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More tips on ‘gathering planning’

By Dr Sarah Fitzgibbon - 25th Nov 2022


Following my recent column on preparing for meetings, here is what I learned from feedback after the WiMIN conference

For my last column, I wrote about the preparations for the WiMIN conference and asked for people’s thoughts about what makes a useful and enjoyable professional gathering. Since then, I have received feedback from a number of people, most importantly those who attended the conference, and a few themes have emerged. I’ve decided to be very helpful to others who are planning conferences, now that we are fully back in the swing of face-to-face meetings and offer you some tips and advice. (You’re welcome).

We have made the decision to have free childcare available at all WiMIN conferences. This is becoming more commonplace in UK medical meetings, but is still a bit of a rarity here in Ireland, and many organisers feel that it would be very complicated and costly to run. However, like most things, it is actually really quite simple and does not require a huge amount of effort or resources. It allows attendees with young children to attend the meeting in person without having to arrange childcare at home and is especially useful for those last-minute childcare hiccups with which all parents are so familiar. Occasionally, I see tweets from conferences (mostly in the US, it seems) where mothers have been asked to leave conference halls because they have a sleeping baby strapped to their chest. This is mind-blowingly dumb and offensive behaviour from conference planners and very bad publicity for the organisation concerned. So, why not introduce a more welcoming attitude to babies, children, and their cash- and cachet-wielding parents, by hiring an extra room for the day and recruiting some garda-vetted, qualified, childcare professionals to provide onsite care for delegates’ children. The extra cost will be small and we were delighted to receive sponsorship from Challenge medical indemnity, which covered all the expenses. (For those who really want to know, the cost was less than €1,000). We were also able to provide a private room for breastfeeding, which was another €165 for the day and allowed mums to slip off into a quiet space for feeding while still being in touch with the conference proceedings (our plan to have a screen in there with a livestream from the main room didn’t quite come to pass, but we’ll do better next time!)

Many conferences have become more aware of the need to reduce waste and minimise their carbon footprint. We tried to limit the amount of unwanted merchandising and plastic waste that people would accumulate through the day, by using a pick-and-mix style layout for our goodie bags, and avoiding laminated name tags and glossy programmes. These might be small considerations in the greater scheme of the World-Is-About-To-End times we are currently experiencing, but I think we probably all have enough branded tote bags and USB drives and pop-sockets (whatever they are), and can manage to attend a conference without being responsible for another quarter acre of ice cap falling into the sea.

Of course, the very nature of in-person conferences means that a huge amount of energy is expended that could have been saved by hosting an online event. Yet we know, instinctively and through research, that it is a totally different kind of learning experience when you share a physical space with someone. There is a value to person-to-person contact that cannot be replicated in a virtual setting. At the same time, I think it is vital that people should have the choice. There are many reasons why someone might choose to stay at home and tune in to an event online rather than being there in person, but I believe that everyone needs to have both options open to them. This was WiMIN’s first hybrid event, and there is no doubt that there were some dodgy technical moments from which we will need to learn for our next meeting, but many of our delegates mentioned how useful it was to be able to join us from home or work because they could not travel to attend. Some organisations are put off by the extra work and resources involved with a hybrid set-up, but I think they owe it to their attendees to make their event as accessible as possible. Fair enough, it cost over €6,000 for us to provide this, but again we were so grateful to our sponsors for making this possible. (You’ll note I am being very open about costs here, which I realise can make people squirm in their chair, but there is nothing worse than people talking about the price of things, without talking about the price of things).

So those are a few unsolicited pieces of advice for anyone reading this who might be involved in planning a conference over the next few months.

As I said, you’re very welcome!

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