first to resume. This trend can already be seen around the world, with the Czech Republic and New Zealand now permitting events of up to 100 people.

AIM Group International expects this will continue and is working on planning an event that could be broken up into a number of smaller meetings held across different cities.

"Clearly for the moment, we have to continue going virtual; but in the last quarter of the year, we may have small, local meetings," said Ms Buongiorno. "So, we are thinking of some interesting solutions. If we have to organise a national meeting of 1,000 people but can only organise meetings of up to 200, why not create different hubs? So, a meeting of 200 in one city, 200 in another city and so on.

"We are actually starting this for an association. They don't want to lose the face-to-face and are not sure they can have the meeting as usual, but we can probably do smaller groups."

Moving outdoors
Another option medical planners are considering is moving parts of the meeting, or perhaps the entire event outdoors. The risk of transmitting COVID-19 is believed to be lower outdoors than it is indoors.

"We are starting to think about how we will go back to meetings and when we do, we have to redesign them for the future," said AIM Group's Buongiorno. "We have to forget the coffee breaks and lunches as we were used to. But if there is good weather and you have a conference centre with a good garden, why not go outside and organise a networking picnic in the garden?"

Other events, such as the Voice of Healthcare Summit, are moving the entire meeting outdoors. The one-day conference in early August has been moved from Harvard Medical School to the outdoor venue of Boston Winery. In a recent interview on the Eventful podcast, event organiser, Mr Bradley Metrock discussed this strategy and the safety protocols that are being implemented for the meeting.

How small?
"If you're having an event in 2021, I don't think there's any expectation that it's going to be the same size that it was in 2019," said Mr Talley. "So, then the question is how much smaller will it be? You've got to do research on your audience and what their threshold might be. But from a base point, I think you've got to consider something that is 25 to 50% less so then we need to talk about a hybrid solution."

This is an abridged version of an original article that first appeared in Northstar Meetings Group.