It’s an exhilarating feeling when you have a congress humming with interested people; when you have seven parallel sessions all running smoothly in different rooms; when you see so many different nationalities in one place sharing discoveries; when you see friends reuniting with hugs and strangers finding out they have common interests with someone new; when you see world renowned professors dancing the night away next to younger trainees starting off in their careers; and when over two years’ worth of work comes to fruition. This is why it was so hard to think that the global pandemic may stop us from creating these unforgettable educational experiences.
At the International Society of Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynecology (ISUOG), we knew one thing for certain: we wanted to bring our community together and COVID wasn’t going to stop us. We are lucky to have a CEO, trustees and staff who were willing to embrace change and innovation, and were enthusiastic in making our next world congress 100% virtual. I know other associations who had a harder time convincing committees to do just that.
It was evident that by embracing virtual events we would lose the onsite human interactions that are so important for our attendees and it wasn’t clear how to emulate this in an online world. I found that due to the current circumstances, event professionals and associations were more generous with their time and would happily share their experiences and best practice. We learnt from them invaluable pieces of advice that informed our decisions: have a strong promotional launch for “going virtual”, ensure that registration, abstracts and exhibitions processes are all ready to be communicated, prepare for our Society stand to be quieter than in an onsite setting, but for our help-desk to be a lot busier. To have a soft launch was also a fantastic idea. We opened the platform a day earlier for speakers, exhibitors and selected delegates to have the privilege to test the virtual environment ahead of everyone else.
It was vital that our whole association community felt engaged in the virtual journey and was excited about our event. We completely rebranded the Congress with designs that were much sleeker than previous ones. We spent more money on digital marketing and promotional videos. We ensured that key opinion leaders in our community were given exclusive information about our plans. Our staff received monthly updates on the new processes that were put in place and the new technology that would make our virtual event a success. We even planned for them a première of our platform, well before the soft launch. Everyone involved was eager to promote our progress and proud of the Society’s achievement.
Organising a virtual world congress demands a new set of skills and knowledge. For instance, it was vital that there were people in the events team who had enough confidence with technology and systems to create experiences online by manipulating our chosen platform. With suppliers, it was greatly beneficial to work with people who understood that online congresses are closer to TV shows than onsite events. We created supplemental footage and videos to be played in between the sessions to improve the viewers’ experience.
This year has had its fair share of challenges and next year may be even harder, when we are trying to make hybrid meetings (events with both virtual and onsite audiences) a viable option. However, if we embrace change, keep sharing knowledge, ensure our whole community joins in on the journey, and incorporate the lessons from this year, I have no doubt 2021 will be a success.