The so-called “Frühjahrssymposium” (German for “spring symposium”) is an international chemistry conference organized by the Jungchemikerforum (JCF), which is the youth organization of the German Chemical Society (GDCh). Organized annually since 1991, it has grown to one of Europe’s biggest chemistry conferences for young scientists. Its unique feature is that it addresses not only postgraduate students and professionals, but also undergraduate students. This gives undergraduate students the chance to experience a conference for the first time without the pressure of presenting their own research. Furthermore, they can establish networks with young chemists from all over Germany and beyond.
The 23rd Frühjahrssymposium was originally planned as a physical event at the end of March 2021. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was then organized as an online-only event. This required our team to essentially organize the conference a second time, given the drastic changes that came with the switch to the online format. Nonetheless, it turned out to be a very enjoyable experience not only for the organizing team but also for the participants. Much of this came down to the very “real” conference atmosphere, offered by an interplay of the online-tools Gather and Zoom. This provided excellent networking opportunities directly from the participants’ home desks or even living room couches.
Guidance for Conference Organizers
Shortly after the conclusion of the event, ChemistryViews reported on our conference through the eyes of a participant . In this article, we would like to share our experience from the perspective of the organizing team. Usually being the “customers” of conferences, we were able to create a place for exchange among scientists on our own and switch sides with distinguished scientists and professional conference organizers. The article covers several issues we consider very relevant for online conferences. Therein, it is our intention to not only share experience, but also give some guidance for future conference organizers.
Though COVID-19-related restrictions were eased considerably in the summer of 2021, most scientific conferences were still held as online events. Recently, many European countries have been registering record-breaking numbers of COVID-19 infections, and the Omikron variant is spreading fast. Consequently, social distancing and even lockdown measures have been reintroduced in many countries. In light of these developments, we hope to share valuable insight into the organization of online conferences, which may, unfortunately, be the standard in 2022 again.
An obvious, though not straightforward, issue in the organization of a digital conference is the management of time zones. In extreme cases, this has led to a conference being replicated and held twice, once for the Asian-Pacific and once for the predominantly European-American audience [2,3]. The Frühjahrssymposium in 2021 was an international conference, welcoming 377 participants from 13 countries, 30 of whom were from outside the European Union. A large fraction of these attended from the USA, as part of an exchange program between the North Eastern Section of the American Chemical Society (NESACS) and North Eastern Section Younger Chemist Committee (NSYCC) and the GDCh and JCF. This led to the conference starting in the early afternoon German time (UTC+2, see Fig. 1) and ending in the evening. While this resulted in the conference dinner turning into a conference lunch for the American participants, it represented the best compromise for all participants. Correctly reporting and managing time zones is, therefore, crucial for the success of online events.
Figure 1. The program of 23rd Frühjahrssymposium. Note that the timetable contains information about the time zone (UTC+2).
A change from an in-person to a full-online event reduces the costs significantly, since catering and a physical venue are no longer needed. However, to create an enjoyable online experience, the services of free software are currently insufficient, and commercial tools with significant costs are necessary. In addition, effective advertisement for companies and organizations is more difficult in online conferences compared to in-person events. At the Frühjahrssymposium, for example, sponsor representatives typically get the opportunity to present themselves during industry lectures and at sponsoring booths in exchange for financial support. With regards to this, giveaways (pens, bags, bottle openers, etc.) play an important, possibly underrated role, because they also reach attendees who do not approach the sponsor representatives directly.
Fortunately, most of our supporters stayed with us for the online format. This allowed us to generate the interactive online space including digital sponsor booths, presented in the digital venue section. Additionally, online presentations from our sponsors were given. However, as the giveaways in the conference bags play such an important role, we knew that these needed to remain a part of the conference and sent “care packages” to our attendees from within Europe, containing a gift from each sponsor. As these were all hand-packed by the on-site team in Leipzig, it turned into a large logistical effort in order to get the packages out on time. Regardless, the packages were definitely worth the effort. The arrival was met with large acclaim, as attendees generated a buzz by posting about the packages on social media in the days beforehand.
Much like every other team organizing the event, the media team was also split up between four hosting cities. The initial work began with creating all of the social media platforms necessary in order to advertise the conference. Thus, Facebook, Twitte,r and Instagram accounts were all created following the initial formation of the team. Regular posts were published by individual members of the media team in order to promote the conference to their professional networks there.
Here, it is important to note that the social media channels all play very different roles in science outreach and communication and, therefore, tailoring the content for the different channels to reach the audiences that use them in the most effective way is important to consider. A key factor was the frequency and time at which the posts were published so that a wider audience could also be reached. Posts published in the early evening appeared to reach the largest audience and gained the most interactions.
In order to unify the posts across the different platforms and to ensure that they would be easier to find, a set of hashtags was decided on within the team: #unitedinchemistry #FJS2021 #jcf_ost #jungchemikerforum #fruehjahrssymposium #gdch #youngchemists #chemiebewegt #germanchemicalsociety #conferences2021 #chemistryconference. We recommend that if one of the hashtags is in the native language, an English equivalent should also be present and that the total number of hashtags is not too large. Otherwise, the readers are bombarded with an unreadable block of text. This proved to be a particular problem on Instagram.
Naturally though, all these social media platforms have different formatting requirements. Appropriate communication with our sponsors was crucial, as we sometimes had to face some difficulties in adapting the material given to the respective platform limitations. Some of the sponsors gave the media team the freedom to crop the pictures and adapt the text for the post as required, while others supplied the information in the necessary format already. The latter is what would be recommended for future conference organizers, as in that case the room for potential misinterpretation of the intended message is greatly reduced.
Aside from social media, various other promotional materials, such as the logo of the conference, posters, the book of abstracts, and two image films, were prepared. Even before the conference was moved online, it was decided that the book of abstracts would amount to a large number of pages having to be printed and that from the perspective of sustainability it would be better to only have a digital copy—a decision that may also hold for offline events in future. Some posters were still distributed to the different JCFs around the country in order to promote it locally. Given the high number of 377 participants, we conclude that a drop in attendance due to the online conference format was successfully avoided. This demonstrates the high importance of social media and online advertisement for online events, which will likely also gain more and more relevance for in-person conferences.
The work of the Digital Venue Team started with the decision to dismiss the idea of a face-to-face conference. By October 2020, it became evident that the pandemic would impair us longer than we hoped, which forced the transition to a fully online event. Cancellations of scientific conferences scheduled for early 2021 proved our decision correct. The months in advance enabled us to spend a lot of time on the organization of an online conference.
Thus, we wished to invest in online tools providing an experience as close as possible to a face-to-face event. We chose the software tool “Gather”, which allowed each participant to move around virtually in a digital conference venue (see Fig. 2). This is realized by each person controlling a customizable character, who then can interact with both objects and other characters. The former on-site team was reassigned to build our digital venue in Gather.
Figure 2. The central element of our digital venue: the lobby. It contained our info desk, a presentation of the online program, and the digital sponsor booths.
As the concept of a digital conference was also new for the company representatives, it was necessary to provide them with some ideas of what a digital booth could look like (see Fig. 3). Therefore, a showroom for sponsors was generated, even before the final digital venue was completed. The initial reactions were predominantly positive. Interactive objects enabled the implementation of varying materials reaching from homepage links to pdf files and to the embedding of videos. After receiving links, materials, and specifications from the sponsors, the booths were prepared and then reviewed by the representatives.
However, a large lobby alone does not make for a nice conference venue. Hence, a lecture hall was built with an interactive stage that had a built-in Zoom link. Via this link, the conference guests were led to an online lecture room where all the interesting plenary and keynote lectures, as well as Ph.D. talks, were given. Just by pressing one button, the participants were able to move from the Gather browser window into the Zoom call, allowing a smooth transition to and return from the lectures.
For the two poster sessions, we created four “rooms” in the venue, each containing 25 interactive posters that were only accessible during the corresponding session. We picked this approach over one big room as it is easy to lose track when moving through large rooms in Gather. A big and festive dining hall was created for the welcome reception and the conference dinner. The guests took their “seats” at the tables where they could talk to each other and participate in a quiz in small teams of four. Beyond those events, the venue provided several lounges and gaming halls for the participants to network, chat, and socialize outside of the academic program.
Figure 3. Screenshot of a digital sponsor booth. It can be customized with sponsor logos, and various media sources can be embedded in the interactive objects.
One of the highest priorities when creating the digital venue was the intuitive nature of its use. Only then can the participants exploit the conference space to its full potential. To support this, help was provided to the attendees through detailed tutorial posters in each room, where the most useful features were explained. Besides this, hints were given on special attributes of the room so that the conference experience was as realistic as possible. In addition to that, technical support was always available at the information desk in the center of the lobby. Despite all these measures, the e-mail support throughout the conference was well-used whenever the participants had problems with issues such as their Gather login or user account.
Some features of the software tool were still under development. For example, broadcasting through the digital venue failed, and we had to switch to alternative software for both the welcome reception and the quiz. Nevertheless, the conference venue received mostly very positive feedback from the attendees. The implementation of small games like Skribbl.io, Codenames, GarticPhone, etc., and the variety of interactive features, e.g., whiteboards on which people could draw together while discussing their latest research, were well received. This made the 23rd Frühjahrssymposium a unique and enjoyable online experience for all participants.
The core of any conference is constituted by lectures, where researchers of all academic levels, from renowned speakers to young scientists, present their work (see Fig. 4). Although real-time talks mimic a live conference more closely, the screening of pre-recorded videos comes with many advantages: There are no problems with speakers exceeding their time slot, and technical difficulties and distractions, e.g. freezing slides, internet problems, and ringing phones on the speaker’s side, are reduced. We conclude from our conference that pre-recorded talks facilitated a much smoother procedure. However, it remains an important aspect that the persons hosting the video streaming possess reliable hardware and internet access.
With a Q&A chat tool, we were able to involve all participants and to prioritize the most popular questions. In this way, the chairperson and the team of assistants can sort questions more easily and as-yet unacknowledged questions can be answered by the lecturer via the chat after the nominal slot is closed. In order to motivate the audience further and to make the conference experience more interactive, we asked each speaker to give a few questions about their talk that could serve as a quiz afterward. Demonstrating a deep understanding of the broad spectrum of chemistry, most quizzes resulted in the crowd intelligence answering correctly.
Figure 4. Invited speakers of the 23rd Frühjahrssymposium. Some of the lectures were pre-recorded, some were streamed live.
Besides lectures, poster sessions represent an integral part of international scientific conferences. In a poster session, research results are communicated and ideas regarding the research project are exchanged in a casual atmosphere. Here, most online conferences settled for uploading the posters on a webpage, often without a specific opportunity to contact the presenter. We, instead, tried to implement a poster session into our Gather venue to provide an opportunity for our participants to present and comment on their research.
Thus, posters were implemented as virtual objects (see Fig. 5), with the possibility to talk to the presenter while highlighting specific sections of the poster. This led to a more interactive nature, imitating a “real” poster session in the best possible way. Avatars standing around a poster often started to attract a bigger crowd of participants, as in on-site conferences.
Based on past positive experiences, a Twitter poster session took place concurrently with the live poster session. This included a separate prize for the poster that gained the most retweets and likes. During the Twitter poster session, a great contest arose, as family members, workgroup members, and friends of the individual presenters shared the posters with their networks. As a result, the posters gained a reach way beyond the scientific community.
Figure 5. Screenshot of the poster session of our online conference. A group of participants is communicating within their interaction radius. Poster number 18 is within this interaction radius, hence a preview is presented at the bottom part of the screen.
In addition to the main program, workshops were held to give the participants information beyond the scientific content, as well as another networking opportunity. As these had to be held online, as well, it was necessary to adjust existing workshop concepts and to foster exchange between the participants. Nevertheless, appealing workshops were offered. Some of the workshops were kindly offered by our sponsors Evonik, Altana, Carbolution, and VAA, as well as the German Chemical Society.
We were pleased to offer relevant topics for young scientists such as communication, innovation, and inspiration for their careers after graduation. In order to train oral and written presentation skills, three workshops about corporate and scientific communication, as well as a voice and body-language training were offered. Two other workshops instructed participants on how to be innovative with their ideas. Therein, the participants could explore how an original idea can successfully leave the planning stages and join the market—or how food for cosmonauts can be provided in space (see Fig. 6). Another workshop was dedicated to career options for young chemists, as well as tips and tricks regarding job perspectives in the chemical industry. This included the application processes, job interviews, salary negotiations, and signing an employment contract.
Six workshops from 90 minutes to four hours in length were offered, and we think it was a lot of fun and a nice asset to our conference. Thanks to our workshop leaders, the participants of our conference were able to look beyond the scientific work and learn about industry impressions and communication techniques. This illustrates that interactive, interesting workshops can be organized also in online formats.
Figure 6. Screenshot from one of the workshops offered during the 23rd Frühjahrssymposium.
Social Activities and the Conference Dinner
Triggering communication in an online format is challenging. Therefore, it was especially important for us to encourage our participants to socialize before and after the official conference program. We enabled this through the welcome reception on the evening before the start of the conference, as well as a games night on the first day of our conference. Thanks to Gather, it was possible to create individual rooms with online game tables. We offered Categories Game, Codenames, Poker, SET, Gartic Phone, and Skribbl (see Fig 7).
Figure 7. Screenshots from GarticPhone, an online game embedded in the lounge of our digital venue.
To meet the expectations of our attendees, we invested a lot of time in the conference dinner to make it one of the highlights of our conference (see Fig. 8). We created a dining hall inspired by the location we would have rented for an offline conference. While we wanted to keep the tradition of bringing all participants together and enjoy an informal get-together, a remote conference excludes serving food. Thus, catering was realized by distributing dinner vouchers that were only valid for that particular evening. This way, everybody could order at a favorite place and food was delivered. In order to spark discussions, networking, and social interaction, we organized a pub quiz. In groups of four, the participants were confronted with scientific questions and learned a lot about the German host cities of Berlin, Dresden, Halle (Saale), and Leipzig.
It turned out that the combination of the welcome reception, the games night, and the conference dinner was an excellent tool for the participants to get to know each other on a personal level. Networking and social interactions are an important part of scientific conferences. Overall, we consider it worth investing significant time and resources into various socializing opportunities, especially for online events.
Figure 8. Photographs submitted to us from participants during our virtual conference dinner.
For us, the Frühjahrssymposium 2021 marked the end of more than one year of planning and organization. Although planned face-to-face initially, we had to decide in favor of an online conference in order to have financial security and planning reliability. A drastic change in the program was necessary to achieve that. After successfully finding a suitable software toolset, the conference took shape again.
In conclusion, we can say that we were able to make the most of the possibilities of a digital format. Various efforts to emulate a scientific conference on a digital platform proved to be highly successful. We were confirmed in this by a large number of positive comments from participants, as well as by the lively participation at the social events. Considering that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely far from over yet, we can remove doubts about the benefits of online conferences. With the right organization and effort, this format can be very enjoyable, reach a high scientific level, and bring together scientists from all over Germany and beyond.
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