Citation: Marteau D, “Are Virtual Events a Suitable Replacement for Face-to-Face Equivalents Post-Pandemic”. ONdrugDelivery Online, August 25, 2021.
Denis Marteau looks at the future of virtual industry events and conferences in a post-pandemic future.
This article is based on findings from Owen Mumford Pharmaceutical Services’ 2021 report: “Are They Remotely Relevant? A Survey of Professional Opinion on Virtual Events in the Medical Device and Pharmaceutical Industries” . Find the complete report here.
As the covid-19 pandemic unfolded, teams across the globe and across industries, including the pharmaceutical and medical device industry, found themselves moving from face-to-face meetings, in-person events and conferences to a virtual world in a very short space of time. In an industry where networking, forming partnerships and new product demonstrations are key, where does that leave pharma? Research conducted by Owen Mumford Pharmaceutical Services reveals that there is a lot to be learned from 2020, but with a new, creative and dynamic digital event strategy, virtual events could be a game-changer in the post-pandemic future.
According to the UK Office for National Statistics, the proportion of people working from home more than doubled in 2020;1 the landscape for living and working was transformed. In the event management industry, almost a third (30.5%) of companies lost 75–90% of their business in 2020.2 There was an urgent need to pivot to an online format as event organisers rushed to invent new ways of making their conferences and exhibitions function in a virtual world. It was never going to be seamless. One respondent from a global pharmaceutical company, who had participated in various events during 2020 in a multi-capacity as an attendee, panel moderator and presenter, as well as on the organising committee, explained that “some [virtual events] were beneficial, some were terrible”.
TIME FOR A REDESIGN: ENVISAGING VIRTUAL INDUSTRY EVENTS
Reliable, easily accessible technology is a top priority. But it is not just about attendees being able to access the link, regardless of their preferred firewall. It is about designing the event specifically for the digital platform. One participant noted, “…conferences need to be slicker and more attention-grabbing, with a recognisable data component to prove the points being made.”
The majority of respondents consulted agree that the whole nature of the virtual event needs to be strategically rethought, with more research, imagination and strategy needed to shape the virtual industry event of the (near) future. One attendee said, “If it’s going to be a virtual event and it’s going to draw people in, it’s got to be really well done. That isn’t just throwing an agenda on Zoom and have everybody calling. There’s got to be something creative about it, to draw people in.” Virtual events where face-to-face methods had been simply ported online, with little thought about whether or not this would work satisfactorily for delegates, were most criticised.
“Authenticity and live interaction are on the wish list for digital events, as well as more sophistication when it comes to planning, and less fear around users’ knowledge of screen technology.”
Authenticity and live interaction are on the wish list for digital events, as well as more sophistication when it comes to planning, and less fear around users’ knowledge of screen technology. One respondent noted: “I think all of us during the pandemic have matured in the ability to use live-video screening technology, and so fear of the technological issues associated with that aspect of it were perhaps a little bit unfounded. It also confirmed that other things can go wrong that have nothing to do with the presenter being live (on) screen or interactive or choppy. I think our tolerance for imperfect video displays (not highly-polished webinar conversations) actually helps make these conversations feel more authentic, more like a real conversation. Virtual conferences that I’ve enjoyed the most were all 100% live.”
NETWORKING OPPORTUNITIES: A KEY CHALLENGE FOR DIGITAL PLATFORMS
Networking with other delegates – those impromptu “bumping into” conversations that happen at conferences and, of course, being able to demonstrate the new technologies face to face – are an important element of in-person events. An overwhelming majority of attendees of virtual events in 2020 felt that online methods of facilitating networking between delegates needed more due care and attention.
“Fewer air miles and a lower carbon footprint in the last year adds a positive to the equation. Some of that lost networking opportunity can be compensated, for instance, by adding value through precise and quality content that attracts and benefits delegates.”
While strategic thinking can provide better virtual networking opportunities, they may not match those natural face-to-face encounters. But, as one delegate points out, fewer air miles and a lower carbon footprint in the last year adds a positive to the equation. Some of that lost networking opportunity can be compensated, for instance, by adding value through precise and quality content that attracts and benefits delegates.
SHAPING SUCCESSFUL VIRTUAL EVENTS: SPECIFIC, QUALITY CONTENT
Respondents want to see organisers devote more budget to participation, presentations and interaction with real thought leaders, or “star speakers” in the industry. They also want to see tangible, practical take-aways that justify their time and budget spent. Many felt that conferences dealing with specific topics – such as sustained-release drug delivery systems, viscous drug delivery, bionic pancreas, new standards such as ISO11608, and connectivity – would work well online, cutting out the need for travel.
One participant felt that if it was a specific topic such as biocompatibility with quite technical details, they would be happy to attend virtually rather than travel. With sustainability being a key driver, many companies have a significant incentive to minimise travel. The participant added that very specific topics should be accompanied by a precise and detailed description of “exactly what’s on offer to get us attending and returning next time round” and be supported by data.
New ways of working during and post-covid-19 were repeatedly flagged as an important virtual event subject to be explored. People want to learn how others are developing within a socially distanced setting when it comes to business, patient interaction, market research and clinical studies, as well as best practices regarding organisation and communication within virtual teams.
TIME AND MONEY
The price of virtual events needs to be right in order for the events to be a success. Given the lower overheads of the conference hall, for example, there was a widespread feeling that virtual events should cost considerably less than their face-to-face equivalents. Pricing should also reflect different attendance options through a modular approach, which allows individuals to pick and choose specific topics, workshops or sessions of interest and allows them to keep the duration of their attendance low.
“With the right savings on time and budget, flexibility and a move towards sustainability, there is a general view that virtual events will become more of a norm in the next few years, so long as they are well thought out and constructed.”
With the right savings on time and budget, flexibility and a move towards sustainability, there is a general view that virtual events will become more of a norm in the next few years, so long as they are well thought out and constructed.
As one respondent put it, it is not a case of virtual events replacing their face-to-face equivalents, it is about a hybrid of the two: “Since many companies do have real sustainability incentives, I do think there will be the option to attend virtually in the future, as well as in person.”
- Partington R, “Most people in UK did not work from home in 2020, says ONS”. The Guardian, May 17, 2021.
- “100 Event Statistics (2021 Edition)”. Event Manager Blog, May 12, 2021.
This article is based on findings from Owen Mumford Pharmaceutical Services’ 2021 report: “Are They Remotely Relevant? A survey of professional opinion on virtual events in the medical device and pharmaceutical industries” . Find the complete report here.