As all ICA members would now be aware, the ICA Executive Committee concluded that, in the wake of the plethora of issues concerning travel in light of the global coronavirus (COVID-19), the ICA 2020 conference would be held in a virtual format, rather than at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre.
This was not an easy decision to make. The reasoning behind the decision is provided in the 6 March statement circulated online to all members and conference registrants. At its simplest, we had to put the health concerns of our members first, even if it meant bearing significant financial losses for the association. We know, too, that those who planned to attend will incur losses as well, and we are working on developing a hardship fund sponsored by several large universities in order to help bear the burden of early-career scholars especially. More on that to come.
While we had been exploring the possibility of a “mixed” conference in light of travel bans to Australia in some parts of the world (China, Iran, parts of Italy, and South Korea), events accelerated quickly in late February and early March and forced us to make a decision. Any further delays would have created greater costs for attendees.
At a personal level, I had been engaged in discussions about hosting the ICA annual conference on the Gold Coast for a decade, so it obviously was a disappointment for me. I am hopeful that the ICA will return at a later date, not least because of the very active participation of people in the Asia-Pacific region – including Australians and New Zealanders – in the Association. The amount of pre-conference and post-conference activity planned has been a testament to this engagement.
We are, at the same time, very excited about the virtual format. It will not be people presenting Skyped talks into a void! The platform that we will use allows for both real-time and asynchronous engagement, and the vast bulk of presentations will be pre-recorded, with online Q&A sessions enabled through the program. It also allows for a variety of other forms of online interaction, possibly including a virtual ICA Dance Party!
There has been a lot of discussion of the pros and cons of virtual conferences as compared to large-scale face-to-face events. I think there is little doubt we will be returning to these conversations, not least because several would-be attendees expressed concern about the carbon footprint generated by international travel in a time of potentially catastrophic climate change.
In circumstances not necessarily of our own choosing, we can nonetheless identify some benefits of the virtual format:
Participants will not be subject to the tyranny of scheduling. In real-time conference programs, you may not be able to attend a Political Communication session of interest as you are presenting in a Mass Communication panel. In the asynchronous format, you can participate in both;
More generally, it is more like Netflix than broadcast TV. By this I mean that you can binge on as many, or as few, sessions as you wish. This could allow people to explore areas that they have an interest in, but cannot be a part of when there are time-conflicted events;
You can engage in ongoing interaction with speakers. As online Q&A sessions are far more flexible than 75 minute, four speakers and a Chair formats, everyone can ask a question, and not run out of time because someone “made a statement” and then the session had to close.
You might actually have time to eat something!
There will be a lot learnt from the 2020 ICA annual conference. I see it as being akin to the wholesale movement of courses to an online format that has taken place in 2020, in response to travel bans and COVID-19. Attendees would be aware that there is a one-off 25% discount for registration for the ICA 2020 conference. This is not because online events are cheaper (they aren’t!), but it is in recognition of the change in circumstances that led to this decision.
There are a few other points to note. You will have to be registered for the conference to participate on the platform. Deciding not to register will not enable participation in other activities, such as Division and Interest Group Business Meetings. The platform is also only open to registrants and not to the general public. All participants will be able to add involvement in the ICA 2020 conference to their academic CV; conversely, if you were accepted but choose not to participate, there is a digital record that you did not participate.
We know that people are facing situations where they cannot get airfares refunded without penalty. We are working on ways to ensure that early career scholars and graduate students do not find themselves out of pocket, and will advise on that shortly. For established ICA participants, we really urge you to get involved in what the ICA 2020 virtual format will enable. One reason for not cancelling the event was recognition of its importance to junior scholars in particular, and this format will enable an unprecedented opportunity to meaningfully engage with a vast range of papers and panels in depth.
We are very thankful for the support throughout the planning of ICA2020 of Destination Gold Coast, and all of those venues and vendors who were offering their services for the May conference. It is a tough time for the tourism and events industry, both in Australia and internationally, and it was with a heavy heart that we withdrew from meeting at the beautiful Gold Coast. A shout out to Norma Swain from Destination Gold Coast, who has been a tireless supporter of the event throughout.
Finally, I note that one of the great champions of hosting an ICA conference on the Gold Coast was the former ICA Executive Director, the late Michael Haley. A commemorative event was planned for Michael, whose death in January meant shock and sadness for many in the ICA community. We will have a virtual event for Michael, will postpone the live memorial in his honour to the Denver #ica21 meeting, and will ensure that his legacy to the Association is recognized in an ongoing way.