“I’ll meet you by the pixelated fountain”

By now most of you have probably had the experience of entering one of those crisp looking yet soulless virtual convention centre lobbies that serve as the homepages for the websites of most recent bigger medical conferences. Or possibly, you have just puzzled through one of the less visual homepages that eventually allow you to access the live presentations, chat rooms and other tabs that have become standard with virtual meetings.

If not, then just wait until the spring meeting of your society or association because the odds of any big medical or health care conference or symposium being anything less than just virtual before next summer, if not longer, are probably close to zero (those taking place in Australia and New Zealand excepted perhaps).

Virtual conferences are a reality since the COVID-19 pandemic struck and frankly conference organizers and conference committees have worked wonders to develop functional platforms that work.

Having attended several such virtual conferences in recent weeks I have made some observations shared earlier on Twitter that I thought might be worth collecting here. Just to emphasize, I made these observations strictly as a delegate and have not had the insights or frustrations that would come from being a conference organizer these days.

These are listed in the order in which the observations were made, with some minor edits:

1. It’s good if sessions begin on time otherwise attendees get nervous that they are not in the right place.

2. Test the software and platform. Then test it again. Then be prepared for a way to alert attendees if something still goes wrong the speaker’s audio, visual etc.

3. It’s best to have someone other than moderator check on questions posted during session and prioritize them.

4. I suspect getting delegates to visit the virtual exhibit hall and interact with exhibitors is even more challenging than in-person. This raises issues about value to sponsors.

5. Even the best virtual conference can come to a grinding halt when the speaker can’t get their slides to display.

6. The mix of live and taped sessions and hybrid versions of the two is changing what it means to be a “live” conference.

7. The more detailed and involved the virtual platform and the more features (more money spent?) the better the experience seems to be.

8. Fake backgrounds (à la Zoom or Microsoft Teams) don’t work unless you align your image perfectly. Otherwise it looks hokey and unprofessional.

9. Having the chair moderate questions eliminates “rambling irrelevant monologues” from the questioner (courtesy of @RichardPAConway)

10. It seems harder/more intrusive for moderator to cut off speaker who is running overtime during live virtual presentations

11. Technicians are even more important than for current in-person meetings to make sure things move smoothly

12. Always have soothing music ready if your conference loses the feed – and post a message letting people know what is going on

For those of you who are pining for real in-person conferences I suggest you read the latest editorial in the Canadian Urological Association Journal by editor-in-chief and Kingston urologist Dr. Micheal Leveridge (@_the_urologist).

In the piece titled “We’ll meet again, some sunny day” he reminisces on conferences long past and the changes wrought by the current pandemic. He notes that in future “maybe we will have less tolerance for crunching shoulder-to-shoulder in cavernous plenary rooms in favor of smaller, more curated settings with opportunities for deeper discourse. Maybe we will come to value investment  in presentation quality, and the democratization and diversity of presenters when our attention is at stake.”

Thoughts to ponder as you wait for the next session to go live on your laptop.

(Graphic courtesy of the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress)

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