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Hybrid academic conferences: a greener and better future for conferences?

Fraser Birrell is Engagement Lead for the Centre for Integrated Research into Musculoskeletal Ageing (CIMA), Newcastle University.

Terry Kemple is a retired GP. Twitter: @TKemple

Rob J Lawson is the Chairman of the British Society of Lifestyle Medicine, President of the European Lifestyle Medicine Council, and Chair of the World Lifestyle Medicine Council.

The challenges of the pandemic have negated the usual format for academic conferences and created the urgent need for innovations like virtual attendance only, and encouraged new thinking about what modern and sustainable conferences should achieve.

There has been limited experience of hybrid conferences that combine both in-person and virtual attendance but they have been promoted as a solution to problems of access like distance, time, and space that can limit participation at national conferences; and the problem of sustainability from their environmental impact.

The British Society of Lifestyle Medicine (BSLM) is a rapidly-growing organisation and it held its fourth national conference in 2020 as its first virtual attendance only conference. This was attended by 750 members and patients.

This new, greener, and more flexible approach for organising academic conferences has great potential elsewhere …

BSLM made the bold decision to hold its fifth annual conference in September 2021 as a 3-day hybrid conference at the Edinburgh International Convention Centre (EICC). This was a controversial decision, given both the uncertainty about the future course of the pandemic and the financial risk of organising a conference with in-person attendance. Hybrid conference attendees could ‘mix and match’ their participation by attending in person, virtually in real time, or asynchronously within 30 days. Attendees could choose any one or all three ways to participate.

The Scotsman newspaper highlighted the conference because it was the first EICC conference since the start of the pandemic restrictions. In total, 850 attendees registered: 500 in person, and 350 virtually. In early September the COVID-19 infection rates were still rising in Scotland as many lockdown precautions ended, with around 40 000 cases per day in the UK. Hospital admission rates were, however, not rising at the expected rates. Wearing masks and the Protect Scotland ‘track-and-trace’-type app were still Scottish Government requirements at the conference.

Five-hundred people (59%) attended the conference in person but could also attend virtually. There was a real sense of anticipation for the extra breadth and depth of experience and learning that comes with meeting people formally and informally face-to-face again. Many high-profile speakers attended in person. Benefits from unscheduled interactions that occur at the conference and its social events had always been taken for granted pre-pandemic, but now felt more special.

Overall, 350 people (41%) attended the conference only virtually. Several speakers chose to speak virtually, giving inspiring presentations. The hybrid format increased access and choice, plus reduced the conference’s environmental impact: international delegates/speakers mainly attended virtually. We estimate virtual attendance saved >100 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

The buzz of the crowd at the conference suggested the hybrid format gave better access and choice.

Both virtual and in-person attendees had access to every session via the conference’s web platform/mobile app. These included the concurrent sessions: very popular sessions that might otherwise be missed because of limited room capacity; and the sessions highly recommended by other attendees after the event.

The buzz of the crowd at the conference suggested the hybrid format gave better access and choice. After the conference, 300 participants (35%) replied to an emailed survey request. Overall, 85% were based in the UK and 58% worked in the NHS; 57% of responders attended in person, 38% virtually, and 4% reported they did both. However, 47% reported using the mobile app, 38% the website access, 32% a blend of both, and just 22% only watched live sessions. Eighty-nine per cent felt engaged throughout the conference, 99% felt the conference was well-organised or very well-organised, and 76% agreed or strongly agreed it was good value for money (though 5% disagreed).

The quality of speakers and topics were rated on average as 4.46 out of 5. Free-text feedback was informative with ‘inspiring’/inspirational’ and ‘uplifting’ key themes. We welcomed the complaint: ‘I have never seen so many bikes outside a conference venue’.

The hybrid format delivered a bigger, better, and more user-friendly conference than possible with either format alone. This new, greener, and more flexible approach for organising academic conferences has great potential elsewhere including in care delivery, and undergraduate and postgraduate education. Our experience is that being greener can be consistent with being bigger and better, as well as more sustainable.

 

Competing interests

Fraser Birrell is Director of Science & Research for the British Society of Lifestyle Medicine and Editor-in-Chief of Lifestyle Medicine, the official journal of the British Society of Lifestyle Medicine, Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine, the European Lifestyle Medicine Council, the Korean College of Lifestyle Medicine, and the Sri Lankan Society of Lifestyle Medicine.

Terry Kemple is UK Royal College of General Practitioners National Representative for Sustainability, Climate Change, and Green Issues; Lead for Green Impact for Health Toolkit; and executive member of UK Health Alliance for Climate Change.

Rob J Lawson is Chair of the British Society of Lifestyle Medicine, President of the European Lifestyle Medicine Council, and Chair of the World Lifestyle Medicine Council (formerly known as the Lifestyle Medicine Global Alliance). The authors have no other direct or indirect financial conflicts of interest to declare in relation to lifestyle medicine.

 

Featured image by Anthony Gautier on Unsplash

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