Some Straight Talk on In-Person Medical Conferences in a Post-COVID World

“I believe that conferences won’t ever be the same. No, I am not saying: all conferences will go 100% virtual. I envision a hybrid model that will leverage the best of both worlds.”

Francis Namouk, CEO, SWM Agency
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Since the pandemic hit, thousands of in-person medical conferences have been canceled or postponed, and it keeps happening due to cross-infection risks. And that’s in the U.S. alone. However, even if most medical conferences were canceled, delayed, or even went digital, others are already planning to go back to business-as-usual for their next event. It’s important to consider that this public health crisis won’t be a one-off event. In less than two decades, we’ve had the likes of SARS, MERS, and COVID-19, to name a few outbreaks. As such, the medical events industry has to reinvent itself and adapt to the current circumstances to be prepared for similar disruptions in the future.

Overall, many factors are exerting downward pressure on the size of traditional conferences. Potential pandemics and terrorist events put attendees at risk. Companies are increasingly weighing the environmental impact of their events, and the sheer global nature of the business makes it difficult for everyone to join — even once a year physically. Their constraints drive events — they are expensive, so we do them once a year. Booths are more about logistics than vision. Sitting in the back of a keynote for 15,000 people is not very compelling. Shoehorning old concepts into an online world, in my opinion, is not the solution. A new medium presents a new set of constraints and possibilities.

Many people think that future conferences will be some version of virtual reality. Others can’t imagine giving up face-to-face meetings. The answer may lie, as it often does, somewhere in the middle. It is possible to build compelling online events that have no physical audience. In the end, there will be many naysayers that feel in-person networking and hands-on experiences will never be replaced by online events. They might be right. But we also need to consider the limitations of physical events. They can be costly for everyone involved, they have a significant impact on the environment, and they will continue to become less safe.

After 40+ years in health care, I’ve been to more medical conferences than I can count. And I’ve been on both sides of the equation – 24 years on the vendor side and 16 on the attendee side. I’ve seen what it takes in terms of time and money to put together a vendor booth at major trade shows. And I’ve walked countless miles at McCormick Place and other venues as a conference attendee. I understand the arguments to be made for both in-person and virtual events. Let’s look at some of those points:

The arguments for in-person events – There are three critical elements of face-to-face events that cannot be replaced digitally: 1) The quality of networking opportunities: it is not possible to connect with people individually and sense someone’s emotions and human reactions through virtual meeting technology; 2) The possibility of doing business. Business is based on trust; hence the emotional component of a meeting between humans will continue to be important in business, and 3) The opportunity to get hands-on time with the technologies on display at the exhibition.

The arguments for virtual events – They keep the same customer-centric appeal, which is what audiences love about Amazon or Netflix, the ability to access content or services on their terms. For live medical events, the apparent advantage is reaching a wider audience who otherwise wouldn’t join the physical event. Speakers can interact with the audience and bring about a new era of active patient engagement (as proposed by Lucien Engelen and his “Patients Included” designation). With social media, gamified tools, and even VR/AR technology, medical events can take a radical turn from stale bullet-point, PowerPoint presentations. Through such interactive content, medical events can gain traction with audiences traditionally outside the industry; and sponsors won’t be shy to invest in such initiatives.

This is why I believe that the future of medical conferences in a post-COVID world will be hybrid events that combine the benefits of both in-person and virtual events in an entirely new format. But here’s the critical point, successful hybrid events are more than trying to replicate the old in-person conference model in an online form. It is much more. Hybrid events allow you to extend the reach of your event to a broader audience who may not be able to (or choose not to) attend otherwise. By offering “virtual pass” options to your guests, you will record a higher number of attendees and increase your return on investment.

With specialized tools and processes, you can serve more people in cyberspace more effectively. This is not using whiz-bang production techniques or VR. Instead, it’s creating what Alex Lindsay, one of the foremost experts in video productions, calls a “Scalable Conversation.” A scalable conversation is an event where the attendees feel a genuine connection to the content and speakers. This connection, unlike a traditional discussion, is with a large number of individuals, unconstrained by geography. So, how do you create that scalable conversation for everyone? Here’s a list compiled by Alex based upon years of producing virtual events for the government and large Fortune 100 companies:

  • The first step is giving the audience the feeling that you are talking directly to them. Hybrid events make this easier.
  • The second step is to find ways to respond to the audience. This is something that is missing in almost all events. Marketing teams, focused on managing every aspect of the messaging, often bristle at the idea of responding to live comments, but those questions are precisely what keeps the audience engaged. By moving resources to the online interaction, we can effectively engage a larger audience and produce a more compelling event recording. We can center ourselves on the content and the community.
  • The third step is not to skimp on spending for hybrid events. Many organizations try to do these types of events “cost-effectively.” This often results in a disjointed, ugly event that is forgettable at best and a liability at worst. Yes, we don’t want to spend more than we have to, but the most expensive event is a failed event. Great online events will be less costly than a physical execution but not by much. Think a 10–25% savings, not 75–90%. The value comes through greatly expanding the viewing audience and generating better long-term content.
  • Fourth, there are also small “creature comforts” that can improve the impact of a hybrid conference for the audience. Within limits, send online participants the “swag” you planned to give them at the event — especially if you can find ways to use those gifts in the event. Find opportunities to bring comments, pictures, and even user videos into the run of the show. Look at how to use social networks to bring audience members together.
  • Finally, stay focused on core concepts. It will be tempting to get distracted by shiny objects in a panic to “make up” for moving the event online. Remember that the event’s impact will most likely be measured in this order: compelling/well-designed content, audience engagement, smooth production, audio quality, video quality.

My take – Hosting medical conference events will be challenging after the pandemic. For most organizers, the risk component is unbearable and virtual, and hybrid solutions will be part of the new normal. Although Alex sits firmly in the “virtual-only” camp, I’m convinced that for medical conferences, the future lies in the hybrid approach. No, hybrid events won’t prevent people from attending your event in person. Hybrid events will not threaten face-to-face meetings. They will add an additional component, with more acceptance coming soon.

3 thoughts on “Some Straight Talk on In-Person Medical Conferences in a Post-COVID World

  1. This is an interesting discussion on the pros and cons of face to face, hybrid and full online events. I have had the same sorts of discussion with myself about my University teaching and its evolution during the COVID days. My initial thought was that full online classes would be a poor substitute for “face to face” classes but learned along the way that they can be very effective. People learn in different ways and the online venue offers many special options that the classic “face to face” option does not. The key, I have found, is to not think of the online version as a replacement for the “face to face” version. We need to think differently about the different set of tools available and design from that foundation. This makes a huge difference … much like not thinking about EHRs being a replacement for the old patient records. It is much more and different than that. And so too with conferences, I think. Offering multiple options capitalizing on the strengths and tools of each is where the magic lies.

  2. […] This past week, HIMSS held their annual conference in Las Vegas amid concerns about the rapidly spreading Delta variant of COVID-19. Attendance was down, as was expected, and several major vendors canceled their participation in the conference. Although masking and other COVID protocols were in place, there was no formal enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance. And, no proper protocols were followed at social events, which had Twitter complaining about the lax enforcement. I had some thoughts in my previous post on in-person conferences, which you can read here. […]

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