From the President of INCE-USA (June 2021)

INTER-NOISE 2021 and the Future of Congresses

As I write this column, we are entering the home stretch for INTER-NOISE 2021. Abstract submissions were very robust and registrations are trending in a way that mean the INTER-NOISE 2021 will be a very successful virtual congress. I hope you will participate enthusiastically.

The Organizing Committee has done a very good job. It wasn’t clear that the Congress would be virtual until about last November. While the Committee was faced with a significant number of decisions and revisions to their original plans, they were fortunate to have enough time and prior experience to develop a high-quality virtual congress with many features that should help participants to participate fully in the technical elements of the congress and enjoy some virtual social events with networking as well. It will be interesting to learn what worked and what didn’t work at INTER-NOISE 2021 and how that informs future congresses.

After INTER-NOISE 2020, the I-INCE Board conducted a survey of participants to get feedback on their experiences and preferences for future congresses. A majority of the survey respondents expressed a preference for in-person congresses in the future. But a substantial minority said they prefer on-line congresses. Reasons for their preference were the substantial cost and time saved from not traveling as well as the flexibility to view presentations on their own schedule (including viewing more presentations than are possible for the in-person format). It will be interesting to see if participants feel the same after INTER-NOISE 2021.

If so, given the large percentages with preference for each format, one could say that the results argue for a future “hybrid” conference format where on-line participants are able to see papers and presentations and participate in some networking activities with the in-person participants. However, to date the challenges of the hybrid format make it the most challenging, most expensive, and highest risk option. In addition, as I-INCE discovered in both 2020 and 2021, the time zones of international on-line participants offer only brief opportunities where participants from around the world are likely to be available at the same time. So, while travel expense and time argue for a hybrid international congress, the time zone challenges remain a significant obstacle.

However, as with many things the pandemic forced upon us that are not going away, I also believe that our INTER-NOISE format will be changed going forward. Much depends on the infrastructure changes that will be available to us. Universities that were forced to move educational delivery to on-line and hybrid modes now have the audio-visual infrastructure available to host hybrid congresses. It wasn’t long ago that INTER-NOISE congresses were hosted at universities. Is that possible again? Will traditional congress venues see market pressure to add audiovisual infrastructure to their offerings such that showing presentations live or recording them will be straightforward and relatively inexpensive? INTER-NOISE is not the only congress where these same pressures are present. Some major congress hosts have reported significant increases in registrations when an on-line version was possible. Will these market pressures be enough to make hybrid congresses routine and widespread?

While logistically it is hard to imagine a fully hybrid international congress with a large number of synchronous activities, I would not be surprised to see a “mild hybrid” congress format emerge where on-line participants receive an “enhanced” Proceedings that could include recorded presentations and a virtual exhibition as well as on-line synchronous access to session discussions and an assortment of on-line networking events. I hypothesize that this mild format in its mature form wouldn’t be a substitute for in-person attendance, but would have its own character, advantages, and followers.

It will be interesting to follow how this all plays out. We’ll learn a lot at INTER-NOISE 2021 and we’ll be interested in your feedback.

By Bob Bernhard, I-INCE President