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By Leah Poffenberger
Early in 2020, APS made the tough call to cancel its in-person meetings, shutting down two of its largest conferences. The APS Meetings Department has been able to quickly pivot to organizing conferences in the online world and lending support to APS membership units holding their annual meetings in 2020.
In November, three APS Divisions held their annual meetings online, testing new virtual meeting platforms, and recorded higher than average attendance numbers at each meeting. The Division of Nuclear Physics (DNP) attracted over 1300 attendees, more than their typical attendance of around 800. The Division of Plasma Physics (DPP) and the Division of Fluid Dynamics (DFD) drew 2200 and 3200 attendees respectively.
These highly successful meetings come at a time of rising costs to hold conferences online, especially for meetings with thousands of registrants signing on at the same time. DNP, DPP, and DFD were among the first online APS meetings to charge a registration fee—about half of the usual cost to register for an APS meeting for regular members with a larger discount for students.
“Running these conferences can cost a lot of money—there’s a whole production element to putting on a virtual meeting,” says Hunter Clemens, Director of Meetings at APS. “Broadcasting a science conference can be a bit like TV, and you have to pay for technicians, a production manager and airtime…There is a lot of value to these meetings, but also a cost—but we’re trying to make them as affordable as possible while still making them happen.”On top of that, he adds, there are more than a million organizations that hold conferences and demand for virtual meetings has surged owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Companies charge money to run these meetings, and especially for large meetings—you can’t have a Zoom session with 10,000 people so we have to have a company that has a lot of servers and bandwidth,” says Michael Brown, DPP Chair Elect and professor at Swarthmore College. “One thing these companies provide is that they record everything, and the talks are available for a year afterwards. Virtually everything that whole week was recorded. If you still have your registration, it’s like the conference is still going on. That’s a service that isn’t free.”
According to APS Chief Financial Officer Jane Hopkins Gould, APS-sponsored meetings are not a profit maker for the Society. "While it is our goal to cover all of the direct costs, most meetings do not produce sufficient revenue to cover the direct costs plus the internally allocated costs," she notes. "Advancing and diffusing the knowledge of physics through APS meetings is a core mission activity and one in which APS and its members jointly invest both time and resources."
APS has also learned that most participants register just before a virtual event. "Unlike an in-person meeting which has fixed as well as variable costs that depend on attendance, a virtual meeting is primarily a fixed cost," explained Gould. "Regardless of whether 10 people or 10,000 people actually participate, APS has to work with its vendor far in advance to accommodate the estimated maximum number of participants to ensure a high-quality experience."
In 2020, APS tested a number of virtual platforms and a number of pricing structures. "The goal of APS meetings, whether in person or virtually, continues to be making them financially accessible to physicists from across the world while maintaining easy access to the highest quality content, whether live or asynchronous," said Gould.
In order to support and broadcast the elements of an online meeting, from live talks to poster sessions to virtual exhibit halls, both DPP and DFD opted to use Bravura Technologies to host their meetings. Bravura has partnered with APS before on the phone app for in-person March and April meetings. DNP opted to partner with Michigan State University to use existing online meeting infrastructure built by the university. With the help of Bravura, the DPP and DFD meetings were able to take lessons learned from the virtual 2020 April Meeting and DAMOP to make even better, more user-friendly meeting experiences.
“Every time we hold a meeting, we learn a little more…we’ve added to [each meeting] every time,” says Clemens. “For example, during the 2020 April meeting, we didn’t have a method of communicating during the poster session. At DAMOP, we added a text chat, and for these meetings, we asked for a video chat for the poster session… What we’re trying to do at the 2021 March Meeting is to make it even better.”
Since many APS meeting attendees often rate the networking opportunities among the most valuable components of in-person meetings, online meeting organizers are working on new ways to help attendees make connections. Dedicated networking sessions via Zoom were popular at DFD, and new opportunities will be available at the 2021 March Meeting to better emulate the types of in-person interactions that are common while milling about a convention center.
“Two things we’ll be doing for March are: Having something called 'hall networking'—right after a session, people usually go into the hall and continue to talk—people will come out of a talk’s Zoom room into their own networking room for 10 to 15 minutes to talk about the session,” says Clemens. “The other thing we’re going to do is create a networking room for each unit so they can go in and chat, along with some cross-topic networking rooms.”
While online meetings still have some limitations, Brown pointed out some ways that the virtual DPP meeting actually benefited from its format. One informal Q&A session brought together leaders in plasma physics that likely wouldn’t have been able to attend an in-person meeting. Brown also notes the increased accessibility of meetings for international attendees and others who might not typically be able to travel. At future DPP meetings, Brown hopes to bring some virtual components to in-person sessions to provide more accessibility for DPP members who can’t travel to the conference.
The virtual DFD meeting also could have applications to an in-person meeting: Rather than attempting to run the usual 40 sessions simultaneously, presenters were invited to upload whatever supplemental content they wished alongside their abstracts. Viewers then accessed the additional content—ranging from minute long flash talks to in-depth 15-minute presentations—on their own time throughout the meeting. Ongoing chat boxes for each session facilitated a back-and-forth between the speaker and viewers.
“People could navigate through the abstracts, browse content or go deep with talks they really wanted to know more about. That went really well, and we had almost as many abstracts as usual,” says Jonathan Freund, DFD Meeting Chair and professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “There’s been talk of putting this—abstracts plus extra materials—in conjunction with in-person meetings.”
Looking ahead to the 2021 March Meeting, the APS Meetings Department has organized or provided support for 14 online meetings over the past year, and they hope to continue applying lessons learned to the largest APS meeting.
“Each meeting we have new iterations,” says Clemens. “The events we offer like poster sessions and networking are getting better each time—we just have to keep sharpening up.”
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine