Cancellation and postponement weren’t options for the 2nd AAT-AD/PD Focus Meeting 2020 — health-care professionals specializing in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases who’d signed up to attend the April 2-5 event in Vienna were in need of the clinical trial results and research scheduled to be presented. But as the COVID-19 crisis became more widespread throughout March, it also became clear that a face-to-face meeting wasn’t an option.
“Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures,” event leaders wrote to the AAT-AD/PD community. “Exchanging scientific data and sharing novel insights must not wait.” So, with three weeks to go, event leaders and conference organizer Kenes Group transformed the in-person gathering into a four-day streamed event over the same dates. Convene spoke via Zoom with Kenes Group’s Israel-based vice president of clients and operations, Ori Lahav, who offered his takeaways from the experience.
Registration and Pricing
As events of all types move from face-to-face to virtual, Lahav, who is also the current IAPCO president, said that organizers are seeing attendance drop in the 25-percent range. But while AAT’s attendance initially dropped when the event went from live to livestreamed, Lahav said nearly 200 people registered after the switch to virtual was announced. The Focus Meeting in virtual form drew nearly the same number of attendees — 1,143 vs. 1,337 — as the inaugural AAT-AD/PD Focus Meeting held in 2018 in Turin, Italy.
Pricing for the virtual meeting stayed the same — 830 euros (about $900). It didn’t seem fair to those who had registered before the switch, Lahav said, that some attendees would pay less. To protect participants’ investment, conference sessions are not available to the public. And registration, at the same price, is ongoing; on-demand sessions will be on the website until June 30.
How it Worked
Using proprietary technology, Kenes Group’s 10-person tech team created a multifaceted platform, with “different things for different sessions,” Lahav said. A virtual lobby allowed participants to maneuver to the various areas of the conference including sessions (live and taped), e-posters, the exhibition hall, and even to a world map that showed who was there from what country. Live sessions, like Meet the Professor, ended up being very interactive, Lahav said, via tools including those that let participants virtually raise hands to ask questions. Everything was presented in English.
Kenes’ original plan to have speakers record sessions and then do a quick quality check hit a bump: Many scientists and doctors didn’t feel comfortable using Zoom, Lahav said. So that step could not be automated. All speakers had to be walked through the technology whether they were speaking live, as in a Meet the Professor session, or were among the 250 speakers who prerecorded their sessions. Moderators also were prepped in advance. And two days before the event, Kenes did a dry run involving about 80 people.
Exhibitors and Sponsors
One big worry for event organizers in the pivot from live to virtual is what happens to the exhibit hall. Virtual exhibit hall booth setup for this conference “was a bit slow,” Lahav said, as some exhibitors needed a nudge to provide content. Once the event started, however, and exhibitors saw that they were drawing interest, they were quick to respond and get “booth” content to the Kenes Group tech team. That lag, Lahav expects, will change as everyone gets used to the new virtual reality. For the AAT meeting, a web page listed all 22 exhibitors. From there, participants went to each exhibitor’s dedicated page where pharmaceutical companies including Roche and AbbVie offered content including videos and brochures. The “booths” had online chat features and provided email contacts or other ways to follow up.
Giving sponsors their due has been another worry, but Lahav said Kenes addressed that by splashing the sponsor information on all references to each sponsor’s sessions. Lahav said that feedback from exhibitors and sponsors after the meeting was positive.
The biggest surprise, Lahav said, was audience attention. During a major Biogen forum discussion, he said, nearly 100 percent of registered participants were tuned in. At a physical meeting, attendance for a major talk is about 80 percent, he said. “The other 20 percent,” he added, “are going to see Vienna, or going to see the exhibition hall” or finding other ways to spend their time.
With COVID-19 forcing the cancellation of many events, fears of “an education recession” have arisen, Kenes Group wrote in a recent report, especially in the scientific and medical events sector. Doctors, after all, usually attend about four conferences a year, Lahav said, and that number grows if they also have a sub-specialty. “Research shows people learn by doing,” he said. And research in this sector is crucial as medical and scientific knowledge grows at lightning speed.
While most infectious disease specialists currently are not available to speak at or attend events, once the crisis passes, there will be a pent-up demand to meet, he said, as they will have so much to share about their experiences treating COVID-19 patients. Plus, doctors not directly involved in the pandemic will want to meet to discuss new and challenging realities that it created. For example, he said, psychiatrists will want to explore the emotional pain of those hospitalized without having any family members allowed by their side.
“We need to meet,” Lahav said, but COVID-19 aside, not everyone is always able to travel to or find the time. He, like other industry leaders, sees a future where events are a combination of in-person and virtual. “Hybrid,” he said, “used to be a bad word,” and many in the business events industry “didn’t want that to happen.” But all that, he said, has changed: COVID-19 has given us “a real boost” in that direction.
Cristi Kempf is executive editor at Convene.
PCMA has created a COVID-19 resources page to help event professionals find reliable information about the pandemic and to share events industry-related resources to ensure they are prepared now and in the future.