2020 started with business as usual for medical conferences. Practitioners were registering and booking travel, agendas were created, and speakers were getting invitations. Meanwhile for sponsors, booths were being fabricated, interactive content was being created, and logistics were being fine-tuned. As the industry geared up for the start of a busy spring convention season, everything changed.

As lockdowns, travel restrictions, and stay-at-home orders became the norm, industry and associations alike asked themselves, what now? The response brought forth a medical conference renaissance that forced societies and vendors to pack up all their standard live conference components including presentations, posters, society-sponsored and pharmaceutical-sponsored exhibits, networking, etc. for use on the laptop, smartphone, or tablet. We were now virtual.

Although forced, this digital transformation was needed. Data from Ashfield Meetings & Events’ Healthcare Professionals’ Experience of Virtual Congresses report showed that 92% of HCPs would now consider attending a congress virtually which they would not have chosen to attend in person previously, and 78% of HCPs were of the mind that if there had been virtual access to past congresses, they would have been more likely to attend. We’ve gone virtual, we have our audience, now let’s take a look at the integral pieces of a virtual medical conference and how we saw them executed in 2020.

Presentations

Accredited presentations, product theaters, posters, etc. are the core of any medical conference, and while logistically heavy live, the digital transformation presented new challenges related to time, budget, and adapting content from live to virtual on the fly. We saw traditionally live presentations handled in three ways:

  • Live streaming: The closest option to being at a show live was seeing the content streamed live. While this presented logistical challenges of coordinating speakers all over the world, working with sponsors, and getting speakers acquainted to the platform being used, this offered the highest level of authenticity and engagement. Live presentations allowed for live Q&A, polling, and other interactivity that was lost with traditional options. Enduring these presentations allowed viewers the flexibility to choose when and how they wanted to view the content.
  • Pre-recorded: Typically falling within conferences that didn’t have the time or staff to execute a fully live virtual meeting, pre-recorded presentations were the default. Pre-recorded presentations allowed the association to focus on the platform itself, versus the logistics of live presentations, and provided presenters and sponsors the flexibility to pre-record presentations on a platform of their choice or the association’s default platform. While convenient, this option removed any feeling of being truly live, such as being able to engage with presenters.
  • Hybrid: Many larger associations went hybrid, allowing presenters and sponsors the choice/option of presenting live, providing a pre-recorded file, or providing a pre-recorded file and being available for a live Q&A. As the most flexible option, we saw the hybrid model used more frequently as the year progressed. However, this model’s limitations were related to the inconsistency in video quality and presentation type.

Overall, the true winners on the presentation front are societies who were able to ease the logistical burden on the association and its presenters, while still offering a form of virtual engagement as close as possible to live executions. Conferences that included live Q&A, polling, and other levels of interactivity came as close to “live” as possible—and were the most successful. According to the same Ashfield Meetings & Events report, data show that 78% of HCPs would choose to view live, while 62% would take the opportunity to view on-demand, meaning an engaging live presentation and the ability to increase reach with enduring content are core to a successful virtual conference.

Exhibit Hall

Pens, coffee, cookies, gamification, live presentations, raffles, networking, and random knickknacks to bring home to your kids are some of the many traffic drivers for a live exhibit hall, but how can we create such a unique experience in a virtual environment? The short answer is that you cannot. While other facets of virtual conferences seek to re-create what is done live, a virtual exhibit hall is truly unique, and needs to be handled as such.

Associations primarily use a unique platform that has its own variation of a virtual exhibit hall, ranging from highly visual custom booth renderings to splash pages with basic company info. All of these platforms allow sponsors to include company information, branding, resources (videos, illustrations, and documents), and contact information. The main driver of success of a virtual exhibit hall is not the platform that is used, but the effort and methods that are put into driving traffic into the virtual exhibit hall.

As an attendee, why am I going to spend the 15-minute break I have between presentations in a virtual exhibit hall, versus taking the time to grab something to eat at home, or get some work done? The answer that has proven to be most appealing to attendees is gamification. The beauty of a virtual conference is the tracking, so attributing points for visiting the hall, going to booths, interacting with assets, chatting with booth staff, etc. is a tactic that encourages interaction with virtual exhibits by offering a benefit not directly linked to a sponsor’s placed information on their company or products.

From a sponsorship perspective, the challenge lies in how to execute a successful virtual exhibit. Using association-offered virtual exhibit pages may be limited based on what that specific association offers and can also create complicated logistical and approval hurdles. Every association-offered virtual exhibit page is unique in its own respect. However, the growing trend within the industry is the creation of an external virtual exhibit—one without imposed association boundaries or restrictions.

Impactful virtual exhibits are experiential, they look and feel as close to a live booth as possible, and it’s unrealistic to expect an association to offer that to every sponsor, which is why building an external virtual exhibit, one that can be used for multiple shows, is cost-effective with value that is based on its reach after the meeting ends. Data show that convention attendees enter an exhibit booth primarily to ask a question about a specific company or product. In the virtual exhibit space, time and focus are limited, so using an organized, visually appealing, and user-friendly virtual exhibit that allows an attendee to find the answer to their question easily and quickly without sacrificing exposure to important content is key.

Networking

Arguably the most difficult facet of a live exhibit hall to reproduce in a virtual exhibit hall is face-to-face time and a networking experience. From a personal perspective, I myself know that there are close friends I only see when traveling to a live convention, and relationships of this type exist for every attendee of a convention whether it be healthcare providers, sponsors, agency people, etc. The response to this gap in the virtual world has understandably been all over the place because it is nearly impossible to reproduce virtually.

Associations that offer user-friendly message boards or forums that allow you to see and chat with other show attendees, and that center on something such as a gamification leaderboard, achieve success. The unfortunate reality is that face-to-face interaction and networking cannot be replicated within a virtual world 100%, but offering the ability to speak and connect with other attendees provides value and engagement for those who are looking to do so.

So where do we go from here? Will virtual medical conferences exist five years from now? They will and they should. Why? It is simply because this option offers people a way to experience something they might not normally travel for, even before COVID. Although the pandemic threw our industry into a flat spin in 2020, we have certainly learned that virtual has its place.

The reality is that when things were solely live, a 20,000-member association was only ever able to get around 25% of their membership to attend live. So what about the other 75%? Virtual is the answer and will remain the answer. Whether it is live or virtual, what matters is making content accessible, engaging audiences, and creating memorable experiences. The virtual medical conference business will continue to evolve.

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