In March 2020, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the abrupt cancellation of in-person conferences. The Keystone Symposia, like other conference organizations, grappled with how to keep the scientific community engaged with each other in the absence of face-to-face gatherings. At the time, the exchange of scientific research was perhaps more important than ever, as scientists and clinicians raced to understand COVID-19 and develop novel drugs and vaccines against SARS-CoV-2. To facilitate these efforts, at the Keystone Symposia we quickly pivoted to create eSymposia, our new fully virtual meeting format, launching our inaugural event, “Vaccinology in the Age of Pandemics: Strategies Against COVID-19 and Other Global Threats”, in June 2020.

After the inaugural eSymposia event, we expanded the series and features of the virtual platform to serve scientific communities in many other biomedical fields where the pandemic threatened to thwart progress. Over the next year, we convened 49 eSymposia with ~17,000 attendees from around the world to enable the advancement of science and medicine across basic and translational research fields.

eSymposia recapitulated the essence of almost 50 years of in-person events. Our experience with virtual events over the previous five years, in the form of SciTalks and ePanels, had positioned us well for converting our conferences to fully virtual events. But a major challenge was the substantial increase in production preparation time. Staff who normally handled in-person meeting logistics were retrained on new technologies and platforms to handle new responsibilities, including video editing, chat facilitation and speaker and audiovisual tech checks — which at times numbered over a hundred per week. Scaling up our eSymposia production from single events to managing multiple simultaneous conferences on a weekly basis was not trivial.

Another challenge was how to foster collaborations and career-building interactions, which are key aspects of in-person conferences but difficult to recapitulate online. The eSymposia platform was specifically designed with these goals in mind, featuring virtual networking lounges, “1:1 Connect” appointments, unique interactive poster sessions and messaging capabilities, to provide vital collaborative opportunities at a time when the pandemic had all but eliminated such interactions, particularly for young scientists. These interactive features were critical to the success of the virtual events.

83% of attendees reported that they learned something at their meeting that would accelerate their research or change the direction of one of their projects, consistent with the results for in-person events. This is a core measure of the success of a scientific meeting, whether in person or virtual, and signifies scientific progress that would have been lost in the absence of conferences during the pandemic.

Although a virtual event cannot entirely recapitulate the energy and spontaneous interactions that occur in person, virtual conferences offered positive impacts not provided by in-person meetings. The virtual platform dramatically increased access to more young investigators and more diverse audiences than ever before. Researchers who could not have attended in-person meetings because of economic and geographic barriers were now able to fully participate in our virtual conferences. Repurposing our scholarship travel awards, we were able to provide free access to almost 6,000 trainees and participants from low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). In addition, through our Global Health Program and generous support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we provided nearly 3,500 scientists from LMICs with free registration to attend our virtual meetings. Another 3,100 LMIC scientists received access to post-event recordings and forums. Altogether, scientists from more than 145 countries attended our eSymposia, an increase from the 91 countries represented at our 2019 in-person events.

Gender diversity also increased with the virtual format. Women represented 53% of our eSymposia conference attendees, compared with 44% at previous in-person events. Graduate students’ participation increased to 26% of attendees, compared with 20% in previous in-person events. The virtual format alleviated hurdles for those with conflicting childcare responsibilities, health issues, teaching responsibilities, restricted travel, economic barriers and other impediments to in-person meeting attendance. We were thus able to democratize access to science in an unprecedented manner, while also substantially reducing our carbon footprint and environmental impact. As we return to in-person events, we aim to continue to offer virtual access to all our meetings.

Given what we have learned, what does the future of scientific conferences look like? A major challenge will be the continued development and adoption of new technologies to better recapitulate the serendipitous interactions and networking opportunities in the virtual forums that are offered at in-person events. Although a hybrid approach to conferences may involve the inclusion of both in-person and virtual formats, it will be important to better connect the two audiences to fully integrate the attendees. Conference organizations will need to adapt to the evolving needs of the scientific community and to gauge their fluctuating interest in attending in-person versus virtual events as we move forward. This is important for both scientific and financial reasons, as organizations simultaneously navigate substantial financial challenges incurred during pandemic cancellations. Identifying the ‘new normal’, in terms of platforms, audiences and metrics, will be critical for planning the future of scientific conferences and for the viability of conference organizations.