In-person, virtual or hybrid: no single way to meet

Veterinary conference formats vary amid pandemic fourth wave

August 24, 2021 (published)
Photo courtesy of Pauwels Congress Organisers
The European College of Veterinary Internal Medicine–Companion Animal attracted a record of about 1,500 attendees to its 2019 congress in Milan (above). This September, members will meet online for the second year in a row due to COVID-19 precautions.

A feeling of "here we go again" is hanging over veterinary meetings as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise once more. While a few conferences happened in person during an early-summer lull in infections, the question of how and whether to gather is back on the table for organizers, prospective attendees, exhibitors and presenters.

However, it's not exactly Groundhog Day. Conference hosts are not canceling, postponing or scrambling to create online meetings from scratch. Eighteen months in, science understands much more about the virus, at least 160 million Americans are fully vaccinated, and many organizations have added hosting virtual meetings to their skill set.

The upcoming conference schedule reflects the mixed nature of these times: Among meetings planned for late August through October are three events taking place exclusively on the internet and six planned for convention halls and hotel ballrooms.

Throwback: assembling indoors

The Veterinary Innovation + NAVC Media eCommerce Summit in Kansas City this weekend will be entirely in real life. None of the programming will be streamed. Recordings of the program will be available for purchase online after the event.

"[The summit] is designed to be a smaller, intimate conference geared towards bringing high-level executives and industry thought leaders together to engage, discuss and address some of the biggest challenges and opportunities facing the veterinary industry," said Robin Pence, vice president for public relations for the North American Veterinary Community, which is cohosting the summit. The emphasis on networking and collaborating "make this event best suited to be in-person," she said.

In brief

Asked whether rising infection rates in the country have caused concern among organizers, Pence pointed to NAVC's experience hosting other recent in-person events, including the VMX Veterinary Meeting and Expo in June in Orlando. "[W]e have been well-prepared to make this a very safe environment," she said, listing a raft of protocols for VMX that she said exceeded U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requirements, including access to a physician via an app, extra handwashing and sanitizing stations, and daily temperature checks.

More than 10,000 veterinary professionals gathered at VMX. Organizers said it was the biggest in-person meeting of veterinarians since the pandemic was declared in March 2020. (In January 2020, the event drew 18,000 people.)

VMX required that all attendees wear masks, though not all did. "On the first day of our conference, local government announced the dropping of any mask mandate for indoor and outdoor activities whether people were vaccinated or not," Pence said. "That did create a little confusion amongst attendees whether they still needed to wear masks."    

For the Veterinary Innovation Summit, Pence said, "We are following the CDC and local Kansas City, Missouri, guidelines to require masks be worn by everyone at the event, regardless of vaccination status." 

The event had 230 registrants by mid-August, according to Pence. Although the cancellation deadline for a full refund, minus a $65 fee, has passed, Pence said that NAVC is reviewing cancellations on a case-by-case basis and has offered refunds for the two post-deadline cancellation requests received so far.

The Western Veterinary Conference will likely draw thousands to Las Vegas during its Sept. 6-9 run. Postponed from its regular February time slot due to COVID-19, the annual conference will offer a "virtual supplement" this year, providing online some — but not all — of the programming available to in-person attendees.

Speaking a few weeks before the event, Andrea Davis, CEO of Viticus Group, which runs WVC, sounded an optimistic note, despite headlines about rising cases and breakthrough infections. "We are incredibly excited to help bring the veterinary community back together, in person, in a big way," she said. "We initially were not sure how the program was going to look this year, due to the unpredictability of the world." But she said attendees, sponsors and exhibitors encouraged the organization to make it happen.

Last year, shortly before pandemic lockdowns, 16,000 people attended WVC, according to organizers. Registrations are down this year. "This is to be expected," she said, "considering the unprecedented state of the world." She also reported a 12% cancellation rate among exhibitors.

"Despite everything," she said, "we continue to see hundreds of registrations still coming in and new companies looking to add booths and events daily."

Masks are required at the event, but not proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test results. Attendees will be required to use contactless temperature scanners daily to ensure they do not have a fever. WVC is offering full refunds on conference registration, with zero cancellation fees.

Dr. Andrew Moffatt, CEO of a 15-hospital group in the San Francisco Bay Area, plans to have a booth at WVC. He expects the exhibition hall will be lively, since VMX helped the profession get its first-conference-after-COVID-19 jitters out of the way.

"I'm looking forward to getting out there," he said about the Las Vegas meeting. "I want to talk to my veterinary colleagues about their struggles, and it's hard to do that over Zoom. I really miss seeing them in person. So, yeah, I'm really excited about the event."

Soon after WVC, the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners Symposium (ABVP) will take place in New Orleans, Sept. 16-19. Dr. Gary Thompson, president-elect of the specialty organization, said offering a virtual program in lieu of or in addition to a meeting would be cost-prohibitive for the group. Last year, ABVP's only option was to call off the symposium.

This year's reception celebrating new and renewing diplomates has been canceled, and networking lunches will be offered as grab-and-go boxed lunches so attendees can eat where they feel most comfortable.

"It's disappointing, but we are working hard to make lemonade out of lemons," Thompson said.

Masks will be required. Attendees will not have to provide proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test. However, Thompson noted, the City of New Orleans does have such a requirement for entry into restaurants or bars. Attendees can cancel for any reason at any time and receive a refund or apply their admission fee to next year's event.

Other upcoming conferences scheduled to meet in person include the Fetch DVM360 Conference in Kansas City Aug. 27-30, the 27th International Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society Symposium (IVECCS) in Nashville Sept. 11-15 and the Southwest Veterinary Symposium in San Antonio Sept. 23-26. Fetch DVM360 will be in person only. IVECCS is offering a virtual registration for four live-streamed tracks per day during the event, according to its website. Southwest offers a virtual registration with on-demand access to all recorded lectures, with exceptions such as interactive labs and master classes.

Sticking with an e-format

Several meetings are staying with entirely virtual programs, including the European College of Veterinary Internal Medicine-Companion Animal Congress Sept. 1-4. The organization had booked a venue in Lyon, France, well before the pandemic. But early this year, "we made the decision that it would not be realistic to organize a normal live congress," said event chair Dr. Nicole Luckschander-Zeller, who is based in Vienna. For the second year in a row, the congress will be held online.

Luckschander-Zeller pointed out that meeting online brings losses and gains. "Social contacts, meeting colleagues and friends, have been lost, and we really miss this," she said. At the same time, "[t]he virtual congress is open to a broader audience, people who can normally not afford [the] money or time are now able to join."

Organizers have their fingers crossed for next year's congress, planned for Gothenburg, Sweden, where, even if the meeting is held in person, there will be a virtual component.

"We feel that every congress from now on should be hybrid … with climate change/sustainability in mind," Luckschander-Zeller said. "If you can spread knowledge to more people with less travel, it is all the better."

The American Association of Fish Veterinarians (AAFV) will also host a virtual conference for the second year in a row.

"Due to the amount of effort it takes to plan an in-person conference, and with the uncertainties surrounding the current pandemic, we felt, as medical professionals ourselves, we should do the responsible thing and not hold an in-person conference until we were positive it was safe to do so," said Dr. Johnny Shelley, AAFV president.

The Oct. 21-22 virtual conference will include on-demand viewing for those unable to attend the live sessions.

Next year, AAFV marks its 10-year anniversary. "We certainly hope that we can host an in-person conference, but that is very much dependent on the state of affairs in this country," Shelley said.

The American Veterinary Medical Association had hoped its Veterinary Business and Economics Forum, Oct. 14-16, would be an in-person event "but [we] decided to stick to fully virtual, out of an abundance of caution to protect the health of attendees, speakers, staff, and all others who may be directly or indirectly involved with this meeting," said AVMA spokesperson Michael San Filippo. He said the success of last year's fully virtual forum increased the confidence of the organization's leaders that they could provide "a similar, valuable experience this year."

The pandemic has taught the AVMA a lot about the value of offering virtual components in general, San Filippo said. "Some people prefer or need to have this option," he explained. "So as we move forward, I think you're going to see this more and more — not just from the AVMA, but across the board."

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