Like so many in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics cancelled member meetings scheduled for March and April. In early April, with no signs of the pandemic abating, the AIAA team needed a go/no-go decision for its annual AIAA AVIATION and Aeronautics Forum, scheduled for mid-June. Because AIAA produces and publishes technical work at their conferences, there is an annual cycle of technical work that starts immediately following each event. To change that schedule would offset events for years to come. Cancellation or rescheduling was not an option.

“That was our Apollo 13 moment,” explained Dr. Samantha Magill, current event program director and 20-plus year member of AIAA. The organization had never hosted a virtual conference; its small staff and team of volunteers had no idea what was involved or where to start. Yet with the innovative spirit and can-do attitude of the aerospace community, “We trusted that we could figure it out,” Magill asserted.

And figure it out they did. Ten short weeks after their leap-of-faith decision and blind announcement confirming to participants that the AVIATION Forum was going virtual, AIAA hosted its first virtual event for 2,100+ attendees. Two months later, AIAA went on to host its annual AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum as a virtual event with 1,000+ attendees – a retention of about 80 percent compared to in-person.

To learn more about AIAA’s experience, we chatted with Sam soon after she wrapped up the 2020 Propulsion and Energy Forum.

Once you made the decision to move the AVIATION Forum to a virtual event, what did you do next?

In mid-April, there were more questions than answers. Immediately, though, everyone was on board. Right away, we reached out to the venue in Reno, NV, to resolve the contract. Next, we had to figure out the technology.

For what we needed, there was little off-the-shelf virtual conferencing platforms and none that directly fit our needs. The Forum could have up to 40 concurrent technical sessions, with a panel in another room and social media throughout. We had to figure out where to place the documents and use keywords to find them.

We also wanted it to be intuitive to find and navigate to friends. People attend events to network. At the AVIATION Forum, participants enjoy the chance to meet special guests such as astronauts, like Dave Scott (commander of the Apollo 15 mission), and the NASA Administrator.

We were all learning together. Even the technology vendor we worked with had not done anything to that scale.

Immediately following the AVIATION Forum, you started to prepare for the Propulsion and Energy Forum. What did you do differently for that event?

It’s an iterative process. For an in-person event, you have a captured audience. In the virtual world, you’re competing with emails, family, home repairs, homework… We knew we needed to respect people’s time, to not overload them.

For both, we opened the site one week early, so people could review the recorded technical sessions in advance. Then, we hosted live, one-hour Q&As with six authors whose papers touched on related topics. Those were led like a panel. We learned that most people didn’t get to review the advance recordings. The first live Q&As, then, were taken up by questions that were answered in the recordings. In the second conference we opened the Q&As with authors presenting one-slide summaries of their papers, to give everyone the background they needed before diving into the questions.

Virtual happy hours didn’t work very well. For the second forum, we created a professional lounge where people could gather for technical networking time during a natural break in the day.

For exhibitors and sponsors, we offered an expo hall at the AVIATION Forum. For us, and for others we’ve spoken to, expo halls are challenging. You can get visibility in a virtual platform – logos and videos – but the interaction is tough. At Propulsion and Energy, we did visibility packages instead – logos and speaking opportunities to showcase a product or share the status of something they’re working on.

We also used a different conferencing technology vendor for Propulsion and Energy. The second vendor had a more robust chat capability that worked better for us.

How would you compare preparing for an in-person event with preparing for a virtual event?

I never worked harder in my life! There’s more one-on-one attention needed for presenters who are recording their sessions in advance or managing the virtual tool for the first time. Gathering the presentations ahead of time. Creating moderator decks. Preparing step-by-step guides for staff and volunteers. It all added up to about double the time as an in-person event.

People did it, though. With very little complaining.

What advice do you have for government contractors and other
organizations considering hosting a virtual event?

Go for it. Even if you’ve never done it before, know that people are more forgiving in the virtual world. Even if there’s a crying kid or barking dog in the background, it will be just fine. Your constituents will still appreciate it.

You’d be doing yourself a disservice to stand by until virtual events are gone away. They are likely to be a part of our lives in the future, as hybrid models to reach larger audiences. Don’t pass up the opportunity now.

If you have time, shop around when selecting your technology vendor. Think of it as a long-term partnership. Each organization has unique needs, so you’ll want a virtual platform that fits.

If you can’t recreate the in-person, that’s okay. Think of it as the difference between a movie and a Broadway show. Both have value. Virtual is a good experience and has value, even though it doesn’t replicate the in-person experience.

What do you want participants to know?

Don’t be scared. Check it out. Try it. It’s different from in-person, but valuable. You’ll learn something new. Those skills will be valuable.

Get involved. Tell your leadership that it’s valuable. The material is available on demand, so you can watch it any time. We’re making ours available for several months. Allow your contractors to attend, so they learn something new, too.

You need to learn to build these skills – video conferencing skills, using these skills online – because you will be using them in the future.

Our normal is not going back to the way it was before. Work with your employer to be flexible with the video conferencing tools. See if they can relax security rules around camera usage or provide clean laptops or iPads for less secure video conferencing. Find workarounds that suit for your organization.

What should reporters and editors know? 

We saw a dramatic increase in media participation for these events. Usually, we’d get maybe a half a dozen; now we had about thirty or more. Big names, too, like NPR, Wall Street Journal and CBS at the last event. It’s been great for us to get broader coverage.

The media is taking advantage of the virtual events – and we’ve encouraged them to do so. You could go to multiple events in one week. You’d get so much content for your work. Could attend events you’d never been able to get to previously – especially if they conflicted with one you do attend. Lots of opportunities to learn.

What’s next for AIAA’s conferences and forums?

We’re not slowing down. We are taking our newest event all virtual ASCEND (“Accelerating Space Commerce, Exploration and New Discovery”) in November, and distributing the content asynchronously in smaller half-day summits. Our flagship annual forum, AIAA Science and Technology Forum and Exposition (SciTech), will be virtual in January and that is double the size of anything we have done virtually so far!

Lots has changed, but we’re not going away.

Thank you, Sam, for sharing your experience and insights. And congratulations to you and the AIAA team for your success in moving to virtual events!