Guest Column | April 27, 2022

Person-To-Person Interaction At Conferences—Oh, How We've Missed You!

By Arndt Schottelius, Chief Scientific Officer of Affimed

Arndt Schottelius

Slowly and somewhat hesitantly, we’re all starting to emerge from our COVID isolation. Some individuals and organizations are moving faster than others in getting back to the office. For the meeting and conference industry, which has been devastated by lockdowns, it couldn’t happen fast enough.

I’ve recently returned from my first in-person medical conference in more than two years. I traveled from Germany to San Diego to attend the Innate Killer Summit. There was a great deal to navigate in addition to jet lag. Even today, safety protocols are changing, making for uncertainty around travel and conference attendance.

Of course, we’re all ready to get back to live meetings and in-person conferences. Here’s what I experienced and my advice to those questioning whether now is the right time to return to normal—if we can still use the word “normal.”

Conference Protocols in Action

With roughly 250 in attendance, the Innate Killer Summit is a small conference, but having clear protocols is still important. The conference organizers planned extremely well to help attendees navigate both the meetings and their concerns about face-to-face sessions. A health questionnaire was required, which asked about vaccinations, etc. Protocols were clearly communicated.

One thing the organizers put in place that helped a great deal was the choice of two different colors of lanyards. Many conferences are implementing this approach: you could choose red if you needed more distancing or white if you’re open to interacting closely. I chose the white lanyard. I also shook hands and followed that occasionally with disinfectant.

Conference protocols helped individuals engage at a level within their comfort zone and mitigated the safety concerns of those in attendance. Plus, it spelled out expectations, so you had some confidence you weren’t “that guy.”

The Joys of Live, In-Person Conferences

After a long conference sojourn, one forgets how enjoyable it is to meet with real people face-to-face, shake hands, genuinely get to know one another, or refresh longtime friendships and business relationships. The significant differences from the past two years of video conferences were the hallway conversations, drinking a beer together, or breaking bread over a lunch meeting.

The conversations weren’t just about science but also included personal activities and events outside of our jobs. This is at the heart of building a relationship and developing trust, which is critically important for any kind of collaboration. That doesn’t happen when staring into your laptop screen.

Engaging Presentations for Speakers and Audiences

There is more excitement and interest during a presentation before a live, in-person audience. The speaker can see the audience’s attentive expression or heads nodding off. That’s motivation to do your best. The audience also engages more closely without distractions that can happen when attending via computer.

As a speaker, I seldom use a script for an in-person presentation. The slides carry the presentation forward, and I can respond to the audience in real time. Not only that, but I found that the Q & A sessions were far livelier and more engaging. This does not happen, for example, with a pre recorded presentation that may be followed by a couple of questions in a chat conversation.

And, of course, the presentation doesn’t end in the meeting room. Afterward, random hallway conversations offer the opportunity for more questions and comments. It’s also a great time to provide a compliment or two to the speaker for their fine work. That’s something that does not happen in a virtual setting.

The Future of Virtual Meetings and Conferences

There’s no doubt in my mind that virtual meetings and conferences will have a significant role in the future. As just one example, for the conference in San Diego, I was dealing with a nine-hour time zone difference; I endured a 12-hour flight and time away from my home office and family.

Virtual meetings can provide convenient and low-cost conference options. That, in turn, allows broader participation worldwide due to substantially lower costs.

Personal Advice Moving Forward

Virtual meetings and conferences have their place based and clear advantages, but they really cannot match all the benefits inherent in live, in-person conferences.

It’s also good to see that conference organizers are finding safety protocols to help us be comfortable and allay our concerns in this COVID world.

My advice: get back to one or more of your favorite conferences and experience the joys of face-to-face, in-person interactions once more.