Stepping into the unknown: how ESHRE moved to a virtual congress


Published 19 May 2020

When the coronavirus forced cancellation of this year's annual meeting in Copenhagen, the executive committee quickly bit the bullet and planned for an online event of the familiar structure, content and impact as before.

It won’t quite be ‘business as usual’ given the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, ESHRE 2020 still goes ahead with its usual packed programme of research, hot topics and keynote lectures.

The big difference is, of course, that this year the world’s biggest event in reproductive science and medicine will take place entirely digitally, the first annual meeting to be conducted virtually since ESHRE was founded. Needless to say, this departure from the usual face-to-face event represents a comparable commitment of organisation, collaboration and hard work behind the scenes.

Presented over three days as usual, the content and structure of the main programme are almost exactly as planned for Copenhagen and will provide new insights into topics of the day, ranging from blastocyst transfer and freezing to testicular ageing.
A total of 357 oral presentations – including invited lectures and 258 peer-reviewed abstracts selected from more than 1800 submitted – will be presented by the authors between 5 and 8 July, as prerecorded videos to be released online at a specific day and time, as detailed in the programme.

From the moment content is made public, the presentations will remain on the ESHRE website until the end of 2020 at least, enabling participants to view them whenever and wherever they wish. As in previous years, e-posters will be available online throughout and after ESHRE 2020. In addition, on Sunday 5 July five prerecorded precongress courses will be made available digitally on topics including the management of high-risk pregnancies.

Later that day, a virtual opening ceremony will mark the start of the main programme, which will kick off on Monday 6 July with a keynote lecture from the distinguished Spanish virologist Bonaventura Clotet on the coronavirus pandemic. It was Clotet who proposed in a Lancet editorial in March the potential of antiviral drugs to reduce viral shedding as a cause of infection. His lecture will be a prelude to a new session added by ESHRE to this year's main programme on COVID-19 and ART, following a call for breaking news abstracts and up-to-date review. A selection of the most newsworthy oral presentations from this and all sessions will as usual be allocated to the press programme for embargoed press release.

Everyone must still register to access the programme but registrations are free to ESHRE members, while non-members can either join ESHRE or pay 150 euros. Fees have been kept low deliberately at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is causing major financial problems both for individuals and institutions.
The clear message is that participants can experience as much online as they would at a face-to-face conference, the research will be of the same outstanding quality and everyone will be able to network as usual with colleagues from all corners of the world, albeit from the safety of home or office. Online debate will be ‘encouraged as much as possible’ to add value for participants, says ESHRE’s communications director Christine Bauquis.

At the end of each conference session or presentation, speakers and presenters will take part in a live discussion hosted online by two session chairpersons. As Bauquis explains, the questions will have been sent in by participants during the event via a chat box and screened by a moderator.

The mission to transform what would have been a usual face-to-face event into a virtual one began as soon as the unprecedented decision was taken to cancel the live meeting. A working group was set up to explore the online possibilities: the 14-person panel was selected by ESHRE chair Cristina Magli and includes members as well as staff.

ESHRE managing director and working group member Bruno Van Den Eede told Focus on Reproduction that reshaping the meeting into a virtual format could have been done in ‘many different ways’, but that the group swiftly agreed to retain the programme’s original structure. Once this had been decided, the first challenge was to ensure speakers were still prepared to participate virtually. Everyone who had been invited to speak and all authors of abstracts selected for presentation were contacted for their agreement to deliver a recorded talk. The vast majority agreed, which acted as a catalyst for the working group to proceed further.

The virtual setting, however, did not appeal to everyone – some speakers declined and their sessions had to be rearranged. So did a number of SIG coordinators who felt the interaction between faculty and participants would be diminished in a virtual setting.

So how did ESHRE choose the technology for a virtual event of this scale and importance? Some working group members attended webcasts to provide advice on the best approach, and in the end the group opted for video conferencing software. The upside of broadcasting pre-recorded presentations, it was felt, is that they will be free from the problems of live broadcasts, such as poor sound and lighting quality. Those who don’t feel confident with technology will be reassured that an ESHRE communications technology support team will guide them individually to prepare, upload and record their presentation, which will be stored securely until the time of broadcast. Even so, recording more than 300 presentations ready for 5 July remains a daunting task, which, says Van Den Eede, will require close collaboration from all the speakers involved.

There is also no ignoring the harsh financial realities that will result from cancelling Copenhagen, with a considerable loss of revenue inevitable. In 2019 the Annual Meeting in Vienna provided almost three-quarters (73%) of the Society’s income for that year – a total of more than 6 million euro – and 44% of expenditure. Van Den Eede predicts that ESHRE's balance will be negative for 2020, mainly as a consequence of the time, effort and resources already invested in preparing the live event pre-cancellation. In addition, ESHRE has had to reimburse all the registration fees and sponsorship money that had been received in advance of the live meeting.

In place of the exhibit area originally planned for Copenhagen sponsors are now being offered a virtual alternative and the opportunity to run corporate sessions on the ESHRE website during the meeting. 'Our sponsors and exhibitors have greatly appreciated the fact we informed them individually and in a timely manner about our plans to cancel the live meeting,' says Van Den Eede, who notes that the finer details of ESHRE 2020 are still to be agreed. But the planning is well on track, he adds, and feedback to date has been positive, with many requests from interested parties – including the UK's Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists – to see how it all works in practice.

From the moment the live meeting was cancelled and the decision made to go virtual, members were vocal in their messages of support. There has been ‘genuine interest’, says Van Den Eede, in how the online programme will work out – and with that comes a pressure to live up to expectations of those logging on from 5 to 8 July. The ESHRE community has always been resilient, innovative, and quick to adapt to change, he adds, and this has already been apparent in online attendance at two recent ESHRE webinars - around 2000 registering for time-lapse and COVID-19 sessions. And so, while sitting at a laptop to follow an online congress will be very different from attending a live event, online conference communication is already routine for many, and likely to stay so.

If the online conference is a success, attendance could even be as high or higher than at any face-to-face annual meetings of the past. Registrations for 2019 numbered more than 12,000 but the potential reach from online could be more than 20,000. To date, the number of registrations has been encouraging – by early May a total of almost 2000 since the enrolment began on 28 April, and the hope is this number will continue to grow.
Whether going virtual will draw fewer or more attendees than a face-to-face experience can’t be known until July. Says Van Den Eede: 'We’ll only discover the outcome once the conference has taken place – the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.'

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