ODV Blog November 2020 Virtual Conferences

Living our best (virtual) life

As with all things that come with a change in circumstances, we find a way to adapt and for the most part that happens quicker than expected once we put our minds to it!

Here at Opening Doors & Venues Limited we helped to deliver our very first fully virtual event recently, in the form of a 5-day international medical research congress, in partnership with fellow ABPCO PCO, Clare Beach of Azura Events Ltd.

ODV Azura team wide 1500px v2Pictured Azura Events & OD&V team for WMS2020: Clare, Madalina, Rose

This was the second of our 2020 projects to transition from a physical project, during the late stages of planning, to an entirely virtual event, but the first one to require our full, immersive involvement alongside the main project PCO.

When the World Muscle Society Executive Committee made the decision to cancel their physical annual congress planned for early October in Halifax, Canada, and agreed to deliver the content in a virtual format, we were only 4 months away from the original physical event dates which were to remain the target for a virtual version. As with all large association meetings, plans are set in motion 2 to 3 years in advance so a 4-month lead time to ‘un-do’ a 600+ physical congress and ‘do’ a potentially 3000 people virtual meeting appeared daunting.

We quickly embarked on some extensive research that led to the appointment of an external agency, Kenes Group, to provide the virtual platform and the technical support required to convert 400+ abstracts into E-posters and audio presentations, and collate recorded material for over 14 sessions involving more than 50 speakers and presenters. The overall project management and coordination of registrations, speaker communication, sponsor liaison, brand development, congress website updating, committee liaison, marketing, social programme etc. remained in our portfolio to be overseen and delivered in partnership by Azura Events Ltd and OD&V. All together a gratefully received experience in finding the best ways to work with other PCO agencies and form our own symbiotic environment to render the high-quality results we were aiming for.

Guided by the emerging experiences of its members, our advice and the needs of the sponsors, the Committee adapted the programme structure from physical to virtual format in such a way that allowed all its important elements to be presented in the most efficient way. This resulted in the first ever WMS ‘Industry Day’, dedicated entirely to six sponsored symposia, presented in a two-track format with live Q&A’s. This was followed by a condensed 1-day Pre-Congress Teaching Course, normally delivered across 3 days. Three main congress days concluded with a much anticipated and fully live closing ceremony and prize presentation. The international nature of its audience was also taken into account. The full content was made available for on-demand viewing shortly after the scheduled release on the virtual platform and will remain available for all registered attendees for a period of 3 months.

The interest from the community in attending the virtual congress far surpassed expectations and, three weeks before the first congress day, registrations reached capacity at 3000 - a limit imposed by the virtual platform capabilities. A fairly large event in its normal format, attracting 800 to 1000 delegates annually, and operating a waiting list for some of its editions, it still came as a pleasant surprise when numbers tripled. Registrations came in from a large number of countries that had never been represented at a WMS congress before. This, in addition to confirming the high level of interest, is evidence of the accessibility of online events.

WMS2020 virtual platform 1

Choosing a virtual platform that could digitally replicate the look and feel of a congress centre, proved to be an inspired decision very much appreciated by delegates, because it created a realistic congress environment, mirroring the usual atmosphere of belonging and cooperation that has been a trademark of all WMS events over the past 25 years. Although delegates couldn’t enjoy walking though the poster areas and discussing these with colleagues, nor meet for a coffee during the break, sit down with colleagues for a meal, explore the destination city or follow up with a presenter during lunch, we tried to implement a number of virtual social activities outside of the scientific programme, to compensate for the lack of light and fun interaction.

WMS2020 virtual platform 2

The congress ‘Social Hub’ brought together a 25th Anniversary Charity Challenge, a quiz, virtual photo booth and daily raffle, workout videos, informal networking rooms over Zoom and even networking drinks one evening! Professional congress photography was replaced with screen grabs and photos of screens, good memories to look back on when everyone meets in person next year.

Although the hope, and aim, is to go back to face-to-face events in the not so distant future, we have learnt that the virtual format is indeed a very accessible alternative, allowing for valuable research to be shared and disseminated whilst empowering professionals around the globe to further advance their scientific or business endeavours in spite of the pandemic situation. This experience has also demonstrated that events large and small can be organised and even delivered entirely virtually, however the human interaction element was missed. The more realistic forecast is that hybrid will take the lead in the events industry in future years, as a blend of accessibility for the larger audience but also to satisfy the need for face-to-face interaction.

We missed being together as an organising team and seeing our delegates every day. Even though our feet didn’t ache, we still experienced total post-event exhaustion, however , this was framed in a feeling of pride at just what had been achieved!


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