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How IEEE Conferences Thrived Despite the COVID-19 Pandemic

By switching to virtual platforms, more than 1,600 events were held last year

4 min read
Illustration of a lanyard with a laptop at the end.
Illustration: IEEE Spectrum

THE INSTITUTE If you have enjoyed attending any of the thousands of IEEE virtual conferences and events held around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, you have a dedicated team of IEEE volunteers and staff to thank. The IEEE conferences committee and the organization’s global Meetings, Conferences, and Events team, in collaboration with IEEE organizational unit partners, worked behind the scenes to make sure the gatherings went off without a hitch.

By keeping the customer as their North Star and taking quick action, the MCE team was able to support the community, helping organizers hold more than 1,600 conferences. And it was able to sustain IEEE’s conference business, which generates more than US $204 million for the organization and makes up about 40 percent of its revenue, according to the 2019 annual report.

If IEEE had lost that revenue, it would have had a devastating effect on the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission. Researchers would have lost an important outlet to present their work and have their papers published. In addition, attendees would not have been able to learn about cutting-edge research. More than 200,000 papers were added last year to the IEEE XploreDigital Library, an increase of 10 percent over 2019.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at what actions the group took to ensure conferences succeeded.  

SWIFT ACTION

During a strategic planning session held in December 2019, IEEE Fellow Bin Zhao, chair of the IEEE conference committee, asked the attendees to rededicate themselves to serving consumers of IEEE’s conferences. That includes organizers, authors, presenters, attendees, and sponsors.

By putting those groups first, Zhao said, it would strengthen the conference business. He outlined the many challenges the business faced, including competition from new technology conferences, growth opportunities from globalization, intersections of audiences, and new publishing models. Although the committee could not foresee the COVID-19 pandemic at the time, Zhao’s customer-centric strategy would be key to weathering its impact.

In January 2020, as word that a new coronavirus was spreading around the world, MCE head Marie Hunter saw the need for decisive action. She directed the IEEE event emergency response team, which she formed in 2012, to activate a business continuity emergency response plan to what was then an epidemic. With her expertise in the global events business, Hunter knew early intervention and response was essential.

“The MCE team has deep expertise in managing emergencies in a variety of event situations,” she says. “In fact, the theme of our 2019 annual meeting for customers was emergency preparedness. We were well prepared, but the pervasive disruption of the coronavirus was daunting even to our highly experienced and professional team.”

By mid-February the pandemic was beginning to affect the planning of hundreds of IEEE conferences, and by early April the number had soared. Already in full response mode, the MCE team sought advice on how to handle the impact of the virus from other professionals within the hospitality industry, local health agencies, and global authorities such as the World Health Organization and Johns Hopkins University.

As the pandemic set in during the course of 2020, Zhao and members of the IEEE conference committee stayed at the epicenter of discussions.

“I was hearing daily from conference organizers looking for guidance, options, and the best course of action,” he says. “Their world was severely disrupted, and we needed to respond.”

With health and safety of the community as their top priority, the MCE team began working closely with OU partners to support IEEE conference organizers, who were struggling to understand their options for canceling conferences, rewriting contracts, reviewing finances, and exploring virtual conference platforms. Every organizer of IEEE’s more than 2,000 events had to make a choice: cancel, postpone, relocate to another venue, or change the format to a virtual conference.

The IEEE emergency response team, led by the director of IEEE Event Operations, Sherry Russ Sills, worked one-on-one with event organizers to provide guidance on negotiating contracts with hotels and suppliers. Millions of dollars in conference cancellation penalties were avoided through strong contracts and the use of force majeure clauses, which relieved IEEE from its obligation because the coronavirus was beyond its control.

In 2012 Hunter had championed and implemented event insurance for the line of business—which mitigated our losses through partnership with IEEE risk-management experts. The MCE team also assisted organizers with preparing new budgets, publishing protocols and programs, and pivoting to virtual.

A small number of the events were canceled, but most organizers embraced the virtual conference technology. Fortunately the small-but-mighty Virtual Events Center of Excellence was able to assist organizers with holding such meetings. It already had retained certified producers of digital events.

The MCE digital events team was able to produce more than 50 conferences on a pro bono basis in support of conferences in need. It also provided platforms and training materials for organizers to produce another 50 events, again at no charge.

Instructions for how to hold a virtual event were posted on the MCE website.

A Going Virtual town hall held in July by the IEEE conference committee and MCE attracted hundreds of participants. Topics included how to pivot to a virtual platform, setting up an online registration model for attendees, and vetting new platforms and services.

“Almost everything about virtual events is different than those held face to face,” Hunter says. “These include technical programs, registering attendees, and handling sponsorships and exhibits. But this new way of holding an event offers new opportunities to serve our community by engaging with attendees, attracting a broader audience, and providing a wider exchange of information.”

The conference world has been forever transformed, Hunter says.

“New ways of exchanging information, research, and networking are being experimented with every day,” she says. “Minds have opened up to the opportunities, and there is still much to learn and much to innovate.”

THE FUTURE

During the pandemic, quick decisions and actions enabled IEEE conference publishing activity to remain strong. IEEE helped hundreds of thousands of researchers publish their work.

“In many ways,” Zhao says, “face-to-face, virtual, and hybrid meetings are just different ways an attendee can choose to engage with an IEEE conference, and so all are likely to be popular in the future.” Hybrid models are meetings that combine in-person and virtual sessions.

“We anticipate that the ways to make connections, to engage with others, to exchange information, and to demonstrate technologies and products will be more diversified,” he says. “This diversity, along with the supporting technologies, will enrich attendees’ experiences and provide more value to all parties associated with meetings, conferences, and events.

“With preparedness and safety top of mind, we look forward to providing engaging virtual event experiences and flexing our muscles with hybrid formats. As we venture into the world of hybrid events, we can begin to cautiously embrace the joy of coming back together—the friendships, the laughter, and the rich exchanges that are an essential part of meeting face-to-face.”

Elizabeth Kurzawa is the senior program manager for IEEE Meetings, Conferences and Events

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