In The News // September 2020

Plant Biology Annual Meeting: International Events Can Excel in Virtual World

Plant Biology Annual Meeting: International Events Can Excel in Virtual World

Large international events bring together the best of the world's minds on a given topic. For the plant biology community, Plant Biology Worldwide Summit provides that venue to exchange ideas, review the latest research and explore tools.

With travel at a standstill, American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) needed to create the space for its global community to connect virtually. Planning partners, Conference Managers designed an experience that drove active participation for a diverse set of attendees from around the world and across time zones.

The Plant Biology Worldwide Summit 2020

PB20 Plant Biology Worldwide Summit is a large international conference that caters to the leaders of the global plant biology community. From grad students to professionals with 20 years of experience in plant biology, participants experience a blend of research, education and networking opportunities. This year, the ASPB took the typically in-person event online allowing participants to access both synchronous (live) and asynchronous (on-demand) conference content over five days.

The virtual event was designed to emphasize interaction between attendees and speakers while catering to an international audience across many time zones. Program content included many features that attendees love in person—poster sessions, workshops, an exhibitor showcase and networking opportunities—reworked for a virtual platform and added a new virtual career fair. The content remains online for participants to access for one year.


As COVID-19 hit and labs closed, research was suddenly and unexpectedly halted. This made carrying on with PB20 even more important. ASPB wanted to build a virtual event that delivered the benefits of its in-person experience which include the interaction between attendees, speakers and exhibitors sharing the latest research and solutions. Interaction and engagement is easy to facilitate when everyone is in one location, but PB20 is an international show, so the association had to build an experience that would work across many time zones. ASPB used the expertise of Conference Managers to design a multi-layered event that would allow attendees to consume content live and on-demand as their needs required and bring ROI for sponsors.


Rebuilding this large conference online meant there was no shortage of things to do. Conference Managers developed an experience that brought the in-person conference element online in a way that made sense, reached a wide audience and allowed for engagement.

Reformatting the Program Content

Since the event was originally scheduled to be held in person and planning was well underway when the switch was made, Conference Managers worked with ASPB to revamp the scheduled content into a format that made sense for virtual. This included shorter sessions, longer breaks and even accommodating speakers who didn’t want to give their talk virtually. The team also determined the best formats in which to present the various sessions in order to maintain strong interaction between attendees during sessions, and with speakers through Q&A, while addressing time zone issues.

In all, it worked with 170 speakers to help them pre-record talks, join live chat discussions and answer questions through the Q&A tool. To give the international audience a chance to interact with headlining speakers it rebroadcast Plenary Sessions with the speaker live in the chat room and Q&A options. Similarly, poster sessions had audio overviews of the posters and opportunities for Q&A.

Attracting New Faces

In addition, the team worked hard to reach new attendees who hadn’t previously participated in the event when it was held in person. It created a special new group rate, giving organizations a chance to send more people who wouldn’t normally get to attend. In fact, a high school student even submitted an abstract and attended the conference, which under normal circumstances would have been much more difficult.


PB20 provided its attendees a variety of structured and ad hoc opportunities for small-group networking, group discussions and ways to connect with each other. Conference Managers created “hallway hangouts” in Zoom around topical areas to facilitate the type of connections that attendees might usually make over a coffee break between sessions.

Maximizing Sponsors’ ROI

To achieve the sponsorship sales goal for ASPB, Conference Managers provided first selection to sponsors that were committed to the in-person meeting and offered complimentary a virtual exhibit booth to those that maintained support. They created a package of features to help increase networking and leads such as adding additional resource links, a giveaway, video chat feature.

Conference Managers also added additional analytics capabilities to provide as much data as possible to sponsors and exhibitors. The analytics will assist the sponsors/exhibitors to evaluate the ROI. Conference Managers also continued selling in a short sales time-frame to past supporters and new prospects, explaining changing benefits and answering questions about the new format so that sponsors were educated about their investments.


Most significantly, PB20 was able to expand its brand by presenting a virtual event. It achieved record attendance for the event, powered by a 32% jump in first time attendees.

The format was also successful in providing value to attendees around the globe. They appreciated the on-demand content both during the event and post-conference. It allowed them to juggle re-opening of their labs, family needs, and other responsibilities to still have plenty of time to view the sessions and content. They could also more easily attend many talks as by clicking to a new session. Finally, they could ask the speaker more questions as Q&A time wasn’t limited to 10 minutes at the end of a presentation. Rather, questions could be asked throughout in the chat.

Sponsors and exhibitors also gave positive feedback. Conference Managers helped ASPB transfer many of its secured exhibitors and sponsors from the in-person meeting to virtual sponsorship opportunities at the new virtual event or to move their funds to 2021, minimizing the need to issue refunds.

Because of this experience, PB21 is likely to have some virtual components when it returns to its regular in-person event format.

Bringing in experienced partners, Conference Managers can help event organizers deliver meaningful experiences and create innovative solutions for each event’s unique situation. They also position events for success in the future as the concept of meetings shifts to hybrid models.

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