The Return Of The In-Person Conference In The Life Sciences And Healthcare Sector

Pete Buckman is SVP at Medidata. He manages the Professional Services teams in Europe and Asia and is Site Leader for EMEA.

Smiling businesswomen looking at male professional discussing during networking event


The Covid-19 pandemic fundamentally altered almost every aspect of our lives—from how we work and travel to how we access healthcare. It forced us to reconsider how we structure society at a time when human contact was limited. The impact this had on the conference industry, including for the life sciences sector and, more specifically, for Medidata (both attending and hosting), was no exception.

The conference sector adapted and was altered overnight with the rise of virtual conferences and webinars as a means of sharing information, networking and positioning thought leaders. Medidata’s NEXT conference series followed suit and, where possible, quickly adjusted in 2021 to continue educating the industry on the latest advancements in clinical trials.

However, society is not naturally “virtual.” We enjoy human contact and in-person interactions. Meeting face-to-face builds relationships and trust, something healthcare professionals rely on, in a way that virtual contact simply cannot.

Changes within the conference space over the past year support this fact. People are pushing for in-person opportunities to build their networks, strengthen their relationships, forge new ones and maybe even enjoy a drink with like-minded individuals!

At Medidata NEXT Basel 2023, attendance figures more than doubled year-on-year, suggesting people are ready—and eager—to get back in the room and socialize with their peers. Within the life sciences industry, where collaboration and partnerships are vital to achieving shared goals and driving scientific discovery, this interaction is invaluable.

That said, the world is not the same as it was before the pandemic. The economic downturn, rising inflation, higher interest rates and an increasing emphasis on environmental responsibility have seen companies restrict both the number of conferences employees can attend and the distance they can travel to attend them. So, in the short term, at least, a return to pre-Covid attendance levels is unlikely.

This trend has forced individuals to become more selective about which events they attend, putting the onus on life sciences companies, among others, and conference organizers to do more to convince potential delegates that their conference is valuable and worth the time.

In this respect, size won’t always matter. A smaller, niche conference, for instance, on a rare disease or innovative medical device, can offer expertise and valuable contacts within a very specific space, while a larger one, such as ASCO, can offer a broad opportunity to learn about different aspects of the healthcare industry and a wider pool of contacts. Whatever the format, conference organizers must now work harder to drive attendee turnout from industry leaders, life science change makers and patient advocates.

How can conference organizers ensure success?

Industry organizers should consider the following three things when designing a conference.

1. A cutting-edge agenda: It is crucial that conference agendas are innovative and reflect the latest industry news and scientific developments. Not only should the agenda summarize recent trends, but it should also look forward. Conference-goers need to feel they are getting first insight into the next big ideas and technologies rather than hearing the same information and opinions as anywhere else—especially online.

2. Networking opportunities: Networking is the biggest benefit an in-person conference offers over virtual events, so ensuring attendees have ample opportunity to network is imperative. Conferences are one of the most useful opportunities for healthcare professionals to widen their circle, and when an event is jam-packed, with no chance to have a coffee and a chat, value is lost.

3. Clarity: Organizers must be clear about what benefit attendees can get out of coming to their conferences. Setting out specific details, such as the disease and treatment areas that will be discussed and the names of experts driving change for patients on various panels and sessions, is crucial. While more creative session titles may initially draw interest, there needs to be substance behind the headlines so that employees can justify the expense of attending a conference to their employers.

Hybrid conferences are here to stay.

While there is a growing appetite for in-person conferences, the virtual capacity built during the pandemic and the ease of accessing these events from a home office means they will remain popular. Conferences will, therefore, continue to retain a hybrid element, supported by the increase in new technologies that can assist this approach.

Helpfully, by retaining virtual elements, organizers and sponsors can broaden the pool of people they reach, both geographically and across multiple sectors, which is increasingly important as clinical trials globalize, allowing findings from research to be accessed by more people.

Hosting a virtual or hybrid conference is also cheaper for both the organizer and the attendee. Additionally, hybrid events are more accessible to individuals with limited mobility or limited time with busy schedules—this approach democratizes access to information and ideas and can ensure a good turnout on the day.

There are several ways organizers can make hybrid events more stimulating for virtual guests, such as using polls and facilitating audience interaction. These methods are infinitely more engaging than presentation after presentation, allowing online viewers to feel like they are part of the experience and able to contribute their views to the discussion. New technologies and computer programs that can further engage online participants are likely to appear over the next few years, making the virtual experience even more fruitful.

Get out there.

Conferences are an opportunity to build relationships as well as collect and share sector knowledge. So, while hybridity will remain, in-person events will likely remain the preferred choice within the life sciences space.

The macroeconomic environment means that companies across all sectors are cutting budgets, but the networking and learning advantages afforded by conference attendance make them a business expense worth maintaining. Accordingly, organizers must carefully consider what attendees are looking for and how the event can add value.

Employees, meanwhile, should continue to push for physical attendance and make the case to their companies by highlighting the benefits and value of attending a conference, not least the educational and networking opportunities they offer.

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