Outsmarting the Virus: Keeping Your Conference Afloat Amidst COVID-19

Outsmarting the Virus: Keeping Your Conference Afloat Amidst COVID-19

By Emma Clawson

The hosts their annual conference, HOPA Ahead, every spring. As an association of healthcare professionals, we were aware of the COVID-19 epidemic and threat it posed around the world. What we didn’t anticipate, however, was the sudden, powerful impact it would have on our conference.

HOPA Ahead 2020 was slotted to present 37 educational sessions featuring 78 different speakers during the course of a 4-day meeting. We were on track to have record attendance, with registration numbers quickly approaching 1,300 live attendees and 200 virtual attendees. But, a week and a half before the meeting, the news of a rapidly increasing number of positive COVID-19 test results in the United States spurred a chain reaction. Academic institutions, medical centers, and pharmaceutical companies quickly began to impose institution-wide travel bans, inhibiting speakers from traveling to Tampa, FL, for the event. Five days before the conference, 17 of our 78 speakers were affected; just three days later, that number had nearly tripled.

So, what do you do when COVID-19 wreaks havoc on your event less than 1 week before it begins?

Cry? Laugh? Roll up your sleeves and just “figure it out”?

In my experience, it was all of the above.

The Plan

With less than 3 days until our opening session and determined to serve our members, our team sprung into action to keep the conference moving forward. Our first step was figuring out how to keep our promise of providing 37 sessions’ worth of continuing education (CE) when 80% of those sessions had at least one speaker who was unable to attend in person. Looking to our existing technology, we decided to use GoToMeeting to livestream those speakers and have them present virtually.

We now had three types of sessions we were offering:

  • Live Sessions (all speakers presented on site)
  • Hybrid Sessions (some speakers presented on site, some presented remotely)
  • Virtual Sessions (all speakers presented remotely)

Upon arriving on site in Tampa, we worked with our AV company to test our idea; we needed to make sure our virtual speakers could not only be heard in the session room, but also that they could hear the co-presenters, moderators, and attendees who were on site. With testing complete, we set up training sessions for our virtual speakers to become familiar with the GoToMeeting platform. During these trainings, we tested sound quality, mouse control capabilities for advancing their slides remotely, and answered logistical questions. Finally, all speakers were sent individualized emails with information on how to log in to GoToMeeting for their session. Now it was time to wait, pray, and hope for the best.

Plan B Turns into Plan C

Though Day 1 ran smoothly, Day 2 presented a new challenge that caused the team to have to pivot yet again: COVID-19 was swiftly spreading in the area where our conference was being held. The health and safety of our attendees was our top priority, and we made the decision to postpone days 3 and 4 of the conference. While the decision was not one we took lightly, we knew it was the best course of action to take for everyone.

Our team was now faced with a new question: How would we keep our promise and provide the remaining 18 educational sessions to our attendees? Once again, we turned to the technology we had in place and created a fully virtual conference for our remaining sessions. Over the course of 4 days, we worked with our remaining speakers to schedule their sessions as live webinars for attendees to view. We then offered attendees the option of tuning in for the live broadcast of each session or watching the recording within an hour of the live presentation. Thanks to the flexibility and perseverance of our speakers, no CE would be lost.

The Outcome

Even though all the factors were stacked against us, our team considers this conference a great success. Thanks to the technology we already had in place and the nimbleness of our staff and faculty, our attendees were still able to have a great experience, even if it was different from anything they had experienced with HOPA before. After having time to reflect, we’ve come up with some tips and tricks if you find yourself in a similar predicament:

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. So many virtual meeting platforms you may already use (e.g., GoToMeeting, Zoom, etc.) have capabilities built in that can be used for virtual presentations. Features such as mouse control, screen sharing, and chat functionality can be used to maximize your attendee and virtual presenter experience.
  • Conference apps aren’t just for live attendees. Sure, apps are great for attendees to build their schedule and read speaker bios, but if your app has the capability for attendees to submit questions to the speakers, it doesn’t matter if that happens live in the session room or virtually from across the country. We used our app’s Q&A feature to pull in questions from both our live and virtual attendees, so our speakers were able to address everyone’s questions for an interactive experience.
  • Educational sessions aren’t the only thing that can be virtual. HOPA Ahead features close to 300 completed, late-breaking, and trainee research posters every year. With dozens of poster presenters unable to travel to the event, we used our conference website to post electronic versions of the research posters online for all attendees to see. Attendees could not only view, but also reach out to the poster presenters with questions or feedback on their projects.
  • Breathe—this situation is out of your control. You can’t control a global pandemic. You can’t control a natural disaster. What you can control is how you approach the solution. Lean on your team members for ideas and support; in times like these, there’s no such thing as a bad idea.

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Emma Clawson is the education manager for the .

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