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Pittcon 2021: How to Host a Scientific Virtual Conference

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Dr. Neal Dando attended his first Pittcon in the early 1980s as a Ph.D. candidate in analytical chemistry. After many years as an active participant in the annual laboratory science conference, he has been appointed as President of Pittcon 2021. The event will be hosted as a virtual conference and expo on March 8 - 12, 2021.

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In this episode, Neal talks with us about how to successfully plan and host a large-scale scientific virtual conference. We also talk about some of the unique digital features that exhibitors and attendees will be able to experience during Pittcon 2021 and highlight Pittcon’s commitment to scientific outreach programs and funding.

What is Pittcon and how did the conference first start?  

Pittcon, which stands for ‘The Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy, was created by two societies, SSP (Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh) and SACP (Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh) in the 1940s.

At that time, Pittsburgh was the base for many scientific and manufacturing industries, most of which required laboratories for testing materials and quality control. Pittcon started as a way to connect the scientific community in Pittsburgh so that they could compare notes and stay up-to-date with the latest developments in measurement technologies.

Pittcon’s first show was in 1950 and although it started small, it has since grown into one of the largest conferences and expos on laboratory science.

What is the purpose of Pittcon?

Pittcon acts as a forum for people to share ideas, discuss common problems and discover new or improved applications for existing problems. Whether it’s an instrument manufacturer looking for ideas on how to improve their equipment, or laboratory suppliers looking to uncover new supply-needs, Pittcon can offer opportunities in all of these areas.

Personally, Pittcon was the venue through which I met exhibitors who were making technologies that I needed for my own research. I could talk to exhibitors about modifying equipment to meet my specific needs, and that was successful for both parties. The company I worked for was able to get measurement technologies built for our needs and the exhibitors were able to increase sales.

Read More: Sales & Marketing of Scientific Equipment

What are some differences between planning a face-to-face event vs. a virtual event?

Historically, we have always been a face-to-face event. To ensure our virtual format succeeds, we needed to reinvent the way we planned elements of our event, like the event schedule, the timing of sessions, and the way attendees access information.

One big change we made was to move the event to be a Monday through Friday event, instead of a weekend event. We knew that more people would be likely to participate in a virtual event during the work week, so we adapted the event to address this.

Another difference is that presenters need to pre-record and prepare their presentations further in advance. Exhibitors should think, earlier on, about what content to create to take full advantage of the features available for building their virtual booths and to make their booths as engaging as possible.

"We put a lot of thought into the attendee experience and how to make it as engaging as possible."

What's the split between live vs. pre-recorded content?

We’re planning to pre-record all of our sessions to avoid any technical delays that could impact the attendees' ability to access content. In a face-to-face show, a presenter would usually go through their presentation and hold questions at the end. That Q&A section is where we want the interaction to be the strongest, which is why we will hold live Q&A sessions through chat or video rooms immediately following the talks.

One of the benefits of being virtual is that it eliminates the conflict of having to choose between events scheduled at the same time. A virtual format allows attendees to choose which events to attend in real-time while giving them access to watch other events on-demand at a time that is convenient for them.

The on-demand content and the pre-recorded sessions will be accessible for up to 3 months after the event, allowing for longer and more flexible engagement with the event content.

What does a typical Pittcon attendee look like?

The participants and attendees at Pittcon come from a wide range of backgrounds - from lab managers, technicians, researchers, people doing methods or instrumentation development, and even those doing software support for lab management. Pittcon is also a great place to launch a business because we have a fairly low cost of entry compared with other shows.

We also see people from accounting departments or purchasing departments, who use the vent as a way to negotiate larger-scale contracts with manufacturers or to figure out support contract terms. It’s a great place to get in contact with various vendors to address your specific needs.

What are the unique features and benefits that an exhibitor can expect from Pittcon 2021?

Exhibitors at Pittcon 2021 will have access to features like:

  • Dashboards providing information on what content people are engaging with, # of people entering the booth, common questions, etc.
  • Reports providing information on people engaging with their booth, allowing them to quickly follow up with leads.
  • Customizable CTAs to provide access to different content and landing pages.
  • Video meetings through Zoom or Teams (or the exhibitor’s video call platform of choice)
  • Live Video Demos, showing their latest products, methods, or equipment.
  • Live chat rooms that can be set up instantly.

The booths are set up so that attendees will see a dropdown list of the booth personnel that are available to set up a live chat or video meeting. A benefit of the virtual format is that exhibitors can more quickly address customer requests or questions as they come in.

What exhibitors have is an ability to put out a plethora of information, more than they could even put out with a physical booth. They also get to see a broader array of attendees because attendees won't have to pay for travel or commit to being away from their jobs for days at a time.

What kind of content can an exhibitor utilize in their virtual booth?

Exhibitors can use a range of content-types. Videos can be used to showcase demos or equipment and also to welcome attendees to the booth and to give an overview of the company and offerings.

Exhibitors can use CTAs to provide access to downloadable content like brochures, product literature, videos, flyers, demos, etc. As mentioned, they can also provide ways for attendees to request live chats or live demos. Exhibitors can live stream product or application demos from their labs or offices. We also allow exhibitors to use the platforms of their choice - our virtual event platform integrates with Zoom, Teams, and many other applications.

Who are some of the keynote speakers you have had at Pittcon in the past, and who is attending this year?

Over the past years, our keynote speakers have included several Nobel laureates from a range of tracks, from pharmaceutical, bioanalytical, to environmental. We have always sought to alternate the areas of expertise of our keynote speakers to appeal to a range of audiences.

Last year we had Dr. John Rogers, a professor in the fields of material science, biomedical engineering, and medicine. He discussed how the collaboration between all of those fields has led to breakthrough advances in new materials that can be embedded or worn to given real-time medical feedback about a person.

We've hosted Fraser Stoddart and W.E Moerner, as keynote speakers in the past, both of whom are Nobel laureates. This year our speaker is Joe Powell, a chief scientist at Shell. Our focus will be energy, and he will discuss some of the issues facing the energy industry, how they will be pivoting to meet the demand for greater clean energy going forward, and how to prepare to meet other future needs.

What are some of the ways that Pittcon can facilitate networking and connection between scientists?

We are offering a virtual poster gallery during Pittcon, where poster presenters can upload their posters and easily display their contact information to receive feedback from other attendees.

Pittcon is a great venue to get feedback from outside of your lab, research group, or your school. It's a particularly useful way for students to get their work out there. For someone like an instrument manufacturer, it’s a great way to get feedback about new methods and applications.

When I have presented posters, the thing I was most interested in was getting feedback or finding out if someone is working on similar research, who I could collaborate with going forward.

"This year, we will have a way for people to participate on a global scale, which will hopefully encourage even more collaboration across a larger audience."

How has Pittcon impacted your journey as a scientist?

Like many graduate students, I presented a poster on the latest research I was working on. As a result, I was able to develop connections which led me to a job that I stayed in for 30 years.

Pittcon has an employment bureau, which helps connect employers and prospective candidates. This year, we will be facilitating interviews through Zoom and will offer a space for people to learn about jobs and sign up for interviews directly.

Pittcon was also how I met my spouse, who is a Ph.D. chemist. I can’t think of an organization that has affected me more personally than Pittcon - with a career, spouse, and a great opportunity to work with an organization that gives so much back within the science community.

Can you talk about some of the outreach programs that Pittcon is involved in?

We take 90% of any net income that we generate from Pittcon and hand it out in the form of grants, scholarships, and outreach. We really focus on impacting students in elementary to high school to get them excited about a potential career in science.

We run science demonstrations, called Faraday Lectures where we get world-class scientists to conduct practical demonstrations that educators can use to augment their lesson plans. We are now running these virtually and can make them available to teachers all over the world. We also have a Science Olympiad program, where we purchase kits and provide training so educators can organize their own science Olympics events.

We try to push ourselves to expand our outreach and do it in a way that allows us to have a wide-spread impact, rather than handing out a single grant. We've been fortunate to have very rewarding careers in science and we just want to pay it forward.

What was your strategy for marketing such a large virtual event?

Early in 2020, we didn’t know if we would be having a face-to-face show, a hybrid show, or a fully virtual show, so we prepared a strategy to manage all options. But this is was complicated because normally we would focus our marketing efforts on what people could expect to experience during Pittcon, but we weren’t sure what the event would look like ourselves. Because of this, we moved the bulk of our marketing efforts closer to the show.

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We were also aware that many people who normally couldn’t attend Pittcon would be able to attend more easily. We really utilized all of our own marketing channels to reach a larger audience and focused on reaching as geographically diverse an audience as possible. COVID has also really caused people to want more interaction, so we’re hoping we can provide that during the virtual event.

What will Pittcon look like over the next three to five years? How likely is it that we could see a hybrid format?

"There will always be those for whom travel to a face-to-face event is just not possible."

By doing a hybrid show, you can get the best of both worlds - you can still reach those who can physically attend the event, but also open up the event to people all over the world who want to participate.

In a way, we’re fortunate that COVID-19 has pushed us to be virtual this year. We learned how to market the virtual event, timelines required to set up a virtual show, and many other best practices for a virtual format. Moving forward, we will be much better positioned to develop a hybrid platform due to the experience we’ve gained.

Pittcon 2021 will show us how much interest we received from groups that would not normally attend Pittcon, so that will help us plan future shows and the format they will take. I’m sure many other events will do the same because regardless of format, every event provider is looking to reach as wide an audience as they can. The virtual event environment offers a far more inclusive environment than we had previously, so I think hybrid events are a great solution for the future.

When is Pittcon 2021?

Pittcon 2021 will be held on March 8 - 12, 2021. The on-demand content will also be available for 3 months after the event.

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Posted by Elizabeth Rudy

Elizabeth graduated from Wesleyan University (Middletown, CT) with a BA in Psychology and completed a MA in Organizational Psychology at Adelphi University in New York. Elizabeth recently relocated from New York, and she has enjoyed exploring and getting to know her new home in Manchester. Elizabeth started her career in human resources and operations before discovering a passion for marketing. She previously worked as a marketing and operations professional in the international education sector. Outside of work, Elizabeth loves cooking and is always interested to experiment with new cuisines and dishes. She also enjoys baking, true crime, traveling, playing the piano and singing.

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