How do you organize a safe conference during a pandemic?
Now in its 6th edition in its tenth year, the Rostock Large Engine Conference, RGMT for short, has become a permanent fixture in the conference calendar. The preparation poses various challenges even in a normal year for the relatively small staff from FVTR and the Chair of Piston Engines and Internal Combustion Engines. Normal, however, is the last adjective that can be assigned to 2020. In this blog post, you will find out which hurdles the team had to overcome and how they managed to bring a bit of normality into a turbulent year while maintaining the highest possible hygiene standards.
The usual start-up phase
The planning of the sixth edition of the RGMT started, as with the previous editions, already one and a half years before the scheduled start of the conference. On the basis of the experience from past conferences and with the involvement of proficient colleagues in this regard, the team headed by Karsten Schleef and Sebastian Cepelak began work as planned and routinely. In addition to soliciting and selecting suitable conference papers, in this first phase, which extended over half a year, the team also already discussed questions of location, the leisure program and possible goodies for conference participants, and obtained initial offers. At this point, everything was going according to plan and nothing seemed to stand in the way of a conference with a renewed increase in the number of participants. This all changed rapidly in March 2020 and the organization team was confronted with unexpected challenges.
Great uncertainty and preparation for the worst-case scenario
The initial phase of the pandemic in February 2020 was characterized by a mixture of uncertainty and optimism about the time still available before the conference. No one could have guessed at the time that the impact would extend over many months and possibly years to the extent known today, which is why most planning continued as normal for the time being. However, despite or perhaps because of the uncertainty hanging over everything, the organizing team was already considering possible scenarios at this early stage. The spectrum ranged from the regular implementation of the tested concept to its cancellation or long-term postponement. Parts of these considerations turned out to be important basic building blocks of the new concept as the crisis progressed and the situation became increasingly clear.
The path to the sixth RGMT
The team decided that quitting was not an option and started to work out an alternative concept. Firstly, in close cooperation with the Radisson Blu Hotel in Rostock, which is providing the conference facilities and has always offered optimum conditions both in terms of the actual premises and in terms of service in previous years, a hygiene concept was developed based on distance and specially manufactured masks. A maximum number of participants of 100 persons was defined, since for this number at the conference location all specifications regarding the distance could be maintained reliably. On the other hand, an additional concept was created, which was to expand the group of participants by integrating new methods beyond the physical participants. The only way to implement this was to integrate a streaming concept into the sixth edition of the RGMT. All willing attendees should be able to participate virtually in the conference regardless of their ability to be there in person. The best possible implementation of this requirement, without affecting the presence participants, was defined as a goal.
In detail this included:
- Live transmission of all lectures in picture and sound as well as further conference impressions
- Adaptation of the presentations to the special challenges of hybrid implementation
- Development of an information concept to cover the conference breaks
- Logistics concept for the provision of conference documents and goodie bags for all conference participants
- Redundant preparation of the presence lectures in the form of recorded videos in case of short-term travel restrictions or the like
The search for suitable partners for the broadcast led to the Rostock-based company Lion Events, which supported the planning in this regard with the corresponding expertise and provided the necessary technical equipment for the broadcast during the conference.
In addition to all these extra challenges, the regular tasks of a conference also had to be dealt with. This, in itself already complex, topic exceeds the scope of this article and will be presented here in the form of an article after the hopefully regular seventh RGMT.
The conclusion of participants and organizers
The preparations, brainstorming sessions and planning described up to this point are, of course, only the foundation and grey theory all the way to the actual implementation. How well did the practical implementation of the concept work out, what feedback did the participants give and what conclusion did the RGMT team come to?
By way of introduction, it must be mentioned that the sixth RGMT was in no way inferior to the previous editions in technical terms. Participants from different countries were able to present or digitally present their knowledge and engage in exchange with each other, despite all obstacles and taking into account the prevailing safety aspects. This fact alone is extremely remarkable against the background of the general conditions and a testimony to the work done by the entire team before and during the conference as well as the good cooperation with the external partners.
This opinion was echoed by the participants, who were consistently positive. Both the fact that the face-to-face meeting was able to proceed almost as in a normal year and the digital preparation and transmission were praised.
Some feedback in original words:
"As always, despite all the current accompanying circumstances, a very successful congress and it was really time to get back to talking to cherished people in person."
"In my opinion, digital participation in the conference went very well. Intermittent problems were responded to quickly and even the questions from the chat were usefully integrated into the discussions - keep it up!"
"It was a very interesting conference with exciting and fascinating topics. Unfortunately, I was only an online participant. Next time I would prefer to join on-site. But let's see, whats coming up. I'm looking forward to the RGMT 2022 to join on-site.“
And finally, briefly and succinctly:
„It was perfectly organized in this unpleasent time.“
Minor problems with the stream, which was implemented in this form for the first time, were usually solved promptly and all presentations were easy to follow audiovisually. This very fact, as many people have experienced since the widespread installation of improvised home offices, is an achievement not to be underestimated.
Of course, there were also minor problems, but they are hardly avoidable, especially considering the premiere of such a type of event. The upload bandwidth required for such a stream posed a challenge to the hotel's own network, causing visual problems for some users on the first day, although the audio stream was hardly affected and correspondingly no information was lost. However, this was resolved promptly by making adjustments to the in-house services.
The knowledge gained during the sixth RGMT regarding the organization of such a hybrid meeting, forms an important basis for the planning of further such events, but also helps the team from LKV and FVTR in the future implementation of modern tools for meetings and daily work. Based on the newly learned skills, new approaches can be adopted in the planning of the seventh RGMT from the very beginning and further features can be implemented, which were already there as ideas during the planning of the sixth RGMT, but could not be implemented. The advantages of a hybrid conference are in particular the increase of the possible outreach by the option to avoid long journeys as well as the reduction of the requirements to the conference location, which in basically must be able to accommodate only a defined number of participants. A return to a purely analog conference is hardly thinkable in view of the good experiences and the advantages.
Satisfied organization team