Running an international conference online: Lessons learned from WCMB 2020

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 5th World Conference on Marine Biodiversity (WCMB) was held online at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Organiser, and PeerJ Life & Environment Academic Editor, Mark John Costello summarizes statistics and feedback from delegates that may help others in planning future online conferences. 

What we did

The conference ran over three days with plenary sessions followed by four parallel sessions. To minimise fatigue and time zone issues, the conference was limited to running from 08:30-12:30 and 19:00-22:00 each day (New Zealand time) with short breaks between sessions. 

Presentations included 35 five-minute and 108 ten-minute talks – with additional time allowed per talk for live questions and answers (Q & A) with speakers. There were six keynote plenary talks of 30 min with an additional 15 min for Q & A. Two additional plenary sessions involved Early Career Panel Discussions organised by the conference early career committee, summarised here and here. There were also 129 posters, prizes for the best early career presentation and a photography competition

All talks were pre-recorded to avoid problems with time zone confusion and poor internet connections. This also had the advantage that the organisers were certain of delivery, that presentations were on time, and attendees could watch them for several weeks after the event at their leisure. 

A hybrid conference (online and live) was initially considered. However, because of its increased costs (essentially it means running two parallel events), imbalance in participation between live and online delegates, continued uncertainty in travel due to the pandemic, and uncertainty if local scientists would want to attend a live event at inconvenient hours of the day when they could watch it from the comfort of their home, we decided to hold the conference online only. 


Distribution map of conference delegates at a particular time.



Attendance was similar to or lower than previous (conventional live) WCMB events. Perhaps this would also have been the case at a live conference because of the remoteness of New Zealand. However, it surprised us because other online conferences and webinars tended to have large attendance. Furthermore, we had sponsorship for delegates from developing countries which paid their registration fee, and we did not decline any such applications. 

Prior to the conference we noticed some people who had initially been accepted to present talks and posters withdrew their presentations due to other commitments.  While this also happens with live conferences, it is easier for a delegate to withdraw from an online conference because they have not committed to travel, flights and accommodation costs. 

At the conference, as with live events, only a proportion of delegates attended most sessions. Of the 407 people registered, 386 logged into the conference virtual platform, 297 attended the poster sessions, 178 attended the opening session, and 84 attendees participated in Live Q&A. Delegates attended from 45 different countries, and thus time zones presented a challenge. 

Plenary sessions were best attended, with between 66 and 124 people attending the six keynote presentations, with around 80 for the two Early Career Panel Discussions. Over 130 people logged in afterwards to watch recorded presentations. The online platform recorded 172 Meeting Hub connections (people contacting each other on a one-on-one basis), with 59 individuals attended the networking functions. 

What worked well and not so well

Delegates were clear about the benefits of being able to watch recorded presentations when they wished as well as lower attendance costs, while they missed the social interactions of a live event (see the figure for a summary of the relative positive and negative experiences of delegates from the online conference). Although the online platform had tools for delegates to message and video call each other, most people were not proactive in using them. While some people may be similarly reluctant to initiate a conversation at a live event, the social environment with introductions by other people, facilitates serendipitous conversations. 

Of the respondents to the survey 68% felt the €45 (student, retired) to €68 (full early bird) was good value for money and only 3% said it was not. 

Many online talks did not include a video of the speaker. When one was included however, delegates generally found talks more engaging and could better understand what the speaker was saying if they had an auditory impairment. Future online conferences might also consider auto-captioning of talks. 

A clear majority of delegates (77-79%) felt the lengths of 5-10 min and 30 min plenary talks was about right. While two thirds of delegates felt the time for discussion after talks was adequate, one third would have liked more. The virtual platform was found easy to navigate by 85% of respondents. 

Recommendations for future conferences

Online conferences should not be designed like a conventional live conference. It would be better for delegates and organisers to have more, shorter duration events than try to manage online conferences with hundreds of talks. 

Limiting the online conference to 3 hours per day and a single session would reduce costs and organisational challenges. Although this will be inconvenient for people attending from some time zones, if the event is recorded they can watch it later. Importantly, shorter duration and recorded events allow people the time to manage their work and personal commitments at home during the day. A cost saving would be that a complex virtual platform would not be needed, and it could be run through one of the video meeting tools (e.g. Zoom). 

The invited keynote presentations were the most popular and best attended of all events. They should be the focus of online conferences and could be limited to 20 or 30 min plus 15-20 min Q & A. Other presentations would be posters and/or five-minute talks uploaded in advance to a password protected website, with presenters able to publish their talks and posters after the event on websites as they wish.

Digital posters are easier to prepare than needing to prepare slides plus prerecord a talk.  Short talks are engaging and require speakers to focus on their key message, but getting the audio volume, clarity and length right can be challenging. Conferences should reconsider the need for submission and review of abstracts. To not require abstracts would save delegates and organisers more time. Instead, delegates should provide titles of presentations that indicate their key message and content. 

Clearly there remains demand for live conferences which enable the social interactions and building of personal relationships. However, these could be less frequent and thus reducing carbon footprint. Increased accessibility of presentations online may also help people with mobility, visual and/or auditory impairments. There is an acceptance of the value of online conferences because of the lower financial and time costs involved for delegates, and the added benefits of being able to view recorded presentations at a time of a delegates choosing.  


Mark John CostelloSchool of Environment, University of Auckland, New Zealand, and Nord University, Norway.

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