Conferences are invaluable experiences for updating knowledge; for hearing from (and maybe even meeting) important figures in the field; for sharing new science with peers, getting feedback and gaining experience of presentation; and for networking and widening the circle of contacts. Conferences are enriching and (mostly) fun. However, after 2020, conferences will never be the same again!
The coronavirus pandemic struck Europe just ahead of the start of the main annual conference season and had an immediate effect. National lockdowns and travel bans resulted in postponement or even outright cancellation of most, if not all, conferences in Europe and North America. With the realisation that the situation would not be changing quickly, organisers adapted to making online offerings of webinars and by the summer, several entire conferences were being offered virtually. Some of these were offered live, others were pre-recorded, and various formats were used to engage the audience. Organisers, speakers and delegates quickly adapted to the virtual world with new ways of doing things and increasingly sophisticated events have been held.
Moving forward, many conferences for 2021 are already planned to be offered entirely online and some organisers are talking about future conferences being a blend of virtual and face-to-face; just today I was involved in a discussion about a major international conference to be held in 2025 where the organisers are already planning this blended approach.
The advantages of webinars and virtual symposia and conferences are many. Firstly, a programme can be arranged that may be far more attractive than a face-to-face offering. This is because there is no cost attached to the speakers and so the programme can attract many speakers from all around the globe and because busy researchers, who may not normally be available or willing to take the time to travel, can participate. I experienced this recently. A few weeks ago, the Italian Nutrition Society hosted a one-day virtual conference on the Mediterranean Diet; amongst the thirteen speakers only five were Italian and speakers from several other European countries and from the US and Brazil were included.
Secondly, the audience can be much larger than the traditional conference because the event is available to anyone who wishes to sign up, irrespective of their location and their ability to travel. Again, I have experienced this many times this year. In May, I spoke in a webinar that attracted a truly international audience of almost 2,000 delegates. The Italian conference I mentioned above, attracted around 1,200 delegates; in normal times such a conference would attract a few hundred delegates. Last week the annual British Nutrition Foundation Day, normally held in London with 100 to 200 delegates, attracted a global audience of 1,650. Thus, virtual conferences enable an enormous global reach, engaging new participants and enhancing visibility of speakers and their science.
Thirdly, virtual conferences are cheaper to run: no conference venues to hire, no supporting staff to pay, no invited speakers requiring travel and hotel expenses to be covered, no catering costs etc.
Finally, virtual conferences are so much better for the environment. These are the reasons why virtual is here to stay: more attractive programmes, easier access, bigger audiences, less cost and less harm to the environment.
Can there be a downside?
Yes!! Virtual conferences mean loss of social and networking opportunities and limit the research and education benefits that come from those, although some of the more sophisticated meetings now being offered are including such possibilities, although I did find a virtual cocktail reception sitting in my study at home still staring at my laptop screen whilst holding myself-made G&T bizarre and not especially enjoyable.
Many academic societies derive significant income from hosting conferences and virtual offerings diminish the possibilities for income generation; registration fees are less expensive but as mentioned previously delegate numbers may be significantly greater and the actual cost of running a conference is also much reduced. There are also new means of generating income such as pay-for-view of recorded sessions.
Perhaps virtual or blended conferences may actually make more money for academic societies than traditional conferences. However, it is clear that local economies would be affected by having fewer “old style” conferences, especially in those towns and cities that have established themselves as conference venues. In addition to the venues themselves, hotels, restaurants, local tourist sites as well as the travel industry seem likely to be big losers.
But I do not think all of this will be lost … Our need for genuine social contact, for the sort of discussion not easily possible on virtual platforms, for chance meetings in a conference centre foyer or a hotel lift, for early career researchers to actually explain their data to their peers and to the more established researchers, and for different cultural experiences creates a demand for the essence of the face-to-face conference to re-emerge. I do look forward to that.