The future of scientific conferences

The news of an established conference organiser closing their books last month has shocked the scientific community. And as the world becomes more virtual, regular conference-goers may be wondering about the future of physical scientific meetings. Is there still a need in the market for them, or will networking and collaborations be abandoned to webinars?

Technology has enabled virtual meetings for some time and corporate industries are thriving on the fact that this allows more flexible meetings, eliminating travel costs and minimising time spent out of the office. Networking can be done via social media, such as Twitter, and at a time that suits the individual, with no restrictions (such as time or location). Why would anyone need to attend a physical conference or networking meeting anymore?

Worries about the future of conferences have been evident for over a decade. Referring to The Scientist article ‘The Future of Scientific Meetings‘ we can see the major players in the conference organiser world, including Gordon Research Conferences and Keystone Symposia, were, at the time, worried about the future of their businesses. And this was in 2006. The fact these major players’ management thought it relevant to meet up to discuss the saturated market they worked in revealed “a sign of the times”.

However 11 years on from this and, based on the feedback we, Fusion Conferences, receive after every meeting we hold, it seems physical conferences are still required, and desired.

In order to assess the state of scientific meetings, we conducted a survey in December 2016 asking the scientific community about their reasons for attending conferences and how necessary they think physical meetings will be going forward. The survey is due to close at the end of February but already the results are telling.

As of 06 February, a third of scientists agreed that the main reason they attend conferences is to network and build up their list of contacts. When asked if they think physical conferences are a necessity, 42% of scientists said they are vital to their work. The remaining 58% agreed they were mostly a necessity, but due to expensive registration costs they had to limit the amount of conferences they attended.

If this is a representation of the scientific community as a whole, perhaps organisers shouldn’t be worried about the future. However, the rising costs of attending conferences might be something to be concerned about – and the increasing costs of airfare is only going to make things harder, particularly for academics and students trying to get funding approved by their increasingly-stingy (and who blames them in this economic climate) organisations.

Despite these worries, more than 40% of scientists completing the study said nothing could replace networking in person, including virtual conferences. The remaining said virtual does have its place, and a mixture of online and physical conferences works best. Scientific conferences are already moving in this direction, as organisers realise the potential for online meetings in this difficult financial climate.

It does seem apparent that physical conferences are here to stay however and therefore, going forward, it is paramount for organisers to continue to find cost-saving measures to enable delegates to attend. This includes obtaining more sponsorship to help fund delegates’ registration fees and travel costs. Organisers should also look to different destinations for their meetings, as opposed to all-American conferences, enabling scientists in other countries a higher chance of attending.

Laura Trundle, Director of Fusion Conferences, says on the subject: “We constantly strive to ensure our fees are competitive and cost effective but we are aware it’s not always about offering the cheapest service, but offering significant value for money so your attendees return again and again. The scientific conference market has become so saturated that delegates have the option to be more discerning than ever. Organisers must ensure their meetings stand out! Outstanding quality, creative networking opportunities and a well-balanced speaker line-up including expertise, geographical location and most importantly gender are just a few fundamentals that will make for a memorable meeting. In addition to this, it’s important to offer flexibility. Many attendees opt for our inclusive registration package for convenience but alongside this we also offer a day pass package to allow those on lower budgets to seek more cost effective accommodation elsewhere. Going the extra mile for our participants and allowing such flexibility is crucial as budgets are forever shrinking. We are in a fast paced market and you must keep up to maintain success.”

To help Fusion Conferences continue to assess the state of scientific conferences, please complete our survey here.

You can also sign up to our mailing list to hear the full results in March.

A full list of Fusion’s conferences can be found on the website.

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