On-Site, Virtual, or both?

Moving Toward a Hybrid Scientific Conference Model

The transition to fully virtual events and scientific conferences almost two years ago created myriad challenges. Few teams and organizations were prepared and able to move to a fully remote environment on short notice, particularly during a time of great external stress and tragedy due to the pandemic.

Despite the logistical difficulties, the world of scientific and academic conferences adjusted to virtual environments. Researchers kept their posters as digital files instead of printing posters, and attendees conversed from home over video instead of in person. At SciGen, we pioneered our own video conference technology specifically suited to academic and scientific congresses that allows attendees to join any poster room and participate via chat, audio, and video.

Photo from ANESTHESIOLOGY 2021 in San Diego, CA

For many, attending conferences from home was both more convenient and comfortable. Individuals were relieved from the inconveniences of travel, and companies saved on travel expenses. On the other hand, work from home presented its own set of obstacles. The learning curve for attending meetings online was steeper for some than others, as users got oriented with Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, and similar services. Many faced technological difficulties or reduced internet access that limited their ability to participate in presentations. Once familiar with a fully digital interface, users faced distractions and interruptions as home and work environments were forced to collide. Studies and experiments were placed on hold, and many had to sacrifice institutional access to physical research materials and settings such as the lab and OR.

In spite of these obstacles, attendees by and large adjusted to a remote environment. We learned that the art of the online presentation demands different skills than presenting in person, and became more aware of extended screen time and its effects on attention span.

But there were positives, too. Going virtual meant that conferences could broaden access, thereby welcoming larger, and more international, audiences. It also meant that organizers and attendees were temporarily spared from the demands of travel, including the bandwidth needed to reserve flights, pack bags, and navigate restrictions and delays.

All in all, while it was nice to attend conferences from the living room, favorite beverage in hand, we certainly won’t miss the refrains of “Can everyone see my screen?” or “I think you’re on mute.”

As we return to on site events, we’re eager to get back to the rituals of in person conferences. When our team reported to the venue in San Diego for this year’s American Society of Anesthesiology annual meeting, it felt great to put on our name tags, check in, and receive not only a schedule, but a map as well.

Photo from ANESTHESIOLOGY 2021 in San Diego, CA

It wasn’t the same as it used to be, as attendees had to show proof of COVID vaccination or a negative COVID test result to gain entry to the venue. Masks were worn, and monitors placed a bit farther apart than they used to be. Nevertheless, we communicated with one another without having to click “unmute.” We perused posters while ambling, instead of swiping, confined to the dimensions of our screen. We networked without breakout rooms, socialized during breaks, ate the same food, ran into old colleagues.

As the world becomes calibrated to a ‘new normal,’ it seems as though a hybrid conference model, that includes both virtual and in person elements, will become the go-to platform. The increased accessibility of online events combined with the social opportunities inherent to in person conferences make the hybrid approach one that is here to stay.