COVID-19 has caused all sorts of adjustments in academia – from collecting data remotely (telephone interviews and online survey) to hosting seminars as online webinars. Last September (2019), I set up the Liverpool Dementia & Ageing Research Forum , which is bringing together academics, clinicians, service providers, local authorities, and people affected by dementia to share, develop, and discuss research openly and publicly.
Whilst switching at some point from seminars to webinars, which turns out to be an added bonus as it can reach so many more people!, I also decided to move our 2nd annual conference to an online platform. You think that might be easier than a face-to-face conference. In some ways it is, as you don’t have to sort out the venue, refreshments, taking registrations, sending out directions, making sure it’s easily accessible for everyone, and so on. But in the back of your mind is that little voice saying ‘If it’s not interesting online, people can just decide to leave the zoom conference.’
So, how do you host a virtual conference, with multiple speakers, 100+ attendees, Q&A sessions, breakout rooms, comfort breaks, event pages, email reminders, follow-up emails, and more? Let’s start by contacting the potential speakers. Luckily, I’ve known the majority of the speakers for some time, so that was easier. On top of getting some great presenters and talks, including Craig Murray from University of Liverpool on eye movement and dementia, Kym Ward from The Brain Charity on her singing and dancing groups for dementia , and a carer who has cared for his mother with Alzheimer’s disease dementia during lockdown , to name a few!, we also had the added bonus of having Grace Meadows from the national Music for Dementia  making some time and share their work.
Speakers sorted, time to draft an agenda that is not too long, as you don’t want to lose people’s interest by having to much talking and no engagement (which can be difficult anyways in virtual events). So speakers had to be kept to quite tight time slots, and it’s the organiser’s task to keep to that agenda, which can be tricky! Especially when you get lots of great questions from the audience.
It was important to include a little lunch break after plenty of varied talks, to have a Q&A after each talk, and to have 30-minute breakout rooms towards the end. It’s a more relaxed environment where people can express their thoughts and chat amongst themselves.
Once you’ve got confirmation of who is speaking, the date and time, and the rough agenda, then it’s time for that important registration link. Eventbrite works a treat, as I’m sure we are all too familiar with now. Make sure to send out the link to the zoom/Teams event to all attendees on time, and then, it’s the actual event.
That seemed to have come around much quicker than anticipated! On the day, we had around 125 attendees from different professional backgrounds and many carers joining us. The nice thing is, you’re actively listening to new presentations, work and research you might not have fully known about before. Not everyone was able to make the event though, so we will be uploading the full conference on our ARC NWC youtube channel this week.
What is it like to host a virtual conference then? With our Forum enabling research to be shared freely and publicly, hosting online events allow a much wider reach to people across the globe but also beyond the Liverpool region. I am mindful of the downside in that many older people might not have access to the internet/ a computer, although they might be very interested in hearing about this. Once the vaccines will be reducing the spread of the virus, and research events can be held in person again, we will hopefully be able to host these conferences and seminars both face-to-face, whilst also live streaming. The best of both?
Tips for setting up and hosting a virtual conference:
- Approach people early and plan ahead
- Book in a date that works for all presenters several months in advance and send out monthly reminder emails
- Get presenters involved in planning
- Create and publicise an Eventbrite link ~3 months in advance
- Share, share, share info about your event with people via social media and targetedly via email/in person/in meetings
- Make people excited about your event – highlight specific presenters/topics
- Keep an eye on the registration numbers!
- Have a pre-event pilot to discuss the run though with presenters
- Get all slides ahead of the presentation, in case a presenter can’t share their screen
- Send out the link to the zoom/Teams or other channel where the conference is hosted twice in advance to all registered attendees
- On the day, get dressed (don’t wear PJs), have a cup of tea ready, and enjoy!
- And don’t forget to use social media throughout the event, and plan a question for each presenter in case the audience takes a while to post questions (You can schedule tweets etc)
- After the event, try and get the conference uploaded onto youtube and share with attendees
Dr Clarissa Giebel  is a Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool and NIHR ARC North West Coast. She has been working in dementia care research for over 7 years focusing her research on on helping people with dementia live at home independently for longer.