Hybrid vs in-person: the future of conferences

7 minute read

The hybrid ACR 2022 is set to shake off pandemic restrictions with a groundbreaking new format as EULAR announces its 2023 congress is in-person only.

As with so much of life, the pandemic of the last few years has turned the conference world on its head.

Conferences moved quickly to become virtual, opening the door to a whole new experience for many people. Eliminating travel costs and logistics, as well as reducing the time needed to attend, meant more people could go to more conferences than in pre-covid times.

However, this came at a cost: the undoubted value of meeting with colleagues face-to-face.  

EULAR president Professor Annamaria Iagnocco announced earlier this month that EULAR 2023, to be held in Milan, will return to an onsite-only format. On-demand access will be available when the live congress ends, but the livestream option, which was offered at the hybrid EULAR 2022 congress, is now gone.

“EULAR recognises the pivotal role face-to-face interactions play for our doctors, delegates, and patients, and we appreciate the importance, value, and benefits of an onsite congress experience,” Professor Iagnocco said in a statement.

The format decision, however, is unlikely to please those who have previously benefited from being able to attend remotely.

For ACR Convergence 2022, organisers have chosen to go down the hybrid path – in-person at the Philadelphia Convention Center, with livestreaming for a virtual audience and on-demand access to recordings. What’s more, they say they’ll stick with the format for future conferences.

“Due to the pandemic, we pivoted to an all-virtual format that allowed us to continue to deliver content and connectedness to our learners,” said Crystal Green, ACR’s senior director of meeting services. “We offered virtual networking, produced posters virtually, and let all speakers deliver presentations from wherever they were in the world.”

But as pandemic restrictions eased worldwide, the prospect of a hybrid event loomed larger.

“As the world became safer, we knew that in planning Convergence 2022 we would continue to be inclusive of learners of both types and we would offer the ACR’s first-ever hybrid annual scientific meeting.

“The biggest challenge associated with producing a hybrid event is that catering to both audiences means planning what could be considered two separate meetings concurrently,” Ms Green told Rheumatology Republic.

“With that also comes increased costs to deliver logistics, specifically audio-visual production.”

More conferences for more people

For Dr Richard Conway, a rheumatologist based in Ireland who plans to attend ACR 2022 virtually, being able to increase the number of conferences he attends is a key benefit of the hybrid format.

“I would not be able to attend all of the meetings I do virtually as an in-person attendee,” Dr Conway said. “The virtual option allows me to maximise my meeting attendance. I think this is even more important for others – those from low-income countries, those who may have visa issues, parents and trainees – frequently they simply couldn’t go if on-site is the only option.”

Being able to accommodate a wide range of people, either as speakers or as attendees, is important, said CreakyJoints Australia editor, Rosemary Ainley, adding that virtual and hybrid models promote inclusivity.

“You’re getting a broader range of viewpoints and ideas, and that would include people from different backgrounds and cultures, which would add immeasurably,” Ms Ainley said.

“Health professionals can be patients themselves, they might be carers with responsibilities, or they might live in regional or rural areas – it’s all attendees we’re talking about here,” she said.

Getting creative with connectivity

Ms Green said the hybrid format had demanded the ACR team get creative.

“This year we’ve reimagined our poster hall, now called Convergence Hall,” she said. “It is a blend of presentation stages, networking spaces and casual meeting areas. The goal of this area is to serve as the hub for where rheumatologists will meet. It’s adjacent to our exhibit hall and central to educational session rooms.

“Convergence Hall is where in-person and virtual participants can stream the same content live while splitting their networking experiences. All participants will have access to our online communities grouped by category, where you can join a Zoom room and engage in discussions led by community hosts.”

The event will also include “Ignite Talks”. These five-minute poster presentations will be held in-person and livestreamed to virtual attendees. Only the highest-ranked posters (numbering around 225) will be presented during the event’s morning and afternoon networking hours

“The most important thing for me at a scientific meeting is the original research – the oral abstract and poster presentations,” Dr Conway said.

“These are time-sensitive in order to facilitate discussion and so should be available at the same time as on-site. After that, I like to view other sessions and talks when it suits me – so I like to have on demand access to these.”

The other major benefit for Dr Conway is the virtual networking and discussions of the research presented over social media.

“I find I learn more communicating and discussing research on Twitter than I do actually viewing it at the meeting itself,” he said.

Despite that, some aspects of an event cannot be replicated online.

“Obviously those include the social events and traditional networking opportunities,” Dr Conway said. “I don’t think there is a way around this, and I don’t think we should try. But the virtual environment opens up new and different networking opportunities – this may facilitate equality and better advantage those who find traditional face to face networking daunting.”

Cost challenges

For organisers, costs represent a challenge whether an event is in-person only, virtual only or hybrid.

While the costs vary for different models, the ACR Convergence 2022 organisers chose a single fee, regardless of attendance. 

“Hybrid meetings can be quite costly since you must address both in-person elements and the complex technology that’s needed for a quality online experience, which means programming, execution and interactivity,” Ms Green said.

Dr Conway has no problem with that. Asked if he’d be happy paying the same amount to attend virtually as he would if there in-person, he was adamant.

“Yes, absolutely,” he said. “In fact, I would pay more virtually provided the experience justified this.”

However, increased conference costs in line with increasing complexity of delivery may mean affordability is an issue for people from low- and middle-income countries attending virtually.

ACR Convergence offers complimentary registration to rheumatologists from countries designated by the World Bank as low-income.

“Hybrid is here to stay”

According to Ms Green, future ACR events will likely build on the new experiences of ACR Convergence 2022.

“Hybrid is here to stay,” she said. “However, hybrid doesn’t simply mean how we deliver the format for our educational content; it also includes how we look at bringing people together within the rheumatology community.

Dr Conway told Rheumatology Republic he was “cautiously optimistic” about the experience.

“I’ve seen the website, but I don’t think it is fair or possible to judge until we are immersed in the experience,” he said. “I think ACR have done a very good job with the virtual offerings in recent years while under a lot of pressure; hopefully they can improve even further.”

  • As part of our extensive coverage of ACR2022, Rheumatology Republic will be hosting a webinar after the event with Professor Ranjeny Thomas, Associate Professor Alberta Hoi, Associate Professor Peter Wong and Professor Peter Nash, moderated by RR editor Dr Irwin Lim. Join us as they discuss the abstracts that will change practice.

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