Maja Chloupkova, PhD, MLS(ASCP)CMSCCM, ASCLS-Oregon
Brenda Kochis, MBA, MLS(ASCP)CM, ASCLS-Washington

Our journey of the 2020 Virtual Northwest Medical Laboratory Symposium (NWMLS) began early this year with the certainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. The team quickly recognized that we could not realistically plan on a four-day physical event in October. Initially, we were uncertain of what we needed to do because we already had signed a contract with a venue. Fortunately, we were able to get out of our physical event contract without a penalty of about $35,000. You can all imagine how big of a relief that was for us!

Having the burden of a penalty resolved, the team quickly considered a virtual event. Since we have never done one, we researched how to best accomplish this. NWMLS 2020 General Chair Maja Chloupkova and Exhibits/Registration Chair Brenda Kochis exchanged a few conversations. Since Brenda is the tech guru of Region IX and Maja is an innovator by nature, the conversations were very productive. Maja then called a virtual meeting in May to set up the format for our two-day symposium.

At that meeting, we already had the grid outline that we were going to use. While it was tweaked over the next couple of months, it was essentially what we followed. Moreover, our Program Team, Iudita Repta and Sharon Laddusaw, had already contacted some speakers for the physical event and rapidly pivoted to talking to them about a virtual event, as well as identify and obtain commitments from additional speakers.

“Any group can do a virtual meeting, but it is critical that you set up an event that you can manage with the people you have available.”

Brenda viewed YouTube videos, LinkedIn learning modules, and Zoom support videos. The team also looked at how ASCLS hosted the 2020 Virtual Joint Annual Meeting. We concluded Zoom had the flexibility and affordability we needed. But what about the exhibits that we could not have? The NWMLS normally has an exhibit hall, so we incorporated a way for a limited number of our industry partners to become involved. This ranged from providing and sponsoring sessions to taking a 15-minute time block to do a presentation. Brenda designed a webpage with the educational sessions and industry partner sessions in easy-to-see blocks. This webpage URL was not linked to the main website; it was only provided to speakers, industry partners, and registered attendees. This afforded us some level of security.

We maintain a Virtual NWMLS page with information such as the program, registration link, and exhibitor page. This is similar to what we use for our physical NWMLS events. One difference was adding a section called Frequently Asked Questions. We also reminded folks to go to this location ahead of time for information.

The Virtual NWMLS went extremely well. We had almost 100 registrants, all in addition to our speakers and industry partners. Some private discussions happened during the sessions to troubleshoot minor problems, but for attendees, these were invisible. We had between 25-30 live attendees per session, and we know many others will be watching the recordings offered for 30 days after the symposium. This option was why many registered. We learned a lot during these past few months, so here are some suggestions.

Lessons Learned
  • The plan to have enough time between sessions was critical to manage the event. There was at least 30 minutes between sessions.
  • The industry partner blocks were one-hour long, but only included three industry presentations of 15 minutes each. This allowed some flexibility.
  • Educational and industry partner sessions were started 15 minutes prior to the live time to allow the appropriate people to be there. About one minute before the event start time, we went live to let in the attendees.
  • Communication is key. Detailed emails were sent to speakers and industry partners describing what they needed to know. We offered test sessions for anyone who wanted to be sure they could present on the Zoom webinar platform. We did not require this, but several individuals took advantage of the opportunity.
  • We chose not to have concurrent sessions, so we only needed one Zoom Professional License, one Webinar License (starting at 100 attendees, increased to 500 attendees), and additional cloud storage space for the recordings.
  • Once our Virtual NWMLS page with the Zoom links was ready and close to the meeting date, we sent out a detailed email to the attendees who registered.
  • We used paid registrations but did not use a commercial company for registration. We have long used JotForm for various form functions, e.g., gathering speaker information, industry partner registration and payment, and for attendee registration and payment. JotForm integrates nicely with several credit card processors.
  • We limited our moderators to two individuals, plus one additional person to manage the Zoom accounts and set up the webinars. There were multiple webinar training sessions to familiarize these individuals with the Zoom webinar platform. When each session started, the moderator was upgraded to co-host. We did find that we had to upgrade the speakers and industry representatives to co-host for them to have the appropriate access.
  • We set up the Zoom platform for each session with the names and emails of the presenters (called panelists by Zoom). This allowed us to designate email frequencies with their specific link information. This was in addition to the detailed emails we sent out earlier.
  • We set up each of the Zoom webinars to start recording when the session went live. Recordings were housed on the Zoom Cloud. The moderator had a fixed general script that also had speaker-specific information for introduction.

The take away message from our experience is this: Any group can do a virtual meeting, but it is critical that you set up an event that you can manage with the people you have available.

Maja Chloupkova is Manager of Central Laboratory and Serology at Legacy Laboratory Services in Portland, Oregon. She is also an active member in the state, Region IX, and national sections of ASCLS.

Brenda Kochis is a medical laboratory scientist, retired from the laboratory, but active in ASCLS state and regional societies, and works with a charitable organization in Spokane, Washington.