What Should Future Conferences Look Like?

A new report from the American Institute of Physics examines how scientific groups should reimagine their meetings to better meet stakeholder needs. While the report is geared toward scientific audiences, its suggestions can benefit all association meetings.

With COVID-19 affecting how scientists and other people gathered, the American Institute of Physics assembled a panel of experts in various parts of association conference planning to reimagine meetings of the future to be more impactful for and valuable to society stakeholders.

The resulting report, “The Future of Association Convening: Envisioning for the Sciences,”  offers suggestions on how scientific conferences can integrate lessons learned from retooling in-person meetings for virtual formats over the past year, while also meeting changing demands of their research communities and the conduct of science.

Although the report, released earlier this month, focuses on scientific conferences, it has applications for the broader association community as organizations plan upcoming meetings. Here is a look at three areas of the report that may help inform how you execute your future events.

content and engagement

In the report, the panelists describe their desired end-state: “Our vision is that science exchange will be more broadly accessible—before, during, and after scheduled scientific conferences—and will foster dynamic interactions between presented content and conference participants,” they write. “Whichever way one attends a conference (in-person/virtual/hybrid), the experience will be equitable and useful to all participants.”

To reach this desired state, organizations must rethink conference content and increase audience engagement. The report offers several ideas for content. One I found interesting: Having poster and oral presentations take place virtually ahead of the face-to-face event, which “would allow the focus of the actual conference to shift toward questions, discussions, and networking, which have been the primary drivers for in-person conferences in the past.”

To boost audience engagement, the report suggests leveraging technology to foster interactions before and after the conference. For example, anyone chatting online during a session could be prompted via text or email to continue their conversation or to consult repositories of sessions on similar topics.

Accessibility and Audience Reach

The report also dives into how scientific societies can engage audiences more fully, help all members of the conference community feel that they belong, invite in new participants, and share the story of science to an expanded audience and an interested public.

These efforts must begin during early planning stages, the panelists write: “When designing conferences of the future, it’s critical to consider the important values of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the planning process. People from underrepresented and marginalized groups must be actively included in conference planning decision-making bodies to advance those goals.”

The report offers several tactical measures to cultivate inclusivity and belonging. A couple of suggestions: Invite people from diverse groups to be plenary or keynote speakers and session presenters, and reach out to people to learn about difficulties they may face and barriers that may prevent them from fully participating. The latter can help organizations create solutions tailored to their individual communities and goals.

Conference Partnerships

This section of the report focuses on how societies might engage all types of partners—sponsors, exhibitors, industry, academia, and other societies—to create a more beneficial conference for all involved.

One idea is to partner with other societies. “The collaboration does not have to result in a joint conference; it can start small. Societies might agree to offer reciprocal attendance or discount prices to each other’s members,” the panelists write.

Enhanced outreach to exhibitors will be key, they note: “Recorded demos and information sessions can be used to reach potential consumers, and societies can extend the vendor-participant connection opportunities beyond the duration of the conference.”

How does your association plan to build better opportunities for engagement, accessibility, and partnerships at its upcoming events? Please share in the comments.

(Altayb/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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