In March, the Palliative Care Congress 2021 (PCC 2021) saw nearly 600 delegates join the PCC’s first ever virtual conference. Managed by the team at the EICC, the three day Congress brought together palliative care specialists from across the world and was received brilliantly by speakers and attendees alike. Event Organisers Kate Smith and Becki Munro, of MunroSmith Associates, talk through the structure of the event and what made it a success.
The Association for Palliative Medicine of Great Britain and Ireland (APM) is the world’s largest representative body of doctors practicing or interested in palliative care – the branch of medicine aimed at improving the quality of life among people with serious, complex illness. The Association hosts an annual Congress which brings together medical specialists for three days of learning and networking.
Last year’s Congress, due to be held in Telford in March, was cancelled at the last minute due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Considering the uncertainty that lay ahead, the PCC committee made a bold decision early in the planning process: the 2021 Congress would take place in a fully virtual setting.
“In hindsight, this was a very positive thing,” says Kate. “It meant we could focus on that plan without having to account for all scenarios. We worked closely with the EICC after that: to understand the Make It Edinburgh Live platform; how it was evolving; and how it could work for us. Everybody was on a massive learning curve.”
Bringing Congress online
For Kate and Becki, this was the largest scale virtual event they had ever held. Experts in designing and delivering events, they used their skills gained from creating webinars throughout 2020, along with knowledge gained through consulting the PCC audience, to adjust the Congress to this novel setting.
“Our delegates like to see who else is present, chat to one another and attend the same sessions as their peers.”
All in all, the structure was like any typical programme for the PCC – just brought online. One key difference was that, considering the audience experience, the programme was tweaked to ensure there were plentiful breaks between sessions and extra time for Q&As and audience participation.
The event benefited from Make It Edinburgh Live’s chat feature, whereby attendees and exhibitors were able to chat to specific delegates with whom they wished to connect.
“People really enjoyed using the chat function,” says Becki. “Our delegates like to see who else is present, chat to one another and attend the same sessions as their peers. We called it a 'virtual badge’, in place of a physical one that would tell people who you are. It really helped with audience engagement and participation.”
“Focus on learning”
The PCC audience was well-suited to the concept of a virtual event, as the Congress is primarily an opportunity for learning. “This audience needs and wants to learn; continuous professional development is part of their job requirement,” explains Kate. “One member of the audience actually tweeted that it was the best Congress they've been to for years because they could just focus on learning – from the comfort of their own sofa!”
Thanks to the ‘Watch Back’ facility, there was no limit to the content attendees could enjoy. “Congress usually has multiple sessions happening at once,” says Kate, “so people have to prioritise and choose which session to attend. This year, they could see everything, whenever it suited them best! This also made it really convenient for our delegates from across the world.
“Some people preferred the format – but of course for many, there's no substitute for being physically present due to the opportunities to network and learn alongside other people.”
A virtual buzz
“Seeing all the hype on social media was a great sign – we had people registering to join even as the event was happening!”
Typically, it’s clear from the atmosphere of the people in the room how an event is being received. In this case, Kate and Becki had to rely on monitoring activity on Twitter, to judge the mood and how the event was being received. From this, they could clearly see the success of the event. “We tend to keep the Twitter feed going all throughout the day, promoting the exhibitors and letting everyone know what’s going on,” says Becki. “Seeing all the hype on social media was a great sign – we had people registering to join even as the event was happening!”
The Twitter feed also highlighted the one thing people were really missing about the in-person PCC: pastries. “Attendees were saying that they really enjoyed the virtual conference, but they were missing the pastries and could we organise virtual ones!” says Becki. “But then people were locating their local bakeries and running out in the breaks to go and buy their pastries, and then sharing pictures. It was an excellent way for participants to network and have a bit of a laugh in the virtual setting.”
“We were very well supported by the EICC”
“We got to know each other very well, so everything ran really smoothly … Great teamwork came into play between us, the committee and the EICC team.”
“The team at the EICC was very flexible and accommodating throughout the process,” says Kate. “A virtual event puts a lot of pressure upfront on the venue and the event organisers, with all the materials for the event sent directly to us beforehand. We were very well supported by the EICC all the way through; we asked a lot of questions and they would always come up with a solution that was workable for them and for us. We really were delighted to be working with them.”
“We got to know each other very well, so everything ran really smoothly,” says Becki. “At the end of each day, we would have a de-brief catch-up with the team at the EICC and run over any issues or areas to focus on for the next day. Great teamwork came into play between us, the committee and the EICC team.”
The PCC 2021 was truly testament to what a virtual event can be – engaging, informative and enjoyed by all who took part. Although there was a lot to be missed about an in-person gathering, Kate and Becki believe that the hybrid model is one they will explore for the PCC in future, even in a post-COVID world. It’s immersive, convenient, accessible – and best of all, they could do it all in their slippers!