Case study: Biodiversity Genomics – virtual conference

Chloe Leech, conference organiser, talks about the pros and cons of holding a large, international conference online and how she found our virtual meetings platform.

Biodiversity Genomics 2020 logoThe Biodiversity Genomics 2020 virtual conference (5-9 October 2020) brought together researchers from across the world to celebrate the achievements to date in genome sequencing across the eukaryotic (any cell or organism that possesses a clearly defined nucleus) tree of life, explore current challenges and their likely solutions, and look forward to the coming decade of the application of genomics across the globe. The event was hosted by the Wellcome Sanger Institute’s Tree of Life programme, which collaborates with other global projects such as Genomes 10k, the Vertebrate Genomes Project, the Global Invertebrate Genomics Alliance, and the Earth BioGenome Project.

Originally the event was meant to take place at the Wellcome Genome Campus Conference Centre, but Covid meant that the event had to be moved online, and the Tree of Life team chose to use the virtual meetings platform developed by the Conference Centre’s in-house AV suppliers, Venue AV. The conference welcomed over 5,000 delegates over the five days. This was tenfold the amount of participants they were expecting (or we could have hosted) had the event been held in person! They held five plenary talks, 122 presentations, and parallel sessions with live Q&As each day. There were also poster abstracts, networking sessions, and a virtual social event with a singer, and (bring your own!) drinks.

We spoke to Chloe Leech, Team Administrator, Tree of Life Project, and asked her about her experience holding such an event online, how she found our virtual meetings platform, and tips for others considering online conferences.


Q1: Your event reached an impressive number of people!  What, in your opinion, were the pros and cons of such an increased number of delegates, thanks to the event being online?

The pros and cons can be summarised by saying we were very happy indeed to have been able to welcome so many extra delegates due to it being online, but such numbers also came with challenges!

The benefits of it being online and consequently the benefits of being able to interact with over 5,000 scientists (as opposed to 350, which were the numbers we would have expected, had the event been in person) were as follow:

  • Many more conversations were had, leading to more collaborations, which will no doubt lead to faster scientific progress
  • The audience was truly global (we had representatives from 80 countries), and it was attended by people who may not have been able to travel to the UK, had it been in person
  • The increased number of attendees led to a greater number of talks – as more academics signed up we were contacted with new ideas for discussions that were too good to not include, so the programme grew with the participants.  Having a purely digital, remote programme gave us great flexibility to keep amending the schedule (which also has its downsides for the organisers!)
  • Venue AV, the team behind the online platform, who also coordinated the pre-recording of our 120+ talks, were absolutely amazing!  There were incredibly supportive and responsive and the event went very smoothly indeed. So the technical side of all those talks being online was not at all stressful for us.
  • Our social event, which replaced the conference dinner and drinks we would have had, was a great success and was still very enjoyable, despite being online!  We had a concert by singer Cosmo Shelldrake, which was very well attended and people commented how much they liked it in the post-event feedback. It was a real highlight!

The drawbacks we encountered with doing this as an online event were:

  • We didn’t want to cap the registration numbers because we wanted it to be as accessible as possible. It was also free, which made it even more attractive. Despite it being free, we did not see any drop off in people registering and not attending, which was great.  But the tenfold increase in participants did mean a significant increase in our event running costs, since the cost of using the platforms is linked to the number of users.  We made the mistake of getting quotes for roughly the same amount of people as we would have expected in person, but the actual cost were much more.
  • People do still ultimately prefer to meet face-to-face.  This was a consistent theme in the post-event feedback we got from delegates.
  • We had people attending from most continents, so scheduling was tricky. The benefit of having all the talks available on demand (during and after the event) did mean people could watch them whenever, but since we have a lot of collaborators in the US, we chose to focus running the live programme at times that worked from US and Europe. Our live programme ran from 3-7pm GMT.  We did, however, do a morning session on the Wednesday that allowed us to interact more with audiences from Asia and Australasia.
  • We had to use two different platforms for the registration and event side of things.  Unfortunately the two platforms weren’t integrated, which lead to a lot of extra work for us. Next time, we’d ideally like registration to be integrated into event platform. If this isn’t possible, we’ll consider using something like Eventbrite, which can be integrated with the Venue AV site.
  • It was so much work!  We were a small team doing the logistics for this, and managing such a large number of delegate registrations and coordinating the pre-recording of talks by so many global speakers was a real challenge.

Posters were accessible at all times, with chats with the authors at set times on Spatial Chat

Screenshot from Biodiversity Genomics 2020 virtual conference

Q2: It was such a big event that you had five broadcast teams (from our AV team) helping with all the recordings and talk screenings/Q&As.  How did you find that?

It was not at all stressful. Venue AV suggested we pre-record as many of the talks as possible in order to make it more manageable and reduce the risk of technical issues on the day, and that worked very well. It didn’t really make any difference that the talks were pre-recorded because the Q&As for were all live (done over chat, moderated by a chair). Speakers were happy for the events to be pre-recorded, because it does allow for mistakes to be edited out, or sections re-done if necessary.   Doing this also meant that we knew the talks would not overrun.

As I said, it was just coordinating so many recording by speakers across the world that was tricky due to time differences (but inevitable).

Q3: Which element of your conference do you think worked best online?

From delegate feedback, people most appreciated having access to such a vast range of talks on a wide range of subjects.  The fact that these were available to watch on demand, as well as at a pre-set time, was appreciated.  For me, personally, I loved the concert!

Whilst we hope that next year’s event will have a face-to-face element, we expect it to be a hybrid event so that people can join virtually. We would like to be able to combine the benefits of online with face-to-face, and it would be a shame to lose all the positives of online.

Q4: Was there anything that went less well than expected?

Using two separate platforms for the registration and the event itself was probably the biggest difficulty, something we would look to do differently next time.  Otherwise, other stresses were due to the fact that we’d had to move this event online at relatively short notice, due to COVID hitting.  This meant that we essentially only had 4.5 months to organise the whole thing, which in hindsight was not a lot!  The last 6 weeks were crazy.

We only had one connectivity problem, which was actually due to a UK-wide internet crash, which only lasted a couple of minutes.

Q5: What sort of feedback did you receive from delegates about the online/virtual format?

Other than what I’ve already mentioned about the range of talks, the flexibility offered by the talks being on catch-up, the success of the concert, and how people missed meeting face-to-face, the other main comment was how great the platform was. Delegates were happy with how well it worked and how well organised it was.

Q6: Following this experience, what are your top tips for organisers who are hesitating about holding a virtual event?

My top tips for anyone looking at holding an online event are:

  • Give yourself plenty of time to organise the event (I’d say at least 6 months)
  • Make sure you set a clear schedule of deadlines, coordinate with the AV team to know what their requirements are, and set other deadlines back from that, making sure that everyone involved knows when these are, and giving them plenty of notice
  • Communicate well with others: Have regular meetings with the event committee, particularly when they’re working remotely and spread over the world, so that everyone has up-to-date information
  • Make sure your event doesn’t clash with any other major organisational deadlines you have!
  • Choose an excellent team to work with, like the one from Venue AV.
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