Veterinary Industry Events – A Question of Balance

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Conference organizers are learning there’s a time and place for in-person events, virtual ones, and hybrids. 

Since February 2020, veterinary professionals have found that Zoom meetings, web conferences, and podcasts can be an effective way to impart information as well as save time and travel. Even so, event planners expect that in-person events will enjoy a renaissance post-pandemic. The happy medium between “virtual” and “real” might very well be “hybrid.”

“We anticipate both in-person and virtual CE will become a permanent part of our DNA,” said Andrea Davis, CEO of Viticus Group, which hosts the WVC Conference.


“The key takeaway from the past year is to be as flexible and diversified as possible,” said Mike Wilson, director of conventions and meeting planning for the American Veterinary Medical Association. “A virtual component to any event is here to stay, so it needs to be embraced.”

Event-management firm Freeman reports that 78% of attendees surveyed in March said they expect to attend in-person events in fall 2021, increasing to 94% by winter. Among exhibitors, 80% predicted they would return to in-person events in the fall and 95% by winter. Yet, the company also predicts that people will continue to have different appetites for meeting in person, whether it’s due to safety, schedules, or travel. Hybrid events – which combine in-person and virtual elements – will become more widespread.

“The hybrid model offers us new ways to connect with people where they are and how they want,” said Dana Larson, vice president, experiential content, Freeman. “‘Live’ will not just be a single moment in time and space. It will be a year-long conversation.”

A year of learning

“More than anything else, I think virtual events for the AVMA have reinforced a sense of community by providing a constant, on-demand, and more accessible opportunity to our members,” said Wilson. “Educationally, virtual events provide more opportunities for our members to receive CE credits from their home or place of work, and at their personal leisure, and not limit them to a particular date, time, and location.” AVMA Convention 2021 was originally scheduled for July 29 to Aug. 2 in Minneapolis, but the association announced in the spring that the convention would take place virtually for a second year. Officials had hoped this summer would be safe for in-person gathering, but they decided an online event is safer due to remaining COVID-19 concerns and restrictions.

“Our staff and volunteers have put a lot of time and energy into these events to make them a positive experience for attendees, but I was still surprised at how well received they’ve been, as we anticipated people might be more disappointed by not attending in person,” Wilson said. However, the association did notice signs of “virtual fatigue,” as the lockdown lingered. “The length of engagement is starting to waver a bit.”

‘A Whole New World’

At press time, the United Veterinary Services Association (UVSA) was preparing for its 2021 Digital Annual Conference, “A Whole New World,” May 4-5. “We know this event will not be the same as our in-person UVSA conference experiences, but we hope that by joining together virtually in 2021, we can start to regain our sense of community and engage with one another again,” said Executive Director Jackie King. Since no travel is required, UVSA is encouraging members to invite more people from their teams to experience the conference at a much-reduced rate from the in-person event.

In 2020, given the lockdown, the association staged a greater number of virtual events than it has in the past, presenting or co-presenting webinars on the economic outlook, legislative and regulatory developments related to veterinary medicine, small-business concerns, etc. “It has been a challenge to select the best platform for people to engage with,” she said. “What will draw them to a webinar? What can we present that will be of value and will resonate with them? That has been our big learning curve.”

The association has met all those challenges, and in the process, has discovered that virtual events come with many benefits, she said. “People who never would have come to a conference because of travel and registration expenses are participating. And that has been a goal of ours – to drill deeper into our member organizations and engage more people.” The other benefit of virtual events: Content is available online for months for those unable to stream it live.

Virtual platforms have proved their efficacy and are here to stay, said King. “Still, I think there’s this pent-up desire for folks to get together and learn face-to-face.”

Welcome back

This fall’s WVC Conference, September 6-9, will be a hybrid event, said Andrea Davis. The conference organizer will offer a full-scale in-person event in Las Vegas with a modified virtual event to be held concurrently. All paid in-person registrants will receive free access to the virtual event, which will be accessible until the end of the year.

“While virtual offerings are important and meet a need, it is not the same as receiving hands-on education for specific procedures,” said Davis. With Las Vegas opening back up, vaccines readily available, and COVID-19 numbers declining, Viticus Group believes that fall 2021 is the “perfect time to welcome everyone back to the in-person experience we all missed so much. [But] we recognize that expectations have changed, and in order to meet the new CE demands, we need to make all the amazing offerings that Viticus Group can provide available to people both near and far.”

There is much to be said about virtual events, said Davis. “They allow us to reach people we normally would not reach and keep our brand front and center year-round.” In addition, the level of participant and sponsorship engagement in virtual venues is significant.

But virtual events aren’t necessarily easier to execute than in-person events, she adds. “The level of time and dedication that goes into planning a digital event – at least the first time – was far more than any of us expected. It ended up being just as complex and time-consuming as it is to plan a large in-person event.”

Product expos

Over the past year, conference organizers have found that presenting virtual education is one thing. Putting on a virtual product expo is another.

United Kingdom-based Reed Exhibitions reports that exhibitors are more cautious about online tools than visitors. The company reported in December that less than half – 43% – of exhibitors believe that they can still carry out the majority of their event objectives online. Verbatim responses reveal that one of their key concerns is that attendees will not engage in digital events. But that belief is not borne out by attendee data.

“Virtual exhibit halls are still a challenge for exhibitors,” said Wilson. “Attendees are not responding to them as well as they do to in-person events. Therefore, the challenge is achieving a level of financial sponsorship similar to what we would have with an in-person event when faced with the reality of a reduction in the number of exhibitors and sponsors.”

“It is a challenge creating engagement and a fun ‘in-person-like’ environment in a virtual setting,” said Davis. That said, Viticus Group and its exhibitors have managed to pull it off, she said.

“In February [2021], we held the Viticus Veterinary Summit, our organization’s first large online event. Our exhibitors and sponsors did a great job interacting with participants in the virtual exhibit hall and the chats during scientific sessions, offering great information and fun giveaways. They also were involved in social events, like the mixology course and the comedy hour, which added to the overall experience of the participants.”

This fall’s WVC Conference will host over 500 vendors on site. “We are taking every step to make sure it is a safe, engaging, and educational environment for the exhibitors and attendees,” said Davis. Access to an online exhibit hall is included in the registration for virtual participants. It will also be accessible to those who register for the in-person conference as a complimentary add-on feature.

Photo credit: istockphoto.com/ChakisAtelier

 

VMX 2021: A fully integrated hybrid event

The North American Veterinary Community (NAVC) hosted VMX 2021 as a fully integrated hybrid event from June 5-9. The conference included a full live offering in Orlando, Florida, along with a VMX Virtual experience, which allowed attendees to access events and CE opportunities from wherever they call home. Hybrid events offer flexibility for those who are unable to travel but also added flexibility in terms of scheduling. VMX Live and Virtual attendees have the chance to access OnDemand CE sessions until Sept. 3.

“With the NAVC’s first virtual extension of VMX, veterinary professionals everywhere will have the opportunity to learn from and engage with the world’s most renowned experts in veterinary medicine,” said NAVC CEO Gene O’Neill. “They can also explore our award-winning VMX Expo Hall, network with colleagues, and enjoy great entertainment wherever they choose – in-person in Orlando or anywhere online.”

VMX 2021 may have wrapped, but more than 250 virtual and OnDemand sessions are still available. “With so many advances taking place in animal medicine, it is more important than ever for veterinarians to stay current,” said Dr. Dana Varble, NAVC Chief Veterinary Officer, and the NAVC’s senior executive responsible for all continuing education programs and events. They are the oncologist, cardiologist, ophthalmologist, dermatologist – and just about every other ‘ologist’ for our animals. Unlike human doctors, they handle multiple species. The breakthroughs in diagnoses and treatments that were presented at VMX 2021 are exciting and life-changing.”

VMX 2022 will be held Jan. 15-19 in Orlando, Florida. Learn more at navc.com.

 

AAHA announces “radically different” approach to Connexity conference for 2021

The American Animal Hospital Association  announced a “radically different” approach to its annual Connexity conference for 2021: to open to the entire profession rather than only AAHA members and include experimental new CE formats. The reimagined Connexity was scheduled to kick off with a free online mini-conference on May 26, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Eastern time, which puts a gamified, crowdsourced, and debate-heavy spin on the typical expert talking heads and “death by PowerPoint” virtual CE.

The decision to open the first 2021 Connexity session for free to everyone was made in the spirit of inclusivity, the association said. Admission was to be offered for free, with an optional choose-your-own-price donation. All proceeds will go to BlackDVM Network, and the content will be equally inclusive, with topics for the entire practice to increase teamwork and engagement.

“We believe veterinary teams and veterinary medicine benefit tremendously from collaboration and inclusivity. A members-only conference doesn’t mesh with either that belief or AAHA’s new direction of making continuous improvement simpler for all veterinary practices,” said AAHA CEO Garth Jordan, MBA, CSM, CSPO. “What’s more, we need to experiment with conference formats that include and engage all types of learners. We all know that diverse participation across roles, backgrounds, styles, and perspectives creates a rising tide that lifts all boats. There’s no doubt in my mind that we had to change our AAHA annual conference approach.”

The May mini-conference has three consecutive sessions, each with a distinct theme. The first session is “Are You Smarter Than a Specialist?” where two general practice veterinary professionals will go head-to-head with specialists in areas such as emergency care, epidemiology, dentistry, and dermatology. Everyone who attends will get refreshers on pathologies and treatment plans for discrete ailments commonly seen by specialists.

The second session will be an experiment in crowdsourced problem-solving as the moderators on video and in live chat lead a virtual brainstorm tackling one of the profession’s persistent challenges – how to staff practices for longevity.

The third session promises to be a hard-fought debate on the pros and cons of a veterinary technicians’ union. Participants may not leave with all the answers, but it will be a thought-provoking conversation.

In addition to the May session, Connexity will meet for an in-person conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, September 22–25, followed by a second virtual session on November 10. Both sessions have select speaker slots still open for fresh voices in the profession, and a call for papers will be released later this month for those interested in sharing their knowledge. All sessions are open to everyone in the veterinary profession.

Learn more at aaha.org/connexity.