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August 27, 2020
Lessons learned in the first STEMM meeting pivot from onsite to virtual
Lessons learned in the first STEMM meeting pivot from onsite to virtual

The American College of Cardiology was in the final stages of preparing for its annual congress in Chicago when the coronavirus pandemic laid waste to their plans. With just 15 days until the show was due to open, they decided to shift the entire event online. Janice Sibley, ACC Executive Vice President of Education and Publishing, explains how:

Save the date

“We decided to keep the original date, because we felt that gave us the best chance of engaging our intended audience because they had already set aside this time off and were ready to go. But more importantly we were in the middle of a growing pandemic. COVID-19 was really beginning to hit hard, and we could sense the need for the healthcare community to come together, to band together as a group, so that’s why we felt it was important to save the date.

Initial thoughts

We tried very hard to keep our physical meeting intact but realized it wasn’t going to be possible, but once we had made that decision, put our stake in the ground, in all truthfulness it wasn’t challenging in terms of the size of the event, but how are we going to engage our audience?

When you are together, physically, it is very easy to engage each other, you can network, see people face to face, but virtually it’s very hard to create that same sort of buzz. How do you recreate honorific events? Welcoming new members? Installing a new president? That was our difficulty.

A chance to give back

We also made the decision to offer the meeting at no charge. This was a mission-based effort. We would put on the best virtual meeting possible and there would be no charge to anyone who wanted to attend. The fees for the original conference were totally refunded. This has been a real success story for us, to give the money back to the community when they most needed it.

The innovative solution

We pulled together the same team that had produced the original conference, a mixture of in-house and vendors, and came up with a novel concept along three different themes. Our first theme was Intellectual, that’s the science and education, but we added to that a Business theme, which was engaging our business partners, either through a virtual expo or through industry-based educations, and then a third theme, which was Social and Emotional. This involved social media and other types of social engagement platforms, such as chat and live streaming.

A sense of engagement

We created a virtual installation for our new members, which allowed them to read the oath, and then take a selfie of themselves, which we posted on our website throughout the conference, so we were able to see an ever-growing group of new members. We recorded speeches of our newly installed president and our out-going president. Creating a sense of engagement was the key to us providing a robust online experience, rather than just slapping up a cut-and-paste.

We combined the techniques of live streaming, a live-event in real-time with interactive chat, with an awful lot of on-demand content. We pulled together very quickly a design of those educational and science sessions we felt would be most important to offer live to the world and then we mixed them with hundreds of pre-recorded sessions for viewing in one’s own time and place. So, we really didn’t lose a lot of content it was just restructured.

Willing and able speakers

Most of speakers were very willing to make the switch. Those that pulled out were just too busy with the emerging health crisis to participate. But we have always been very active with our faculty and so we offered coaching in virtual presenting techniques. We were not able to get together physically to do any sort of rehearsal, so everything was remote. If you can imagine a six-person panel discussion, each of those people spread throughout the entire country, or in some cases outside the US, it was quite a technical feat to accomplish but our faculty just did it beautifully! And a lot of that was due to the coaching that was done ahead of time.

Testing, testing, testing

We were mostly concerned about bandwidth. We had no history of a virtual conference of this size. We had no idea if would get one person or one-hundred thousand people. So, to mitigate any technical hitches, we did a lot of load-testing a few days before the conference, pretending to have large amounts of people online, and on the day of the conference it was extremely smooth, we did not suffer any sort of blackout. But we also used a technique that allows you to pre-record some of the main elements of the presentation and then have your faculty join a chat and moderate questions as they are coming in real time. A combination of live-streaming and pre-recorded streaming helped us avoid these technical glitches. Everything was ready to go, almost like a theatre production. The live element was the Q&A and the moderating.

What we learned

The largest surprise was attendance numbers. We started off at 9am on a Saturday morning and within several mins we had 13,000 people engaged. We ended up throughout the entire conference engaging 38,000 unique individuals over the three days. But the real surprise was that came from 157 countries around the world. It was a phenomenal success. Over 50 per cent of our users were from outside the US and we ended up with a huge global social media event. As much as the education and the science it was a pleasant surprise to be able to bring the healthcare community together and watch thousands of people greet each other on the chatlog from India and Sri Lanka and China. It was unbelievable. Our eyes have been opened to this completely new audience. We clearly will continue our live events but will absolutely continue to engage this new audience because they provide great value to the cardiovascular community and they were clearly interested in what we have to say.”

Interviewer: James Lancaster

Note: CTI Meeting Technology provided the virtual meeting platform for ACC's eAbstract and ePoster presentations.

This story was originally published on June 24, 2020, by Association Meetings International and Intellectual Capitals.