Like many trade shows, conferences and other events this year, the American Society of Gene & Cell Therapy (ASGCT) had to quickly make alternative arrangements for its annual meeting due to COVID-19. To avoid cancelling this highly anticipated event, organizers opted for a virtual conference for speakers, exhibitors and attendees.
Under severe time pressure, event organizers implemented a customized virtual platform, working to balance stakeholder expectations for the event with a new online experience. There was a steep learning curve for everyone involved, from vendors and speakers, to exhibitors and attendees.
We participated as both an exhibitor and with attendees and, overall, things went well. Our team was equally as worn out from this virtual conference as we would be from a “standard” one. We have, our team reviewed how everything came together and compiled some key takeaways to help provide a roadmap in preparing for future virtual events.
- Expect the Unexpected
Emerging platforms don’t promise a mature technology. Companies like Apple, Microsoft and Facebook spend years testing and refining software, working out technical kinks and measuring what end users want (and need). For ASGCT, it was a period of a few weeks from the initial structures being built to the actual conference. It was a challenge to anticipate what features of the platform would be needed and how to use them appropriately.
For instance, there was a large lineup of speakers scheduled, from many different sectors of the industry. With this nearly constant stream of content in the speaking sessions, it was difficult for exhibitors to stand out, leaving the in-booth chat function rarely used, which is a staple of virtual networking. The takeaway here is, be ready to pivot, try something different, gain attention and create opportunities from the unknown.
- Success is Learning and Adapting
Every day was different. Even the builders of the platform had to make adjustments on the fly, which also led to a flexible planning approach that had to anticipate changes and potential changes. All participants spent quite a bit of time expanding technical troubleshooting and problem-solving skills, while collaborating with multiple parties to balance business interests with technical limitations. In many cases, it was similar to the just-in-time concept of manufacturing, translating user guides and general concepts into operating a working system to provide an efficient outreach approach. Tackling this learning curve provided a valuable training experience, in a compressed time period, whether or not the end result is what was expected. Overall, the experience shows how to stay ahead of others in understanding how these situations work and what it takes to be successful.
- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (Content)
When you have great content, why reinvent the wheel if the goal remains the same? With a physical booth that occupies a 20’x20’ floorspace, you work in three dimensions with printed marketing materials, video monitors, branded giveaways, business cards, couches and tabletop arrangements, all designed to provide booth visitors with a positive experience interacting with your brand.
Now, remove that space and restrict your real estate to one computer screen. There are a lot of moving parts to a virtual experience, and each one has to be properly linked to all the others so visitors can engage with you and get what they need quickly and easily, even in ways you may not anticipate. You don’t have to use every feature of a virtual booth, but use those that make sense for your objectives. Begin by focusing on existing content that is most valuable to your target audience. Like origami, unfold it and refold it to a different shape that complements the environment your visitors will experience when entering your now virtual space (e.g. live or video presentations). Use the process of learning a platform’s capabilities and push it to the limits. Promotions and rich content will outperform items using the “copy and paste” method. Plus, the process of rethinking your content can be used elsewhere in the future. For example, using formerly one-and-done presentations as an educational tool.
- Virtual Booth Staffing is as Important as Staffing an In-Person Booth (But Totally Different)
Be prepared for the right conversation with the right person at the right time. Throughout this event the chat function was underused, however, segmenting potential leads from booth visitors and content views proved to be a valuable process once qualified experts from our team were involved. The process of scheduling online staff, so two to three were online at a time to monitor and engage booth visits and manage content, was worth the coordination. Our team members found it beneficial too, as someone with a better answer than their own was one chat away, plus having your references and materials in front of you at any moment was an option. Anyone who visited our booth always had direct or indirect access to someone who can speak to any of our platforms, products and services. In an in-person booth, there are only so many seats or places to stand, whereas the traffic to a virtual booth allows for interaction with multiple conversations at once, making for more efficient use of time. Multitasking was a perk, too. By keeping up with emails and where colleagues stood with their various touchpoints, team members were confident their efforts weren’t being replicated. For the end user, it was a well-orchestrated experience that directed them to the appropriate person, collateral or page on our website.
- You Are Not Alone
We were not the only company feeling the pressure of trying something completely new, and feelings of being behind the curve are natural and not uncommon. Your department and team aren’t the only ones in your organization adapting to changes, either. There is a lot of cross-departmental cooperation that goes into conference logistics, especially when ambitious, radical changes in format such as going completely virtual are thrown into the mix. Within your role, however you contribute to the success of a team in this space, you are bound to grow along with others around you. And don’t forget to share your experiences.
Human moments are impossible to replicate virtually – and those interactions were what we, and everyone else I imagine, missed the most. Nevertheless, we are extremely proud of our business units and operations teams that helped make this new experience a success for us, our clients and new acquaintances. Virtual events such as this past ASGCT will become more common, as we’ve already seen several upcoming conferences give notice they are switching to that format from a live event in 2020. Technology will keep evolving, and a number of virtual and live-virtual hybrid approaches could likely become the norm sooner rather than later. With ongoing improvements and education on proper use, it will prove to be one of the most powerful marketing tools of the future.
To watch all four of the presentations from ASGCT 2020, visit the links below!
- CRISPR-Associated Nucleases for Gene Editing by Max Sellman
- Manufacturing CRISPR RNPs for Clinical Applications by Shawn Shafer, Ph.D.
- Aldevron's mRNA Capabilities by Nate Spangler, Ph.D.
- Standardized Plasmids for Viral Vector Production | James Brown, Ph.D.
Darrel Veldhouse is Aldevron's Conference Logistics Coordinator and has served the company since 2016.