How an Australian Space Conference Beat the Time Zone Challenge

It’s late January in 2021. Covid-19 continues to disrupt meetings and travel. There is a New York blackout. A NASA scientist hunkered down in his dark garage—the only place he can get cell phone reception—gives his keynote presentation to over 2,000 attendees at the world’s largest space science conference being held virtually from Sydney, Australia.

Welcome to the wonderful world of managing meetings in a Covid-19 world!

Like everywhere, we in Australia have been hit hard by the pandemic, especially those of us who organize meetings for a living. ICMSA, one of the oldest and most established professional conference organizer in the country, has proven that over the past 16 months, we’re also one of the smartest.

Managing up to 15,000 international delegates each year meant that, in 2020, half of those meetings on our books were postponed. The other half, in sectors that move fast and where attendees need to collaborate and share research every year, went ahead virtually.

This was the case with the 43rd Committee on Space Research Scientific Assembly (COSPAR) which generally has as its attendees those who help put men and women into space. Space is big business—for both countries and more recently some of the world’s billionaires including Sir Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.

It was for this reason that COSPAR 2021 received support from the Australian government in securing the meeting for the country. When held in-person, it historically attracts more than 2,000 delegates. It had never been held virtually before, therefore, knowing how many would pay to attend was an unknown.

The Challenge of Time Zones

One of the biggest challenges in hosting a virtual international meeting Down Under is getting everybody in the one place at a suitable time.

If you’ve been fortunate enough to ever travel to Australia you know we’re a long way away from everywhere else, especially those major northern hemisphere countries which are home to so many millions of potential meeting attendees like in Europe and North America.

Particularly when it comes to watching international sports, we in Australia are used to dragging ourselves out of bed at an ungodly hour to watch a game or tournament being played somewhere else. For us, a 4 a.m. start to watch Australia take on Germany in a FIFA World Cup Football match is just something we have learnt to do, as is watching the Tour de France which usually starts at around 11pm at night and continues for the next six hours.

That may be okay in our leisure time, but would delegates from other countries be willing to do the same? To attend a virtual meeting from Sydney? When it’s 9 a.m. in Sydney, it’s midnight in London, 1 a.m. in Germany, and 7 p.m. in New York.  For our northern hemisphere colleagues it’s generally the day prior as well, which makes things even more confusing.

As COSPAR 2021 Program Chair Iver Cairns explains, the desire to have a globally-accessible assembly led to the idea of presenting the scientific program in two blocks: Block 1 in the period 0715—1200 Australian Eastern Daylight Time (AEDT) and Block 2 at 1815—2300 AEDT.

“Block 1 was deemed best for the Americas, Sydney, much of Australia and Asia, and western parts of Europe and Africa. Block 2 was best for Europe / Africa, Australia and Asia (especially India and west Asia),” he said.

The traditional three-day meeting was extended to six days, but with shorter hours for each day to allow for the two blocks of presentations and for delegates to not have to sit at their computers for extended periods of time.

At its conclusion, a total of 615 sessions, each delivered twice, included more than 2,000 scientific presentations, three workshops led by Anchor Sponsor Lockheed Martin and numerous interdisciplinary sessions including a round-table with participation from representatives from all of the world’s leading space agencies. The New York-based NASA scientist keynote was a one-off but could be viewed later (as could all content).

The 615 sessions that were repeated each day were presented as prerecorded video which each had a live Q&A component at their conclusion. This meant that these presenters had to be present for both sessions to cater for northern and southern hemisphere attendees but COSPAR believed that it was a small price to pay to present their research to such a valuable international audience.

Working Harder and Smarter

We broke our staff into a.m. and p.m. teams to be on hand 24/7 for our client. Yes, it was more work but it was certainly worth it, with a total of 2,200 final delegate numbers, excellent content and a budget surplus for COSPAR.

Right now we’re planning for something similar with the 20th International Society for Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering Meeting in 2022. We are hopeful that a portion of it will be in-person but if not, we will be incorporating some of the aspects we used at COSPAR.

Another week of late nights and early mornings for our team. But, as Aussies who love their sport, we’re pretty used to it.

Emma Bowyer is the owner and managing director of ICMS Australia which has 35 full-time staff working in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. In 2021 ICMSA celebrates 55 years of operation. Emma can be contacted on emmab@icmsaust.com.au.

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