Inside AIHce EXP 2020
On April 15, AIHA’s Board of Directors announced that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, AIHce EXP 2020 would not be held in Atlanta as planned. To protect the health and safety of attendees, the conference would be entirely virtual, and it would be held on the same dates, June 1–3, reserved for the live event. The challenge facing conference staff was to reimagine an event that had always been rooted in the real world as an entirely virtual experience. They had six weeks to get it done. It helped that staff had thoroughly explored all possibilities, according to Bethany Chirico, AIHA’s managing director of global meetings and business development. The Board, she said, was “willing to take a calculated risk knowing that we had done our homework.” Part of that homework involved gauging speakers’ interest in converting their presentations to an online format. By the time of the Board’s announcement, AIHA’s online learning team was poised to hit the ground running. “Almost immediately after that decision became official, we went straight into prerecording sessions,” said Colleen Manning, eLearning program director.  Manning and eLearning Coordinator Fatima Khan had experience with virtual events, but AIHce EXP 2020 would be on a vastly greater scale. They recruited other staff to help record and edit presentations, and they readied the online classrooms for launch on Monday, June 1.  The conference started on a high note. Opening Session speaker René Rodriguez playfully exploited the virtual format, creating the illusion that he was in several places at once. His message about leadership in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic generated enthusiasm on the live chat board, where attendees reacted in real time. But when the session ended, the comments quickly turned sour. Many attendees experienced errors with the credit submission mechanism, which was supposed to record their attendance so they could receive certification maintenance points.  AIHA’s online learning vendor, Freestone, told Manning that the system was overloaded.  “You’ve got 2,000 people all trying to submit for credit simultaneously,” Manning explained. “It takes a few extra seconds, so they hit refresh. So a volume of 2,000 can easily become a volume of 4,000.”  The root of the problem was the sheer size of the audience. Since a fully virtual AIHce had never been attempted, projections of attendance had been educated guesses. “Within just those last three weeks, four weeks, the numbers skyrocketed,” Chirico said. “They jumped almost 500 people in the weekend right before we went live.” As Monday wore on, staff realized with dismay that the system wasn’t recovering. Attendees were being denied access to sessions. By early afternoon, staff decided to cancel the rest of Monday’s programming. An email was sent to attendees apologizing for the difficulties and explaining that the day’s sessions would be rebroadcast at later dates. On the morning of June 2, staff sent new instructions to attendees. A different procedure for obtaining credit was put in place, and attendees were provided direct links to the session recordings. “It was the best thing we could do to be sure that we were actually delivering the education when we said we were going to,” Manning said. The changes worked. Attendees reported few problems for the rest of the conference, and staff reflected on what was ultimately a successful virtual event, the first of its kind ever attempted in the occupational health and safety industry.  “The decision [to hold a virtual conference] was based on what we thought was best for our audience, but also knowing that we have an obligation to deliver education in the best format we can,” Chirico said. “And aside from the technical glitches, I think we did that in spades.” The experience will prove invaluable for next year’s conference, which is scheduled for May 24–26, 2021, in Dallas. Provided that conditions allow a live event to be held safely, one option under consideration is a hybrid conference “that encourages the virtual audience to participate in many of the things that are actually happening in person, outside of just the education,” Chirico said.  For more information about AIHce EXP 2021, visit the conference website.

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