2020 saw the migration of in-person events to virtual. Although this was a difficult decision for many organisers, online events do present organisers with the opportunity to reach their audience in new and innovative ways.
As a follow up to his first blog, we caught up with Luke Gibson, Founding Director of Open Pharma Research, about his experience moving Lab of the Future online in April 2021.
We debated going virtual for quite a long time, whilst many events organisers around us made the jump quite quickly. We looked at a lot of different platforms but had some doubts, as we are very sensitive about putting out a poor quality product and we know that you can’t just mimic online what you offer in person.
So, we decided to dip our toe in the water with our range of Digital Dialogues, which are essentially a variety of debates and discussions which keep us talking with our community. Following the success of these, we took the plunge and went ahead with our virtual conference in April 2021. It went really well, and not only did we learn a lot from the event, but we managed to reach a lot of people as well – we had 1,500 registrants, and at any one time we had over 550 people online in at the same time.
It definitely appeals to us to explore this approach further. We were growing anyway, and every time we hosted a new Digital Dialogue we were reaching new people, so there are definitely positives to moving online – you get a wider audience, it’s more accessible for a lot of people, and it does really allow you to go global.
On the flip side, the interactivity isn’t the same as with an in-person event. Physical events gather a lot of momentum each year they take place, and we had exciting growth expectations, which do tend to flatline when you pause physical activity. Stimulating the activity of people online takes a lot more management as well, but there are definitely elements we can take forward. On the whole though, I think people are looking forward to a return to physical events.
In terms of technology, the conference industry has actually had the opportunity to go virtual for around 20 years now. Although we’ve known that everything can be delivered online, we’ve continued with physical events, and it’s because they give you that human interactivity which can’t be mirrored online. The same sentiment can be applied to concerts – it’s just not the same streaming a live show as it is being in the crowd, and there is also a higher level of technology risk, such as those experienced in the recent Glastonbury event where users weren’t able to log in.
Virtual events don’t allow you to break down barriers the way that comes naturally in a physical environment, such as just chatting with someone in the coffee queue. Because you have that shared experience of being at the same event, you already have that common ground that opens up communication. A lot of people attend conferences due to the networking aspect, which can only occur when you’re surrounded by like-minded people.
So I think the value of physical conferences has been reinforced by their absence. However, our Digital Dialogues have been wonderful and relatively easy to do, so we’ve gained from this experience and will definitely look to continue those in the future. The debate we face now is what would hybrid events look like? There is a lot to consider; the main thing is that, rather than compromising and delivering an event that is part virtual and part physical, you need to offer a virtual component in addition to a full physical event. For example, you want to be able to host an event that is open to people who may not necessarily be able to travel or attend in person, so that would be an addition to the event. What you don’t want is people deciding to host talks and keynotes from the comfort of their own office because it is easier than making the trip, losing the network opportunity. Physical events would be the goal, with virtual access as an added opportunity.
The speed at which vaccines were brought to market to target COVID-19 has been an incredible win over the last 12 months. It has allowed us to break down the assumption of “we have to do things this way because that’s how we’ve always done it.” If we use the COVID-19 vaccine development as a case study, we can apply this attitude to other areas within life science. What else can we do in half the time? How can we unlock innovation?
This goes further still in showing us that scientists are able to work in different environments too. I think a lot of scientists have been surprised by what they’ve managed to achieve even when they’ve not been able to go to the lab. When people have an appetite to see the job through, and are trusted to deliver on their objectives, its remarkable to see how they can adapt and push through. It creates a whole other mindset, which feeds into notions of what the Lab of the Future looks like.
Realistically, we’ve always been focused on the innovation and the people. We’ve looked at the data and the technology, but it’s the people that make everything happen. This whole experience of 2020 and 2021 so far has been a disruption, and any disruption that makes you stop and think differently about how people work is part of Lab of the Future.
Going forward, we would prefer to hold fire as opposed to putting something out that’s only halfway there. So, we’ve decided that we’ll be hosting virtual again in the Autumn, on 26th & 27th October 2021, and return to physical events in Boston, MA in Spring 2022 on 22nd & 23rd March, and Amsterdam, Europe on 3rd & 4th October 2022.
One thing we did note was that the energy of the keynote speakers was truly remarkable. We felt it was important to host our talks live, so our presenters were collaborating on developing their presentations, so they got a lot out of it, and that was really reflected in the enthusiasm of their messages. Working together provided energy, which really came across, and having these events live and interactive definitely added to the buzz of these talks.
Another key take-away was the role played by attendance analysis. Although it is useful being able to monitor activity through analytics, it has a potential flip side. We had to really blend our conversations with any product discussion to ensure that it wasn’t a case of people ‘skipping the ads’ in a sense and only tuning into case studies. We blended discussions on the variety of solutions with operational content from life science practitioners to make it one conversation, so this wasn’t an issue.
I think a lot of events organisers may have some trepidation around the use of data, as it can give you perhaps more information than you want to know. But a bonus on that point for us is that you gain a real insight into customer profiles, which in turn makes it easier to communicate and highlight relevant areas. We’ve definitely learnt from our experience of hosting the event virtually, and I think we’ve proven to ourselves that it is possible to deliver a great product, at times different to our expectation and our business plan! We’ve found a new way of working, and even with 30 years of experience each, we’ve challenged our past learnings and we’re now looking at how this could shape our future – which is exactly what Lab of the Future sets out to achieve.
Scimcon is proud to sponsor Lab of the Future, and we can’t wait to see you at the Autumn virtual congress on 26-27th October 2021. Contact us today to learn more about our participation in the event, and visit part 1 of our conversation with Luke to learn more about Lab of the Future.