Reflections on Our First Virtual AIHce

The Board of Directors’ decision in April to convert AIHce EXP 2020 from a live event to a virtual conference was likely one of the most difficult decisions we’ll ever have to make as a Board. But we had no choice. At the time, the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading in many areas of the United States, Atlanta included. The AIHA staff had exhaustively considered all options, including even cancellation, and recommended we move forward with a fully virtual event. The decision was a calculated risk since we had never before held a virtual event on such a scale. But considering our obligation to deliver quality education to our members, and with the health and safety of our attendees, exhibitors, and staff foremost in our minds, the decision to go fully virtual was straightforward.

The challenges of an all-virtual AIHce were significant. Nothing like it had ever been attempted in our industry. The educational program had to be pared down to a manageable number of sessions. The prerecording of sessions required arranging logistics with close to 200 presenters and an all-hands-on-deck effort from staff to conduct the recordings. The online delivery system needed to be prepared for go-time on June 1. And it all had to be done in a matter of weeks.

The conference got off to a wonderful start. Like many of you, I was delighted by René Rodriguez’s Opening Session address on Monday. René’s clever use of prerecorded segments demonstrated the potential of online education.  As the day progressed, the system for submitting online credit was overwhelmed, and many attendees had trouble joining sessions. Staff were in constant communication with our attendees and with our online learning vendor to troubleshoot the problem. But that afternoon, staff made the difficult decision to call off the rest of the day’s programming.
LINDSAY COOK, CIH, CSP, FAIHA, is retired senior vice president and now principal consultant at The EI Group, an environmental health and safety consulting firm in Morrisville, North Carolina. Send feedback to The Synergist.

We overcame many challenges and fulfilled our obligation to safely deliver high-quality education.
Our attendees’ frustrations were shared by the Board and staff. In some ways, we were victims of our own success. With no previous all-virtual AIHce experience to draw from, staff had made an educated guess about the size of the audience, but the number of attendees far exceeded our expectations. A late surge of registrations the final weekend before the conference resulted in a significantly larger audience than we had planned for: over 2,000 participants, almost half of what we see at our face-to-face conferences! Unfortunately, the online learning system buckled under the volume. Thanks to some technical adjustments and the flexibility of staff and presenters, we solved the problems. The system was reworked, and sessions on June 2 and June 3 were delivered flawlessly. The June 1 sessions were scheduled to be rebroadcast. As a thank-you to attendees for sticking with us, AIHA committed to delivering access to AIHce OnDemand weeks ahead of schedule, so anyone who was unable to attend the rebroadcast of the June 1 sessions wouldn’t have to wait long for the education they wanted. EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONS In a difficult year, AIHce EXP 2020 was a significant success. We overcame many challenges and fulfilled our obligation to safely deliver high-quality education. I am deeply grateful to the presenters for their openness to sharing their expertise in new ways, to staff for their hard work, to our exhibitors for sticking with us, to the volunteers on the Conference Planning Committee for developing an excellent educational program, and to the sponsors whose commitment to our profession makes AIHce possible. 
If you participated in our first-ever fully virtual AIHce, I hope you found it a worthwhile event. Preliminary data from our post-conference survey indicate that almost all attendees had a positive experience. My hope is that I will see you at an in-person conference in Dallas next May. However, if circumstances require a continued virtual approach, we are confident that we will continue to meet or exceed our members’ expectations for timely, relevant, and value-added educational content.