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When a mega-size conference goes virtual


Debra Levey Larson

Conferences that expect upwards of 3,000 people in attendance, a cavernous exhibit hall, and 40-plus concurrent sessions begin planning years in advance, primarily because venues large enough to accommodate them are booked that far out.

American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics conference logo
American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics conference logo

Early in 2020, as it became apparent that large meetings, indeed any meetings, could not be held in-person, many conferences were immediately cancelled. Those that were scheduled for later in the year had more options, which was the case for the 73rd American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics 2020 annual meeting to be held in Chicago the week of Thanksgiving.

Jonathan Freund
Jonathan Freund

After working on it for some time, Jonathan Freund was formally asked to be the meeting’s chair in 2016. Still, making the decision to move the meeting completely online was not an easy one.

“There were a lot of questions going into making this change,” Freund said. “And because the conference wasn’t until November, it was far enough away that it wasn’t obvious that we couldn’t go ahead with it in person. We didn’t know what to expect. It was possible we’d get significantly fewer people to register than a usual meeting, but it was also possible with the virtual format that we might bring a lot more. We didn't have a good model.”

Freund, who is a Willett Professor and head of the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said whatever online platform and presentation mode they chose had to be easily scalable to adapt to the unknown. Ultimately, the conference had about 3,100 registrants and over 2,400 abstracts submitted.

It would have been cost prohibitive to host 40 concurrent sessions online, so Freund took a different approach. “We took advantage of the virtual format. We didn’t try to replicate the in-person meeting.”

There were no parallel sessions. Although most of the conference was self-paced, invited talks and some special sessions were first live-streamed, then available on-demand.  These provided a framework for the whole event.

“We could have done the conference entirely asynchronous, but we all think there's something different when you're presenting live and you know someone's watching you. It comes across differently. Those live talks were also used to provide a structure to the conference, so it wasn't just all pre-packaged. The abstracts also appeared on the website organized into nominal times to concentration real-time interact. And each abstract had its own chat box, so you could talk back and forth with the authors.”

Text to authors on conference website
Text to authors on conference website

Another way Freund leaned into the virtual format was to encourage those who submitted abstracts to also upload additional materials such as recorded presentations, slides, a poster, and papers.

“It was a benefit of the format that you could read the abstract and get a taste of things, then go deeper into some material if you wanted to see more. A couple of my graduate students uploaded both a one-minute talk and a 15-minute version. I’ve heard suggestions that we add this component on top of a usual in-person meeting. Even though in the future, you might go to the talk and meet the authors face-to-face.”

As with any online effort of this size, it didn’t go without at least a few technical issues, though looking back, Freund said he’s pleased with how it went and already knows how he’d further improve it.

“I would have more practices for the people giving the plenary talks and a more familiar platform to avoid glitches. Also, we had a few networking rooms and side events that went well, but I think we could have offered more features like that to foster more interaction.”