15 April 2020
Jack Shute By Jack Shute

Has Coronavirus Changed Conferences Forever?

One of the biggest partnering events in the life science calendar Bio-Europe Spring, was scheduled to take place in Paris from March 23 – 27 this year. That all changed with the emergence of COVID-19, meaning that organisers EBD Group had some tough choices to make about whether the event should go ahead.  

Rather than cancel, the decision they came to was to take the conference completely online, with just two weeks’ notice. This made it the first ever large-scale partnering event in the biotech space to be hosted in this way.

EBD had some significant hurdles to overcome to make this happen. As Bio-Europe Spring is so focused on partnerships, one-on-one meetings are at the heart of its appeal. Therefore, the first challenge the organisers had was to ensure these meetings still went ahead. To do that, they built a virtual meeting platform which, over the course of the virtual event, facilitated 5,690 one-to-one partnering meetings.

Those meetings came from the more than 1700 attendees, significantly fewer than were signed up to attend in person but 1700 more than would have attended if the event were cancelled.

So, Bio Europe Spring was a success in extremely difficult circumstances for the events industry. But what about taking this one step further? Could we see other events choose to go virtual-first? The online element here was arranged very quickly but if an industry conference set us as virtual from day one and marketed it effectively, could the virtual option be even better?

Let’s have a look at why.


The Benefits of Being Online


The first benefit to going digital is the obvious one. By removing all travel to and from, there are massive cost, time and environmental benefits and savings.

Thousands of collective hours are spent travelling to events that could be better employed elsewhere, as can the spend on stalls, spaces and accommodation. By going virtual, everyone is just a few clicks away from each other (no more running from Hall A to Hall Z) so chances are quite a bit more can be fit into your time.

The format also means meetings can be spread over 3 or 4 days instead of packing them into two and see all of the seminars, keynotes and panels. In theory, it’s the best of both worlds.

Being online also opens conferences up to a wider audience. Traditionally the domain of the sales reps, marketers and senior management, by increasing accessibility and reducing the time needed, conferences may become accessible to people who can’t leave sites for multiple days but could gain a lot from attending, e-meeting and engaging with the content on offer.

Measuring and tracking ROI could be another benefit. With Bio Europe Spring, we saw a ‘virtual exhibit’ which gave companies the opportunity to have their own bit of real estate on the main conference page, just as they would have had in the hall in Paris.

When in this format, you can see how many views, conversions, interactions and bounces your page(s) generate. It’s impossible to quantify how much attention your stand receives at a conference other than by counting crowds, not the case in the virtual environment. Putting together an engaging digital marketing strategy for a company’s e-exhibit means calculating ROI from an event is much more efficient.



Traditional conferences represent that yearly opportunity to meet, greet, eat and have a beer with your peers in industry that you don’t normally see. Yes, you can still do these things online but can it really replace the real thing?  

This is at the heart of the argument against a solely online conference. Despite Bio-Europe Spring offering tickets at almost half the price, attendee numbers were still significantly down on those expected, and it’s that lack of face to face interaction at it’s root.

In contrast to my earlier point,  many sales professionals would argue that a couple of days spent in one place to meet all of their customers in one go is more efficient than multiple trips later in the year. The question is, can virtual meetings ever really replace that in person experience.

Another sacrifice is atmosphere and those impromptu, serendipitous meetings. Catching someone’s eye you hadn’t seen in years, having a coffee and then doing business is going to be far less likely in a more structured online environment, even if it is more efficient.


Will it Catch On?


In the current climate, we’re seeing more conferences in the biotech space follow Bio-Europe Spring’s lead. BIO International Convention has already committed to going online in June and CPhI organisers recently sent out surveys to test the appetite for something similar. I’ll be keeping a close eye on how they choose to proceed with that.

Before this season, there wouldn’t have been an appetite for any of these events to go totally virtual. However, left with no choice, that’s the situation they find themselves in. There are sure to be some who are converted to this new way of doing things.

The fact that BIO Europe Spring has already committed to hosting an in-person event in Barcelona for 2021 demonstrates that they aren’t ready to totally commit to the online model, but we might see dedicated virtual versions cropping up soon.

As this year sees thousands attend a virtual conference for the first time largely through circumstance, rather than choice, it will be interesting to see how much of an impact this has on the conferences and industry events of the future.

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Jack Shute

Jack Shute is a Director and was a founding member of CM Life Science. In his 7 years with the business he has worked across a range of pharmaceutical markets. Today he manages a team of life science research and pharmaceutical specialists with a global reach.


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