Virtual Conferences: A Year in Review and Future Direction

In March 2020, CHR highlighted how many organisations have opted to conduct virtual conferences and what that means to us as a company when gathering primary insights. Conference coverage is a key offering by CHR, and as a company we have quickly adapted to virtual conferences, utilising the tools provided to continue to generate relevant and actionable insights for our clients.

One year on, with virtual conferences expected to still be utilised in 2021, we evaluate the strengths and weakness of virtual conferences in providing an alternative experience to the traditional in-person format whilst also discussing what future conferences could look like.

An expected weakness of virtual conferences can be the lack of engagement and interaction. While many events incorporate various features (e.g., live Q&A sessions) to promote a collaborative environment, nothing beats the the face-to-face meetings and hallway conversations inherent with these events. Presentations may have a reduced impact over screens and Q&A discussions can lack the depth of an in-person discussion.

The technology can also be a weakness for the virtual conference. Some conferences are considered to have a more immersive experience than others, significantly impacting the conference's overall quality.

While limitations in technology and lack of human interaction can be considered key shortcomings of the virtual format, there are strong benefits as well that will indefinitely support their future use, the main one being accessibility. Conferences are expensive and when you consider the additional costs of travel and accommodation, this can limit those who can attend these events. In a virtual format, attendees' costs are inherently less, allowing a far broader population to benefit from the conference.

An excellent case example is the Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC). Having previously been estimated to host ~6,000 people in 2020 at its annual conference, the association switched to offering a virtual conference, and with no registration fee, reported >33,000 registrants from over 160 countries.

Virtual formats benefit those who cannot commit to the 3-4 days usually expected for an in-person conference. Attendees can dip in and out of sessions offering greater flexibility while still benefiting from the congress. Conversely, many may struggle to engage overall in the conference while attending from home, with attendees potentially missing the dedicated time to immerse themselves in the conference fully.

The other key benefit is the impact on the environment. Virtual conferences have reduced air travel and waste, which is likely to be seen positively by an ever-increasingly conscious society. A whitepaper published by V-Ex, providers of a virtual exhibition platform, concludes that virtual exhibitions can reduce carbon emissions by 99% compared to equivalent live events.

With the main aim of healthcare conferences to support the sharing of knowledge, and given the strengths and weaknesses of virtual events, it is feasible to predict that organisations will adopt a hybrid approach for future events. Organisations can continue with the traditional in-person approach, maximizing engagement and collaboration. They can also run an adjacent virtual format making it potentially cheaper and with increased accessibility. A hybrid approach appears to be the ideal solution; however, future challenges are likely to remain around the cost and logistics of running both formats and ensuring the required commitment by both industry and attendees for both events.

Given how virtual conferences have proven they will continue in the wake of COVID-19, there is an obvious place for them going forward and we don’t expect them to suddenly disappear. At CHR, we will continue to adapt and understand how we can use virtual conferences to carry on delivering actionable insights for our clients.