When the pandemic hit in early 2020, many event organizers did not have the luxury of time to plan in great detail how to move their canceled in-person event online. While we may no longer be operating in crisis mode, we’re still awash in uncertainty about the future. As organizations are now trying to make plans for their 2021 events — include an in-person component? hybrid? all virtual? — with the pandemic still ongoing, Don Neal has some advice: Make your decision now. “You will never have enough information or a perfect set of facts,” Neal, the founder and CEO of marketing, strategy, and experience agency 360 Live Media, writes in his most-recent Convene column. “Delay and debate reduces your planning time, adds cost, and diminishes the quality of the end result.”
When it came to planning their virtual event this year, Laura Thevenot, CEO of the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO), told Convene, time was on their side. Thevenot said that making an early call for ASTRO’s Annual Meeting in October to go fully virtual was the key to its success.
“I think calling it early is really what you have to do, because it’s such a heavy lift,” she said. “I feel sorry for the associations that had meetings in the first half of the year, because there’s no way that they had time to prepare like we had time.”
Thevenot said she understands the stress of a quick pivot well: On March 20, ASTRO’s Annual Refresher Course was set to take place at The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans with approximately 475 attendees. With COVID-19 rapidly beginning to spread across the United States at the time, ASTRO was forced to make a last-minute decision to switch to a fully virtual event — which event organizers had to pull together in eight days.
Instead of being faced with a similarly tight timeline for ASTRO’s 2020 Annual Meeting, scheduled Oct. 24–28 at the Miami Beach Convention Center, ASTRO made an early decision. ASTRO President Thomas J. Eichler, MD, FASTRO, announced on May 5 that out of an “overwhelming concern for the safety and well-being of our members, their patients, exhibitors, staff, and the families of all involved” during the pandemic, the association’s board of directors “made the important decision to transition the live meeting in Miami to an immersive and interactive virtual meeting that will occur over the same dates.”
Having nearly six months to plan what Thevenot called the “best possible virtual meeting” paid off for the ASTRO team. Organizers had time to find the appropriate virtual platform for their meeting’s needs, 6Connex, which mimicked the look of the Miami Beach Convention Center, its original host, and provided the meeting’s 110 exhibitors with realistic-looking booths where visitors could access informational videos, white papers, a chat function, and more.
“Having the time to first look at all the different platforms out there and figure out what makes sense is so important,” Thevenot said. “In a lot of cases, we already had [exhibitors’] layouts of how their booth was supposed to look at the in-person event, so those were replicated for the platform. It looked like you were walking into what would’ve been their booth at the live annual meeting.” Thevenot added that exhibitors had time to learn how the platform would fit their needs. ASTRO hosted three exhibitor training sessions ahead of the event to share exactly how their booth worked and what data they could glean each day.
The event’s approximate 6,000 attendees also had time to acquaint themselves with the event’s content in advance during a “soft launch” of the platform a day before the main event started, Thevenot said, and to become comfortable with navigating the virtual space — “so they weren’t rushing around the first day of the meeting trying to figure it out.”
It also helped, Thevenot added, that organizers were not under extremely tight deadlines to collect meeting content, which was a mix of live and pre-recorded talks, as well as 220 poster sessions with pre-recorded presentations. “That’s a lot of content to load on [to the platform],” Thevenot said. “What became clear to me is that a virtual meeting is even more work than a live meeting. For a live meeting, all of your panelists and presenters just present. To get all of those presentations prerecorded and put in the right place is just an enormous amount of work.”