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Before March 2020, if you talked about a virtual event, you were most likely talking about a standard webinar. Today’s virtual meetings can have all the hallmarks of large-scale, in-person conferences, from registration tables and exhibit halls to breakout rooms and poster galleries.

The peer review/scientific support, technology support and research services teams at ORAU and ORISE have become incredibly successful at executing virtual events. In FY21, 31 staff facilitated 726 virtual sessions. 

The team takes a hands-on approach to a variety of different meeting types: large-scale conferences with thousands of attendees, peer reviews, workshops, principal investigator meetings, advisory team meetings with a few dozen to a few hundred people and everything in between.

One of the largest events they organized was the U.S. Department of Energy’s first-ever Hydrogen Shot Summit in August and September 2021. The event was attended by thousands of people and featured a lineup of speakers that included Jennifer Granholm, U.S. Secretary of Energy, John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, and Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and Breakthrough Energy. 

While virtual meetings definitely have their benefits—cost-effectiveness with no travel or meeting space costs—they also allow for more diversity, inclusion and accessibility than most in-person meetings, said Keri Cagle, Ed.D., Director of Scientific and Technical Resource Integration. For example, an attendee from an underserved community who may not be able to travel to an in-person event can attend virtually.

Additionally, someone who is hearing or vision impaired can get assistance from technology.

Another large event was the annual Alfred Street Baptist Church (ASBC) Foundation Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) Festival, which went virtual in February 2021 for the first time in its history. The ASBC Foundation event is the nation’s largest annual event celebrating HBCUs.

“We managed seminars to provide information to high school students on topics like paying for college, STEM careers, Greek life and scholarships,” said Lee-Ann Kiser, who led the ORAU team managing the project. “We also managed a virtual festival floor with over 70 HBCUs and 25-plus sponsors and supporting organizations offering information, internships, scholarships and next steps for high school and college students.”

Over the past year or so, as more meetings transitioned from in person to virtual, Cagle said the entire peer review team met the various requirements of each meeting using platforms such as Zoom, CVent Attendee Hub, Gathertown, Slack and Wonder, all of which are virtual meeting platforms, as well as XLeap, which helps with meeting facilitation and brainstorming. These tools help create the most realistic virtual meetings possible.

“Our customers want more of a real-world experience for their meetings instead of everyone just sitting in a webinar,” Jody Crisp, Peer Review group manager said.

Exhibit halls and gathering spaces look very realistic on some of the meeting platforms. And there are breakout rooms. Lots of them.

“If we were in person, we would be doing breakout rooms,” Crisp said. “What do they need to look like and how do we support them in the virtual space? We may need to provide facilitators or moderators to manage presentations and keep the breakout flowing or timers to make sure a speaker doesn’t go ever their time limit and science writers to capture it all.”

Executing 726 virtual sessions over the course of a year means Cagle and her team have been busy, often with meetings scheduled back-to-back-to-back.

“It’s been all hands on deck for a while now,” Cagle said, adding that she’s grateful for everyone who has stepped up to help make every virtual event a success. All hands will continue to be needed, even if and when the world resumes meetings in person.

“There will always be a virtual component,” Cagle said.