The decision was made by the ICA Executive Committee on Saturday, 6 March that the 70th Annual International Communication Association Conference, scheduled for the Gold Coast in Australia, would instead take the form of a virtual conference. Details of that virtual conference format can be found elsewhere in this Newsletter, and we feel that events globally have borne out the fact that the decision – while difficult at the time – was the right one and the most honest one to make.
It is worth reflecting how quickly things have moved over the course of 2020.
On 23 January, I was over the Pacific on a QANTAS flight, returning from the ICA Executive committee meeting in Washington, D.C. and a very successful week at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. At that time, Coronavirus was largely being seen as a phenomenon that would be limited to China and perhaps surrounding Asian countries.
On 23 February, the hot topic among the ICA conference planning team was the future of the ICA dance party, and how we could justify discontinuing it – long story about the reasons why – to those who had long been its champions.
On 6 March we informed our members, exhibitors, and the Australian venues that we would be cancelling the physical conference and moving to a virtual format out of an abundance of caution.
On 23 March The Star, which was to have been our headquarters hotel, announced that all of its venues throughout Australia would be closed, putting 20,000 people out of work. All domestic air travel in Australia was closed down, and all international visitors would face 14 days in quarantine. A physical conference in Australia was no longer possible, even if one was prepared to take the public health risks of doing so.
It was not just ICA facing challenging times. I was reminded recently that on 6 March, the day ICA announced that the physical conference would become a virtual one, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the media that he had been to a hospital treating Coronavirus patients, and had shaken hands with many of the medical staff. On 27 March, Prime Minister Johnson announced that he had the Coronavirus, and would be making decisions for the immediate future from his bedroom. Incredibly, cruise ships were still leaving and arriving at ports throughout the world during March, in spite of abundant evidence about their role as transmitters of the virus.
Although it is very hard to foresee the future in a time of crisis, it is impossible to believe that the world will return to its pre-2020 normal. A parallel can be drawn between conferences and teaching. The ability to deliver courses online has been around for at least 30 years, with open and distance education formats existing well before then (The UK Open University opened its doors in 1969). But most universities have found themselves scrambling to adapt their courses, and their teaching practices, to online delivery in the first few months of 2020, often using ad hoc and off-the-shelf solutions containing their own risks, such as the “Zoombombing” problem with the widely used ZOOM video conferencing software.
In ICA, we have taken to working with commercial partners around developing a secure platform for delivery of a virtual conference first, before we migrate all activities to that platform, which will occur through April. Going forward, a conversation needs to happen about how we can best utilise such virtual formats, alongside the traditional face-to-face modes of interaction. The experience of conferencing is likely to change after 2020, just as it is highly likely that all universities will be more open to doing their courses online than was the case before 2020.
Well before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, ICA was being contacted by people concerned about the ecological impact of long-distance air travel. Images of the bushfires in Australia, which appeared directly connected to the impacts of long-term global warming, had already raised issues for many of our members.
In making any changes, we will need to be careful about parochialism. Travelling to Australia seems a long way away from Europe and North America, but so too does travel for Europe or North America from the Asia-Pacific. In regions that have not yet hosted ICA conferences, in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, all ICA conferences involve a lot of travel.
Our traditional approach to such matters has been through measures such as travel grants and bursaries, which ease the financial costs of long-distance travel. As we plan for future conferences, technology-based solutions are also likely to play an increasingly important role.