Will COVID-19’s hybrid meeting legacy last?

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Year three of the COVID-19 pandemic and yet much now feels unrestricted and ‘back to normal’. This can certainly be said of meetings—at least in Europe and the USA—which, throughout 2020 and some of 2021, took place online, but have returned to in-person in recent months. However, transatlantic, intra-European and American travel, though possible and permitted, has not been plain sailing (flying?), even this year. Therefore, many societies, within interventional radiology (IR) or otherwise, for 2021/2022, have opted for a hybrid setup, where delegates have had the choice of accessing sessions, or to travel to the physical venue. Several society spokespeople relay to Interventional News their plans for the hybrid and in-person evolution of some of the IR calendar’s main meetings, based on how those from the last couple of years have panned out.

Parag J Patel (Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, USA), president of the Society of Interventional Radiology (SIR), provides the perspective of a society that has, deliberately, not offered hybrid attendance options. The reason being, he explains, that “this allows us to provide a consistent experience to all who participate, ensuring valuable learning, interactions with speakers, and connection to the materials.” So, this year’s Society of Interventional Radiology annual meeting (SIR; 11–15 June, Boston, USA) was in-person only, and 2021’s exclusively online, after the 2020 meeting, scheduled for late March, was cancelled. However, Patel notes, the SIR 2022 plenary sessions were available via livestream, and saw 230 viewers tune in.

This reflects where the society stands on the question of a hybrid future for meetings right now, and Patel details how the hybrid model has, by no means, been discounted by SIR, which is “exploring the possibility of deploying hybrid models at future meetings to allow more IRs to participate in the way in which they prefer to or are able to attend. We know that travel and time off can be a challenge, and hybrid models enable accessibility from an attendance standpoint.”

In contrast, the European Society of Radiology (ESR)’s director of communications David Zizka tells Interventional News, that his society has taken a hybrid approach to its annual meeting, the European Congress of Radiology (ECR) since 2013 when it started streaming educational content. “Our participants are used to having the option to attend the event either onsite or online, but in many cases, they choose to attend in both ways,” Zizka notes, qualifying this statement with the following: “What we have learned this year is that there is no strict distinction between an onsite or online visitor anymore, as many of our participants visit us in Vienna, but not for the entire five days, and then continue their ECR experience online.”

Concerns for superiority of in-person experience not universal

Patel expresses concerns that moving away from in-person only, may not be solely positive for the SIR meeting—as the rationale for not offering SIR 2022 in a hybrid format suggests. “We want to ensure that what we deliver does not create silos in the audience based on the format through which the attendee chose to participate. There is a risk with a hybrid approach that one group receives a lesser experience because they are not in the audience,” Patel acknowledges, before highlighting what underpins this reservation. “We do not just want to broadcast content to a passive audience. We want to actively engage our audience in discussion and learning, whether in-person or online.”

Zizka appears not to share such concerns, stating that “we are stepping away from differentiating participants according to [whether they are online or onsite attendees], as ECR is not a single event anymore but a year-long one with a variety of ways of participating.” He expands upon this assertion, pointing to the fact that “watching sessions on-demand during the actual congress period and especially afterwards for the rest of the year has become very popular amongst our participants.”

Adding his voice to the discussion, the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) associate executive director for meetings services and corporate relations John Jaworski, whose opinion comes from the position of having 40% of RSNA attendees come from outside of North America, is therefore aware of the constraints that prevent people from travelling to the physical event space. Luckily, he acknowledges that “RSNA is fortunate to have a great team able to support both [the in-person and virtual] events,” which enables the society to fulfil the important objective of “[reaching] a greater number of healthcare professionals across the globe and providing them with important educational content to assist in patient care.”

Shared observations of post-pandemic attendance upswing

Patel underlines that all societies are having to consider how to keep optimal engagement from attendees the foremost priority. Interestingly, Zizka underlines that there was already “a regressive trend in onsite meeting attendance before COVID-19”, but that a reduction in appetite for attending in person may have been “accelerated” by the pandemic. In the eyes of the ESR spokesperson, “onsite attendance must be a special experience for the participant [if the meeting has a remote attendance option], something that adds unique benefit in comparison to online-only participation,” justifying this with the point that offering hybrid meetings means “you will see a decrease in onsite participation.”

But, right now, in the immediate aftermath of lockdowns, Patel recounts witnessing “a chorus of excitement and eagerness to be completely in-person,” at SIR 2022. “Screen fatigue is real,” Patel adds, attributing the “[palpable] desire to continue to meet in person” to this fact. Jaworski has observed the same enthusiasm for the in-person RSNA annual meeting: “Currently, our in-person registration is up 54% from this time last year, while our virtual meeting is on a par with 2021,” he relays to Interventional News. This follows an RSNA 2021 meeting for which attendance was “in line with our expectations”—30,000 attendees, of whom 6,000 attended virtually.

ECR received similarly positive feedback about their 2022 meeting, including from those who made last-minute decisions to attend remotely instead of in Vienna, and vice versa. “A big benefit of our registrations system is that every ECR ticket allows for full onsite and online access,” Zizka emphasises, “so participants can make that decision at any time without any bureaucratic efforts.”

Priorities for a bright future of IR meetings

Quizzed on how SIR plans on fulfilling the aforementioned goal of maintaining high levels of engagement, Patel refers to the possibility that SIR 2023 will livestream “at least some in-person sessions and in ways to ensure that any online audiences are actively engaged in the lessons happening on site in Phoenix.” After the fact, an on-demand library will enable attendees to revisit sessions, or view those they missed, Patel adds, stating that this “will also be available for purchase after the meeting for those who could not attend in person.”

The priority for the RSNA meeting logistics-wise, Jaworski brings to Interventional News’ attention, is to “better connect the virtual attendee to the in-person meeting.” For him this means “[looking] at almost every session like a TV studio and [considering] what the virtual attendee will be seeing and hearing.” One example of a simple but pivotal consideration in this regard is checking that in-room microphones are switched off during breaks “so personal conversations are not broadcast virtually”. Jaworksi adds that the RSNA is also “working on a way to better connect the virtual attendee with the speaker during session question and answer sessions, which will require some re-training of session moderators.” Finally, he alludes to the longer-term goal of RSNA “[improving] virtual networking between attendees and engagement opportunities with virtual exhibitors.”

Patel appears optimistic about the future of SIR meetings, in whatever variation on a hybrid form they may take, based on the 4,000-strong attendance at the 2022 meeting. Even if in-person attendance is set to decrease, as Zizka predicts, he believes that the strategies the ESR is adopting will mitigate this, at least in part, with “state-of-the-art online participation possibilities that live up to the latest technical trends, and [by reinventing] our event every year [to make it] a unique experience […] that people are always drawn to take part in onsite.” Jaworksi sees the meetings trend going the way of fewer attendees overall “in the short-term”, before increased comfort with travel leads to an uptick in attendance once more. “Nothing is better than face-to-face meetings for connecting with colleagues and developing relationships,” he professes, suggesting too that “competition from virtual meetings will lead to better in-person meetings […] with experience and engagement opportunities for attendees, such as interactive and hand-on experiences.”


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