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Pharma Industry Conferences Have Gone Online – Will They Stay There?

Posted on December 3rd, 2020 by in Pharma R&D

Back in 2014, writer Nick de Cent posed the question Is it time for the conference to go virtual? He interviewed digital healthcare consultant Len Starnes, who argued that bringing pharma and healthcare conferences online could be beneficial in many ways, most notably in expanding participation. Six years later, and COVID-19 forced the issue, prompting many conferences to go fully virtual.

Going to conferences, 2020-style

In the first couple months of 2020, as the severity of the novel coronavirus outbreak was becoming fully understood, conference organizers started having to make tough decisions. Some decided to go online, and others postponed. As the year progressed, and people all over the globe quickly became more well-versed in videoconferencing and other remote communication tools, conferences were also better able to work out the kinks and offer a more satisfying experience to attendees.

Chat functions have made it possible for those watching a compelling presentation on the development of a new cancer therapeutic, for instance, to interact with each other as they watch—and organizers can invite people to ask questions of the presenters via audio or on camera if they like. Videoconferencing software makes it easy to host panel talks, and virtual “break-out rooms” give attendees a chance to engage in more intimate conversations about the topic amongst themselves during a session.

Conference exhibitions are also still in play in the virtual world. Companies can rent a virtual booth to showcase their products, services or research, though it is now up to them to create an informative online presentation that is engaging enough to hold people’s attention. And, unlike a normal conference booth, which may only give you a few days to interact with potential customers, the virtual booth could possibly be accessible on the conference website for much longer.

A popular conference becomes virtual

The meetings of the American Chemical Society (ACS) are always enormously popular with chemists across industries, and they didn’t let the pandemic stop them from carrying on this year. The ACS Fall Meeting & Expo went completely virtual, boasting dozens of simultaneous broadcast sessions that had integrated messaging and chat features for conversations with presenters, prerecorded presentations available on-demand with dialogue portals for viewers to contact presenters, networking opportunities, and posters and presentations made accessible for over a week after the conference concluded. Several of Elsevier’s own experts presented on their research at the meeting, discussing chemistry databases, cheminformatics, research workflows, AI and more.

It has already been announced that the ACS Spring 2021 meeting will be all-virtual as well, due to the worsening of COVID-19 infection rates as the winter progresses. Though they are not having an exposition for this meeting, they are currently planning more than 100 live technical sessions.

Saving on costs and hassles

Some in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry have welcomed the change to virtual conferences. As Starnes knew, this development was inevitable anyway, especially as younger generations have grown accustomed to being able to do just about anything via internet. Being able to attend a conference online instantly eliminates many practical concerns, from travel scheduling to the cost of hotels. With fewer costs to worry about, a company can also afford to “send” more employees to a wider variety of conferences.

The downs and ups of virtual conferencing

However, virtual conferences do have downsides. After having been to a few this year, Pedro Eitz Ferrer and Grace Carroll of TBWA\WorldHealth wrote on PharmaLive about some of the disadvantages, such as the possibility of more distractions at home (“It is much easier to unload the dishwasher during a conference today than it has ever been”) and a decrease in the likelihood that attendees will end up checking out sessions outside their area of expertise. Perhaps one of the biggest consequences is that attendees miss out on the ability to run into peers and have the kinds of lively and challenging discussions that typically only happen in person.

On the other hand, they do point out positives like the ability to attend more sessions and the expansion of opportunities for more people to participate. In this interview with health journalist Katie Osborne, Jessica Federer (Former Chief Digital Officer at Bayer) also noted that, in particular, more women and caregivers – groups who are sometimes sidelined from these events due to their responsibilities at home – are able to participate in virtual conferences.

Keeping the best of both worlds

All of this tells us that, when the pandemic ultimately subsides, the answer won’t be to return back to business as usual with conferences – nor will it be to stay virtual. The hybrid model can help realize the best of both worlds, increasing access for more people, while also providing the option of the “human touch” experience. Companies can prioritize then which conferences they think are most important, while still maintaining a presence at others.

While many in the pharma industry are surely eager to once again be able to chat and argue with esteemed colleagues in person, the pandemic has likely ensured that the virtual aspect of conferences is here to stay.

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