Evolving the academic conference during Covid and beyond

Virtual conferences are here to stay, and they getting more dynamic and interactive – see what we’re working on at Elsevier

By Nigel Clear - November 25, 2020
Next gen virtual conference
Elsevier’s next-generation online conference will offer greater levels of participation and interaction. (© istock.com/YinYang)

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted the way the world works, and we have all been forced to find new ways of interacting and sharing information with each other. In the case of  conferences, which are a huge focus and source of revenue for many academic and professional societies, this activity has been impacted in the most fundamental way: currently, it is outlawed across much of the globe.

As part of our mission to help researchers and healthcare professionals advance science and improve health outcomes, Elsevier organizes over 50 international scientific and medical conferences a year, so while the pandemic may have put into sharp focus the many Elsevier products and services that can help during this difficult time, our conference business has been challenged.

Conference venues remain empty across much of the world.

A familiar sight in pre-covid times.Yet coming together at conferences is an integral part of the working lives of the scientific, research and medical communities we jointly serve. Conferences provide an opportunity to hear inspiring and novel presentations. They create an environment conducive to collaboration and networking. They can launch careers and form long-lasting partnerships. And they provide a tried and tested route to presenting new findings. So when this is taken away from us, we need to find suitable alternatives.

Driven by a desire to help our communities remain connected — and to provide a respected outlet for the huge body of work that was expected to be presented at conferences this year — the Elsevier conference team turned its focus solely to developing an online conference platform. How did we do this? By returning to first principles: the value of a conference is the chance to bring people together under the umbrella of great content delivered by renowned speakers, which provides a unique environment to learn, participate and network. And asking ourselves two simple questions: What can we replicate online. And crucially, what can we improve online?

To develop the offering, we listened to our customers and their perceptions of both physical and online conference offerings, and it was clear that both formats have perceived advantages and disadvantages. Consequently, we looked to combine the best of both worlds: acknowledging that we may never be able to fully recreate the visceral, energetic and celebratory experience of a physical conference in an exotic location, an online forum can provide other benefits around accessibility, inclusion, convenience, and longevity of content.

This chart shows the potential pros and cons of physical vs online conferences. (Source: Kindle Research on behalf of Elsevier)

The event chosen for our first online conference was the annual Vaccine Congress (it’s hard to imagine a timelier subject), originally scheduled to take place near Lake Garda, Italy, September 28 and 29. The six invited keynote presenters were asked to adapt their existing presentations to be COVID-focused. They recorded them with presentation slides, and we offered poster authors the opportunity to have their accepted posters also included in the program.

Sticking to the original conference dates and hosting it on Elsevier’s Researcher Academy platform, we decided to make the event free toattend due to the subject matter. Over 2,000 delegates attended (for comparison, the physical event typically attracts 250-400 delegates).

Making the event truly accessible for all, delegates were able to choose to attend at specific times, or to access the presentations afterwards on-demand at a time that suited them. Whilst attending the presentations, delegates could download their certificate of attendance, and authors their poster certificates of presentation at the click of a mouse — just two examples of where an online conference can offer advantages over a physical format.

The next iteration of our platform will offer a fully immersive, interactive experience, which will allow delegates to partake in live Q&As with presenters and connect with fellow delegates. For poster authors, it will provide the opportunity to record a short video introduction, which will really bring their poster session to life.

What has the experience taught us?

By following the guiding principles of the conference value exchange, we can offer a compelling conference experience. Moreover, in some ways the online format offers delegates and presenters an improved experience, especially when it comes to accessibility, inclusion and longevity of content.

In terms of generating revenues to offset the costs and, in the context of academic societies, fund the many other great activities you undertake, this is still a work in progress, but we have a number of ideas we are working through.

Longer term, my view is that physical and virtual conferences will sit alongside each other even when restrictions are lifted. Further, compared to the physical format of old hybrid (physical and online) conferences, will cater to the needs of a great many more researchers, scientists and practitioners.

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Nigel Clear
Written by

Nigel Clear

Written by

Nigel Clear

As Global Director of Conferences, Nigel Clear is responsible for the growth and management of Elsevier’s global scientific conference business. He has over 30 years’ experience in publishing and events serving the information, finance and scientific sectors. With a strong track record in launching new events, he is passionate about the customer experience and how technology, underpinned by meaningful, data-driven insights, can augment this. A strong advocate of inclusion and diversity, he has doubled the number of women speakers at Elsevier’s events over a 3-year period, and have also been instrumental in launching societally important events in areas that have been underserved.

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