Earlier this week the Conference and Events Team was awarded the ‘Lockdown Heroes’ Award from the Association of British Professional Conference Organisers (ABPCO) for our ‘extraordinary and creative work throughout the COVID pandemicWhat an achievement! Prompted by this recognition from colleagues in the events industry and as 2020 draws to a close, I thought I would take the opportunity to look back and reflect on our journey this year. 

I think it is fair to say it has been a roller coaster for most people and my team was no different. In April 2020 we made the difficult decision to postpone our annual conference which was due to be held in November 2020 in BelfastIn hindsight, I am glad we did so promptly, as often these decisions can drag on in the hope that something will change and allow us to go back to plan A. To be quite frank, we did not have a plan B (yet) back then, why would we? After all, we had never experienced a pandemic before and our risk assessments around events had generally included things like ‘keynote speaker no show’, ‘demonstration outside conference venue’, ‘transport chaos’ and ‘terror attack’. It was clear to us there was a need to carry on and whilst we gathered our thoughts, we surveyed the community to make sure we were all on the same page, and that’s when we formed plan B. 

As the programme for the November conference was pretty much finalised, we decided to tweak it and deliver it over a period of circa 5 months, hosting up to two 1 hour live sessions a week and a 2-day virtual event to showcase research abstracts in early November, coinciding with the original Conference days. We included a number of topical sessions on the impact of Covid-19 on cancer research and care, to make sure the content remained actual. Overall the sessions attracted over 9,000 participants in total (versus 1,200 last year at the face-to-face event) and allowed us to engage with many new and returning audiences. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive (thank you!) and we were blown away by the kind words and thank you messages received by many including committee members, Trustees, delegates, speakers and many others.  

One of the many things we learnt in the process was to keep it simple. Early on whilst working on plans and technology, we came across some very whizzy tools that allowed to do pretty much anything you wanted and replicate a face-to-face event in a virtual format. Well, let me break it to you – I don’t think virtual events are comparable to face-to-face events (in many ways they are better, but in other ways I don’t think they quite compare!) so to me, the idea of trying to replace like for like was quite frankly nonsense.  

We took a fairly rigorous approach and picked out what was essential and what wasn’t, what we thought the virtual medium was good for and what it wasn’t, and created exactly what we said on the tin: the opportunity to share knowledge, foster collaboration, inspire and catalyse new ideas, and raise awareness of the NCRI Partnership and what we do. 

So whilst I am very pleased with what we have achieved, I think there is much more to learn and many more challenges to face: will we ever go back to what now seems ‘old school’ facetoface events? I think not. I think the future is hybrid with all the opportunities and challenges this will bring. Delegates’ behaviour is changing and so are their expectations. 

It’s hard to have serendipity meetings in a virtual setting and ‘organised fun’ doesn’t work for everyone. Networking is still key in all sectors, but so important in the scientific world when often the best ideas are generated during downtimes in front of a beer in the hotel lobby or a cup of coffee in the exhibition hall. 

As a charity, we need to be able to find a sustainable business model with this new medium – as whilst virtual is less costly than face-to-face, delegates often feel it should be free/cheaper, but of course, this is not a feasible option for us in the long term.  

So many things to think about and still so much uncertainty, despite the positive vaccine news this week! 

What else can I say? Bring on 2021, with all its challenges and learning opportunities! Onwards and upwards! 

Have a restful Christmas everyone and see you in 2021,