On April 2, 2020, BIO, the world’s largest biotechnology organization, decided they had to take their International Convention virtual, and on June 8, 2020 they pulled it off.
How did they do it?
What did they learn?
We were very excited to have the opportunity to meet with one of the leaders behind BIO’s International Convention – Director, Event Operations, Security, Registration, and Customer Service, Edward Shipley. Mr. Shipley has been with BIO for over thirteen years participating in the planning of all BIO’s meetings – national and international. During that time, he has faced many challenges including organizing facilities to host up to 50,000 meetings over four days and deescalating the tensions of volatile attendees. Upon reflection, successfully assisting in the execution of BIO Digital 2020 may have been his biggest challenge to date. He detailed for us his processes, priorities, and takeaways moving their complicated in-person event virtual in such a short period of time.
12 Years to 8 Weeks
The planning for BIO starts long before the event. BIO has secured contracts with specific convention and business bureaus for space through 2032. This year’s convention was scheduled to take place in San Diego, June 8-11, 2020. In mid-February, Mr. Shipley realized that this year’s annual in-person meeting was in jeopardy when he received requests for registration refunds for their March 9th BIO Asia event in Tokyo. That event was eventually cancelled, and on March 2nd, a San Diego Visitors and Convention Bureau representative contacted BIO and told them that due to federal mandates issued in response to the COVID outbreak, they were cancelling all events until June 1st. By March 16th, the BIO offices closed, and all employees were ordered to work from home. Starting with registrations, the BIO Event Operations Team (EOD) began the task of canceling over 45 existing contracts (hotels, A/V, transportation, etc.). The decision to take the once massive on-site scientific business development meeting virtual was finalized and publicly announced on April 2nd.
BIO Virtual Was Born
As the EOD team was cancelling contracts, the Education team was busy looking at platforms to host their programs virtually. Although their annual meeting typically included a large exhibition hall, due to a lack of time to strategically optimize exhibitors’ experiences virtually, they decided to focus only on the conference and business meetings’ side of the event. Ultimately, they decided on HUBB as their platform vendor.
They planned for and hosted over 90 sessions with 7,000 participants and scheduled 28,000 partnering meetings in over 28 different time zones. They set up a Microsoft Team’s chat channel that was linked into HUBB and monitored by multiple staff members. They used pre-recorded presentations but didn’t open them up or launch them until a specific time. They had the text communication box open and many of the speakers were online live while the video was playing to interact with attendees and answer questions. Similar to how DVR works to record live programs, attendees were also able to rewind a presentation but not jump ahead. BIO also enabled HUBB’s chat function for interaction between attendees but had the chat moderated by staff to ensure sure no one was making inappropriate comments (which no one did).
After the conclusion of the event, paid attendees were allowed full access to view all the event’s content for up to one-month after the end date (through July 11th). Because many attendees could not join the live sessions, enabling the content after the event meant they could view what they may have missed.
Because of the tight planning timeframe, BIO planners were unable to devote as much time as they would have liked to ensure more robust sponsorship opportunities. They credited the companies who purchased exhibit space for the in-person event for space in 2021 or allowed them to come as attendees. They were able to offer sponsors spots that ran before the videos/sessions similar to YouTube advertisements. HUBB offered functionality whereby attendees could not fast forward through the “ads.” Ultimately, as event planners, Mr. Shipley said, “You want to give sponsors the very best value that you can.”
Best Practice Takeaways
They knew that they were going to have at least two speakers who would be large draws (BIO’s new President, Michelle McMurry-Heath, MD, PhD and NIAID Director, Anthony S. Fauci, M.D.) and wanted to make sure that their systems didn’t crash by having everyone log in at the same time. BIO did its best to prepare prior to the event to ensure there were no “crashes” as well as other possible “hiccups.”
The following gives some tips and takeaways BIO learned hosting BIO Virtual:
- Price Accordingly
- The registration cost of attending a virtual event should not necessarily be the same as the in-person one. The perceived “value” by attendees is not the same for a virtual event as in-person events tend to be “valued” higher for attendees than virtual events. In-person events require people to physically attend and make travel arrangements, while virtual events typically only require attendees to have (at a minimum) an internet connection and laptop or mobile device. The difference in the amount of effort required of the attendee to participate is a large factor of an attendee’s perceived “value” of the event.
- While you need to make sure you cover all your event costs (staff, technology, etc.), know that your margins may not be as high as they were hosting your in-person event. According to Mr. Shipley, for larger scale events and meetings, “The cap in individual registration pricing appears to be around $1,000.”
- Reach Out to Your Attendees Early and Often
- BIO’s Marketing team was tenacious in reaching out to all registrants two weeks before the event with a variety of short messages. They sent emails saying, “Here’s your login… Here’s your access…Here are some company presentations…” etc. They also cross promoted their suggestions via social media.
- Encourage Attendees to Login Early
- As we mentioned earlier, BIO knew that they were going to have some large draws and wanted to make sure that their systems didn’t crash by having everyone log in at the same time. They opened access and encouraged people to log in early to trouble shoot before the sessions started. That said, be prepared because the overwhelming majority of people will still try to log in minutes before your sessions/events are scheduled to begin.
- Schedule Breaks between Sessions
- Make sure that you give 60-90-minute breaks in between sessions. People can’t/won’t sit in front of their computers for more than one hour at a time.
- Encourage Attendees to Check Their Browsers BEFORE the Event
- After the event, BIO analyzed their data and found that the people having the most technical issues were the ones who used the wrong browser, or they hadn’t updated their browser and the older version couldn’t support the virtual platform.
- Encourage Attendees Employed by the Government to Check Permissions BEFORE the Event
- Employees of agencies, such as NIH, could not log in, and it was because they needed the government’s IT gatekeepers to open up the event IP address.
Hybrid Meetings and Looking Ahead
For BIO’s much smaller fall meeting, they are working on extending the services they provided in June and adding “hallway chat” capabilities. This is where attendees would log in and a general chat opens unmoderated. Attendees can enter a “room” and have a virtual table where each table is for set up for a different topic, and people can “sit down” to talk to each other about that topic.
Looking into 2021, BIO is considering multiple options. In our discussion with Mr. Shipley, he was asked about the possibility of hosting a hybrid event, whereby people could have the option of meeting in-person or virtually. Here are some of his thoughts:
- In-Person Dilemma
- For return to in-person, they are exploring the idea of creating lanyards with different colors designed to notify others what their contact comfort level is (i.e. Red = No Contact; Yellow = Fist bump; Green = Handshake, etc.). They would need to also allow for more space for less people because you can’t do theater style seating to accommodate COVID related social distancing. Also, when considering food, what do you do? Do you only offer everyone boxed lunches? How do you plan for housing sleeping rooms? There is so much to consider.
- Hybrid Headache
- Mr. Shipley said, “Hybrid requires more staff, more technology, better sound, etc. Virtual attendees will not be satisfied paying for a ‘Facebook Live’ quality broadcast.” Not only would they still need to contract the space, pay for food and beverage, set up housing contracts, etc. but they would also need to pay for the technology to host the virtual portion. They would need to have the capability to broadcast live (it would be difficult to offer much prerecorded content for those who paid to travel), and they would need backup systems in case their primary system fails. They would also need to pay for staff time, travel, housing, etc. and have additional staff available virtually to monitor chats and technology.
With so much still uncertain in this country and abroad, no final decisions have been made as to when to go back to in-person meetings. As of the end of July 2020, BIO’s hope is to return to face-to-face meetings as soon as it is safely possible.
If you need help strategizing, combining your business goals with your meeting goals, and/or figuring out what platform(s) will work best for your next event, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We can help you build a better future today.