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Pivot to Virtual: How medical congress ISUOG 2020 moved 3,000 delegates online

Wendy Holloway, director of operations of the International Society of Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynecology (ISUOG), moved a congress for 3,000 delegates online in October. Here she reveals her biggest learnings.

What was your original plan for the congress this year?

The International Society of Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynecology’s annual congress takes place across four days with a pre-congress course day and attracts between 2,500 to 3,000 delegates, depending on the location of the host city. In October 2020, our event was heading for Glasgow when the global pandemic brought plans to a halt.

How did you adapt?

We went virtual like so many other associations. ISUOG's mission is to educate to improve ultrasound care for women and the fetus so we decided to take it 100% online. We were very clear in our minds that our in-person congress was cancelled, and we were developing this year’s congress online. This distinction was important for us as we needed to impact the mindset of many to make sure they didn’t think we were ‘taking our physical congress online’. We needed this congress to appeal to our audience in the right way and the only way to do this was to reimagine everything. We shortened the event to three days. We had multiple streams and modified the program structure.

What were your biggest concerns?

We questioned; would we be successful? Would we attract the same audience figures? Would our engagement be good enough during the event? There were financial concerns, of course, but this was not what drove us, far from it actually. We wanted to offer translation – we tried, it was difficult and didn’t work in the way we wanted it to.

What were the biggest challenges in pivoting to online?

The program structure was a big departure from our normal one and so working effectively and collaboratively with our scientific committee was challenging. And not because they were set on the old ways of doing things, but they saw the opportunities and became very creative. We had to control creativity with reality and what we could deliver in a short space of time. A smaller challenge was thinking about our usual promotion strategies. We had to throw the ‘old’ template ways out the window and think fully digitally. Both of these challenges created a lot of work but for the right reasons.

What surprised you about going virtual?

So many things. How insanely hard my team had to work and did work so willingly to make this a success. It brought us closer as a team. The extraordinary feedback we received after the event made it all so worthwhile.

How did you adapt the sponsorship and monetization model of the event?

We reimagined the exhibition and sponsorship. We gave it new names and did away with the ‘platinum, gold and silver’ status. We talked to our sponsors about what provided value and we found ‘live’ opportunities for them. While we knew that other associations were offering content for free, we all felt strongly that we should charge. Our education content for our specialty is excellent quality and highly respected and there was a significant cost to organize the event too, so we all agreed the fees needed to stay in place, but heavily discounted from the in-person fees.

What were your biggest lessons learned?

Assume nothing. Do not underestimate the resources you need to organize a virtual event. Just because it is online doesn’t mean it uses less resources. Do not underspend on AV support – this is even more critical in a virtual environment. Think carefully about how you communicate and help your faculty enjoy the experience. Try to ensure they avoid online meeting burnout by doing everything you can to make their experience at your event an excellent one. More resources are needed for this. We also learned that people like this ‘virtual thing’ and want to see it incorporated more, although many were clear they missed the in-person opportunities and didn’t want virtual to be the only thing we offered in the future.

What were the event’s big successes?

We attracted 3,000 delegates and have never had so much overwhelming and positive feedback after an event. ISUOG has been delivering ‘hybrid’ education for some time. We have been live streaming our in-person education courses for many years, which will continue. Going 100% virtual was new for us, but not the online education side of things. We will continue to deliver virtually until it is safe to go back to in-person. The bigger conversation is really around hybrid and what does that mean to ISUOG going forward. We have had many internal conversations about it, although I am not ready to share our thoughts on this yet. Watch this space!


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