When Virtual Becomes the Reality

A behind-the-scenes look at how the American Society of Hematology reworked its annual meeting for the virtual setting

Preparations for the 62nd American Society of Hematology (ASH) Annual Meeting and Exposition began long before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19, and long before the global pandemic required organizers of traditional in-person scientific meetings to switch to a virtual format. Originally planned for December 5–8 in sunny San Diego, California, the ASH Annual Meeting will now take place as an all-virtual event, and the weather will be as varied as the attendees and the topics.

ASH Clinical News spoke with Bill Reed, ASH’s Chief Event Strategy Officer, to get a behind-the-scenes look at the first-ever virtual ASH Annual Meeting and give readers a preview of the new online format.

When and how was the decision made to go virtual?

Bill Reed: When the severity of the global COVID-19 pandemic became clear, we began planning for the possibilities of an in-person meeting, an all-virtual meeting, or both in-person and virtual meetings in parallel. ASH wanted to make the decision on how to host the meeting based first and foremost on which option would be safest for the participants and attendees.

Earlier this year, things were changing rapidly and we did not want to make a decision too soon. The parallel planning continued for about 3 to 4 months, until ASH executed a survey to more than 70,000 people in the hematology community seeking input on their willingness or ability to travel to an in-person meeting. The results of the survey made it very clear that many stakeholders – regardless of whether they wanted to or not – were not going to be in a position to travel to an in-person meeting this year.

So, at the beginning of August, the ASH Executive Committee decided to eliminate the possibility of an in-person meeting.

How has planning for a virtual meeting differed from the typical annual meeting planning cycle?

Planning has been similar in some ways but very different in others. For example, when we are planning for an in-person meeting, we know that all the participants are in one location, one time zone. A virtual meeting introduces the complexity of time zone differences. For the virtual format, we selected Pacific Standard Time, in which the meeting was originally scheduled to take place. This is more convenient for North American and European participants, but it may be more challenging for participants in Asia or Australia. Unfortunately, there is no one magical time zone that works well for everyone. The good news is that if you are unable to attend a session when it is scheduled, it will be available for on-demand viewing afterward for as long as your subscription access allows.

Another unique aspect of planning for this year’s event is that, for in-person meetings, participants struggle when there are several sessions scheduled simultaneously. They often are forced to make difficult choices because they cannot be in two places at one time. In the virtual environment, the content will be available before – in some cases – and after the scheduled broadcast. This allows people to catch up with a session that they may otherwise have been forced to miss.

In what other ways was the program adjusted for the virtual format?

In designing the meeting, we wanted to emphasize the availability of live question and answer periods, which will be indicated in the session’s title. The presentations for several sessions are prerecorded, and we are hoping that participants attending the meeting will watch those videos beforehand, allowing more time to be dedicated to the Live Q&A portions.

We also truncated the length of the daily schedule, based on what we had observed with other virtual meetings. One’s attention span is a bit different in the virtual setting than in the immersive in-person setting. However, certain elements, like the late-breaking abstracts and plenary session, were kept at their traditional length.

You mentioned that some sessions are prerecorded. How will viewers access these and other meeting presentations?

Content will be available in a mix of prerecorded videos and live streams, but even I, sometimes, need help remembering which event is in what format. We hope participants will take advantage of the preview days on Wednesday through Friday, December 2 through 4, to familiarize themselves with the offerings.

The Education and Scientific Program presentations will be prerecorded and available for viewing on December 2. The accompanying Live Q&A sessions will occur at scheduled times during the core dates of the meeting (Saturday, December 5 to Tuesday, December 8). We also will be capturing the Live Q&A and adding that to the prerecorded session for anyone who can’t tune in live.

Coordinating real-time presentations definitely introduces the possibility for more things to go wrong, so we wanted to make sure we had presentations already available and on the platform in case, for example, a presenter lost internet connection at home.

One of the things that keeps me up at night is that a virtual format is highly dependent on internet bandwidth around the world. ASH certainly has planned for server capacity for large numbers, but if local internet speed is slow, in spite of our efforts, it can affect an individual attendee’s experience.

How will this year’s virtual meeting allow for networking opportunities?

Early on in the planning process, the Executive Committee challenged us to distinguish the ASH virtual meeting from other virtual meetings that have come before. Because our meeting is in December, we have had more time to plan than many other medical meetings that had to adjust to a virtual format on a shorter timeline. One of the ways we want to do that is through enabling networking and connections online. That is something everyone is hungry for.

As a part of this effort, we are allowing smaller groups of participants who are registered for the meeting to watch certain sessions at the same time, mimicking the experience of people going to attend an in-person session and sitting together. The technology will allow five or six friends or colleagues to watch a presentation and have sidebar conversations while they watch. We think that will be a game changer for helping people connect in this virtual format.

In addition, people will have the ability to form their own private meetings (with the typical aspects of chat rooms) with a few colleagues to discuss or collaborate on research.

How is social media being integrated into the virtual meeting experience?

Social media is widely used at the in-person meeting and it will be at the virtual meeting, as well. By using various predetermined hashtags, users can allow their posts to be pulled into the platform for all attendees to see, similar to the social media walls at our in-person meetings.

For example, the ASH Community Collage is a new feature this year where participants can share photos or videos on various fun topics when they want to take a break from the serious scientific presentations. I encourage attendees to check out the meeting preview issue of ASH News Daily for more information about key accounts and hashtags to follow during the meeting, along with other tips for continuing the dialogue on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

What do you think are the new opportunities presented by the virtual format?

The virtual meeting allows participants, especially internationally, to “attend” the ASH Annual Meeting perhaps for the first time. With previous meetings, the cost of travel from their home country to the meeting location may have been a roadblock, but that has been mitigated in the virtual environment; there are no travel costs. Also, more institutions around the world will have the ability to gain access to this recorded content. That may include more junior faculty and allied health professionals, too. I see that as a great expansive opportunity.

Even though all attendees of the 62nd ASH Annual Meeting and Exposition will be tuning in from their homes, offices, or anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection, it’s helpful to try to “attend” the meeting as if you were on site, according to ASH Chief Event Strategy Officer Bill Reed.

“I hope that participants who normally block off 4 or 5 days on their calendar to attend the meeting will continue to protect a substantial amount of time over those key days to invest in their professional development, rather than allow their focus to be distracted by other obligations,” Mr. Reed said.

ASH Secretary Robert A. Brodsky, MD, echoed that suggestion.

“The whole meeting will come across best if people participate in the way that they would have if they were there in person,” Dr. Brodsky said. “Say to yourself, ‘These are my 4 or 5 days to learn, collaborate, and network.’”

To help set the tone, the Program Committee spent a lot of time putting together a meeting that would recreate the feel of a live meeting. “Set yourself up ahead of time; get familiar with the platform. I think it will be a great experience for everyone,” Dr. Brodsky said.