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"You can collect plus points now"

You only notice how much they mean to you when they're no longer there: tourists, business travelers, congress participants. Vienna has risen to the pantheon of congress destinations with strategic vision and a lot of hard work. Not least because Vienna has been an internationally renowned innovation and science hub for so many years. The fact that new research projects regularly take place here and are also presented at congresses is also no accident.

Congress activity starting up again

But COVID-19 has crippled Vienna as a congress city. And the question is, will there still be congresses in the future? The experts agree that the answer is certainly yes. Will they be a blueprint of events before coronavirus? Probably not. There will be cutbacks, especially as far as the size of the events is concerned. Despite lockdown, congress activity has now started up again. For example, the European Academy of Neurology (EAN), whose umbrella organization is based in Vienna, held its May congress not as a live event in Paris as planned but online as a virtual event. The European League Agaist Rheumatism (EULAR) want to imitate them in June; the European Society of Cardiology (ESR), the biggest medical association in Europe, will follow in virtual form at the end of August.

"I know of no larger medical congress that is still meeting face-to-face this year," says Doris Möstl. The native of East Tyrol is managing director of United European Gastroenterology (UEG). Almost 20 years in different positions at UEG have given her a good overview of what is happening in the industry. Only a single event in December is still scheduled, which envisages a live event with virtual option, says Möstl.

Digitalization boost

UEG is an umbrella organization based in Vienna and has more than 30 employees. As a non-profit organization, it is responsible for the ongoing and further training of gastroenterologists in Europe and beyond. The highlight of the calendar is UEG Week, which draws up to 14,000 participants every year. It is considered to be one of the most innovative events on the continent. Since 2013, it has been held alternately in Vienna and Barcelona, in recent years as a hybrid of live event with simulcast on the internet. This year would have been Amsterdam's turn. It was only recently decided to make the event planned for October only virtual.

"Larger events will be possible in Austria and elsewhere again from August. However, almost 14,000 people come together for UEG Week. That's different from a visitor's fair, where you can put one-way controls in place and keep to the prescribed distance," says Möstl. In all probability, however, digitalization is about to experience a powerful boost.

UEG numbers among the pioneers in this respect. Having considered making new, scientific findings accessible to the doctors beyond the scope of the congress, work started many years ago on building up a virtual library. Says Möstl, "We thought that if we spliced speech contributions together, we could also stream the event live." In the end, a good 50 per cent of the UEG program was broadcast live.

No substitute for live events

However, moving online is no substitute for the live event. "The participants come not just for the content but also in the knowledge that they can meet all the relevant people during the congress. It's about business contacts, scientific encounters, establishing consortia, and for many people also about getting in touch with speakers," says Möstl. "And not to forget: updating the industry, discussions about what's in the pipeline, recruiting doctors. We will have to see how we can facilitate all of this in the future."

The money earned during the congress goes towards the training and development of future doctors. Should congresses no longer be possible in their current format, the entire business model would collapse. After all, the industry is an important source of income for every event organizer. We will have to wait and see how and whether virtual industry events will be possible and well received. In any case, solutions will have to be found together.

Comeback in 2021

It is Vienna's turn to host UEG Week again in 2021. "Because the congress is held in October, we have a little time," says Möstl. "We hope that there will be a vaccination in the first half of 2021." In any event, congress organizers need a kind of safety net with more flexibility than before to protect themselves financially in case an event has to be canceled. What matters for the future is how cooperatively the partners behaved in the current difficult situation. "You can collect plus point now or gamble away trust," says Möstl.

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