What options do conference organizers have in responding to the coronavirus outbreak? A little over a week ago, we hosted the 20th annual meeting of Interdisciplinary 19th-Century Studies. The conference theme was sustainability, and we had always planned to incorporate remote virtual presenters. As concerns increased over the spread of the coronavirus in the United States and abroad, we were able to quickly expand our virtual program and ended up taking about a quarter of the conference online.
It was challenging, and we had to scramble, so we’d like to share what we learned in order to help others who are thinking about whether and how to host large events in the coming months.
The most important thing is to protect the health of conference goers and presenters. That requires closely following the advice of institutional health officers, regional health authorities and, for larger conferences, national guidance for travel. It also means communicating with conference goers regularly to keep them updated. Do not speculate. Make sure all communications contain up-to-date information provided by appropriate authorities so that conference goers can make informed decisions.
It may be the case that conference organizers receive clear guidance from regional or institutional authorities that large gatherings are discouraged, so they must cancel the conference. That was not our experience. At the time of our event, it was more often the case that regional guidance and declarations of emergency freed up resources for preparation but did not recommend canceling events. Any organizer should discuss their options at length with the relevant health officers, as well as with either institutional counsel or other legal advisers. It’s a tough spot to be in, one you’re likely not trained for, and you’re going to lose sleep.
One way to make sure you make good decisions despite the stress is to plan now for various possibilities. Looking forward, conferences may still be taking place in an environment in which different regions and modes of travel have different risks. For that reason, if you’re helping organize a conference, you might want to build into your planning the possibility of a hybrid approach: allowing for some local, in-person presenters and attendees while also accommodating those who wish to present or participate remotely.
We were relatively lucky; our conference theme, which focused on the history of sustainability, meant that we had already planned for some panelists to participate remotely. We had also planned for those sessions, as well as the plenary events, to be simulcast online with a live chat function. We contracted for large projector screens as well as a PA system and microphones for in-person presenters and members of the audience. As a result, we were able to shift most conference goers who could not participate in person to our online program. But we also made some mistakes which we had to adjust to.
Here’s what we learned:
Exchange a printed program for an online program that you can update on the fly. To reduce waste, we opted not to print up copies of the conference program, housing them instead in a constantly updating Google document that we shared with attendees and linked to a QR code posted throughout the event. That meant we were able to adapt as panelists asked to become virtual presenters or withdrew, or when we had problems with equipment in specific rooms, moving presenters and even attendees on a daily basis. We also offered print-on-demand services for in-person conference goers who wanted an updated physical copy.
Work with A/V and web-streaming professionals. We had extensive support from the University of Southern California’s excellent IT staff, who helped select and actively managed the web software that made it possible. It was necessary to have at least three technicians on site at all times: one to handle the online broadcast and web-hosting software, another to adjust the various audio feeds (both in room for those online, and from the conference software), and a third to manage the projectors in the various rooms. This setup allowed us to shift, on short notice, attendees online who were not already scheduled as remote presenters.
Test the complete A/V setup and software in the venue at least a day before the event. We used Bluejeans as our event software, because it allowed us to embed a live video stream into the conference website for our online audience. We had extensive experience with that software at our institution. But during the first day of presentations, using the web stream, we discovered a 20-second delay that made Q&A between people in the in-person event space and online presenters extremely difficult. We ended up having to shift our configuration considerably for the second day to fix that problem.
Plan for backup software as well as any crucial A/V components. It would have been nice to have had Zoom, another teleconferencing platform, ready to go as a backup. We also were unable to use our primary audio mixer after the first day and were fortunate that our A/V team had a backup on site.
Ask virtual presenters to not only test their A/V setup in advance but also to log in at least 15 minutes early to retest it. We had sent out extensive software instructions in advance and arranged earlier software tests. But many problems only showed up on the day of the presentations, which we ironed out by having our technician troubleshoot with virtual presenters before their panel.
Give moderators extensive instructions, especially if coordinating in-person as well as online presenters. In addition to the usual guidance, moderators should make sure to explain the format of the panel at the beginning, as well as the form the Q&A will take. In our case, it was also helpful if moderators logged into the presentation software to tell the online audience that they could post questions to be incorporated into the Q&A.
The moderator also needs to make sure in-person questions are delivered using a microphone that connects to the online audience so that they can follow along. Finally, we found it helpful when questions were posed to multiple panelists for moderators to specify the sequence in which panelists might respond to the question, especially when it contained a mix of in-person and online presenters.
Recognize that online presentations are more sustainable than long-distance conference travel, but they may cost more to support. If you are holding the conference at a venue that requires renting or setting up A/V to support remote presenters, that may significantly increase costs if this equipment is not lent by and operated by institutional partners. In our case, it ended up costing a little more than $300 per teleconferencing panelist to provide the A/V equipment, despite our university donating significant A/V support.
Moreover, if the conference is held at a hotel, it will usually require you to guarantee a certain number of guests, charging you if you do not meet certain goals. That means that most hotel contracts incentivize conferences to encourage presenters and attendees to travel significant distances to participate. We are not yet sure how much the reduced attendance we saw will ultimately cost us; it depends on what accommodations will be offered by our conference hotel. But for this reason, future organizers may want to consider moving conferences out of traditional hotel spaces and into those controlled by university partners and other nonprofit institutions for whom large-scale shifts from in-person to online participation don’t create significant losses. Otherwise, you may need to charge online presenters more than you would those who participate in person.
Record streamed events so that you can post them later. Make sure you ask permission from presenters to do so, and consider including a comment function that allows the conversation online to continue after the event and from locations not aligned with your time zone.
Finally, make sure to circulate recommended hashtags, encourage presenters and attendees to share ongoing discussions widely, and broadcast news of the event as much as possible. Moderators and presenters can then use hashtag searches to feed presenters additional questions that surface in social media and extend the conversation. At one point, there was enough traffic on Twitter, for example, that we were the top trending topic in Los Angeles.
Looking forward, conferences will continue to experiment with online formats, both to help them respond to events like the coronavirus and to make them more sustainable. (We will soon post video from our plenary roundtable, featuring a panel of sustainability experts, that underlined the social and environmental cost of forcing travel to conferences.) We hope our experience helps others as they think about how academic meetings will adapt to our uncertain future.