Submitted by Heather L. Brown, McGoogan Library of Medicine, University of Nebraska Medical Center–Omaha, and Gwen S. Wilson, AHIP, Department of Family & Community Medicine, University of Missouri–Columbia
With the emergence of COVID-19, many conferences have been cancelled or postponed. Some organizations are investigating a virtual alternative. The Midcontinental Chapter of MLA (MCMLA) conducted virtual annual meetings in 2015 and 2018 and will again do so this October. With each virtual meeting, we have refined planning and continue to learn from our experiences.
If a virtual meeting becomes a part of your chapter’s meeting rotation, convening the planning committee convenes a year and a half before the estimated meeting date is recommended. If your chapter is thinking about moving your upcoming annual meeting to a virtual one, yes, it can be accomplished in a shorter time period.
Much of your planned content is ready to go. You have keynote speakers and traditional update sessions set, the call for papers and posters has gone out or will soon go out, and your continuing education (CE) courses are lined up. With some modifications, these plans can continue. For instance, poster presentations can be morphed into lightning talks. Vendors can be invited to make short presentations or provide visual content to be used during a breaktime slideshow. CE can be tricky because the virtual environment is not as suited to interactive elements that happen in a face-to-face environment.
Choosing an online platform, such as Zoom or GoToMeeting, could be the one area that will take up much of your planning time and cost. If your chapter already licenses a platform, upgrading to a different level may provide you with useful features to better facilitate the meeting. Considerations in choosing a platform include compatibility with attendees’ networks and firewalls, the number of seats required, and features such as polling or recording. Estimating seat counts should include presenters who are not official registrants and an extra seat for group registrants so that presenters can retreat to a separate, quieter room, away from the group, when giving their presentations.
A challenge is that most platforms require subscriptions, not just one-time purchases. If a chapter plans to utilize an online platform for monthly meetings or additional webinars throughout the year and is considering having future virtual annual meetings, it might be in the chapter’s best interest to evaluate the cost benefit of having a yearly subscription to an online platform.
Registration prices are driven by the cost of the meeting, and the main cost of an online meeting is the platform. There are two main types of registrations in a virtual meeting: group and individual. Each type should be well defined. Group registration is for a single physical location, not a sponsoring institution with distributed staff, and an individual registration is for one person. Tiered group registration costs—such as two to five attendees, six to ten attendees, and more than eleven—are recommended.
While in-person meetings are events spanning eight hours or more per day, consideration should be made for the fact that attendees will be sitting in one spot and not have the opportunity to circulate around the meeting space. Our past experience has shown that individual attendees had difficulty protecting the annual meeting times in their work schedules. Attending from one’s office or library makes one available for one’s regular duties, leading to interruptions. Additionally, requesting paid time away from the library for a virtual meeting could be an issue at some institutions.
Our virtual meetings have been held on two consecutive half days in the afternoons, with the day’s schedule limited to four hours. Past virtual meetings experimented with scheduling CE: the first time, CE was held as the last session of the last day, and in the second experience, a third day was added with a one-hour CE session.
Breaks are very important for virtual meetings. Our past schedules provided two to three ten-to-fifteen-minute breaks each day. Breaks are a good time for slideshows recognizing sponsors and new chapter members.
One big lesson we learned is to balance the types of sessions across both days. In our first virtual meeting, papers, lightning talks, and keynote presentations occurred on the first day, with the business meeting and update sessions occurring on the second. Scheduling keynote and member presentations across two days provides more variety and a reason to attend both days.
A vital part of organizing a virtual meeting is to try to think of problems before they occur. From our experience, we have learned to:
- Hold practice sessions before the meeting to help mitigate technical problems for both presenters and attendees. This practice session should be conducted on the computer and in the location that will be used for the actual meeting.
- Create a tip sheet of technical issues and solutions for attendees. The chosen platform may already have these tips and may have technical support available. Keep in mind that live technical support specific to the meeting might have a cost associated with it.
- Two simultaneous moderators are suggested for the duration of the meeting. One to introduce sessions and speakers, as well as facilitate slide sharing, and one to monitor the chat box for questions.
- Moderators and presenters should allow extra time for questions if the chat box is used.
- Attendees should be made aware that their unique login information will be in separate emails and may come from the online platform itself. This information should also be placed on the meeting website. Additionally, clear instructions on any special downloads or settings should be included.
Will there be a business meeting that requires members to vote? If so, it is important to know that utilizing the polling system in an online platform is not efficient for official voting. With one login made available to groups, group attendees will only have one vote. External polling systems, such as Poll Everywhere or Swift Polling, allow members to cast votes via their computers or mobile devices. Attendees should be informed of this set up before the meeting. If your chapter bylaws allow non-registered members to participate in the business meeting at no cost, including a business meeting-only registration option on your forms will provide you with a list of these attendees, who can then be sent login information an hour before the business meeting or other designated times.
Lastly, an important part of annual meetings is networking, so brainstorm ideas such as round tables, networking breaks in different virtual rooms, or encouragement of social media interactions. Some past MCMLA attendees have even had a dine around at the end of the meeting day. It will not be the same as in-person meetings, but fun, bonding, and sharing can happen virtually.
Moving your annual meeting to the virtual environment may seem daunting at first, but it can be accomplished by keeping things simple and understanding that it is experimental. Quality meetings can occur online and provide attendees with a rich experience. Please feel free to reach out to the authors with further questions.