Annual Meeting 2025: Different and better?

Edward P. Salek, CAE, Executive Director | TLT Headquarters Report June 2021

Changes forced by the pandemic might create a more valuable conference experience in the future.

Conducting the STLE Annual Meeting virtually for the first time in its 75-year history enables the tribology and lubricants community to connect and engage despite the inability to hold a traditional conference due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is STLE’s second virtual meeting overall, since the Tribology Frontiers Conference went virtual in November 2020.

Now, it seems appropriate to ask some questions: Are virtual conferences strictly a temporary solution until face-to-face meetings return? Or might recent experience give STLE a new capability that can enhance and improve opportunities to fulfill our mission and serve members?

The American Institute of Physics (AIP), one of the world’s largest technical and scientific organizations, has issued a new report that offers informed opinions on the subject.

Their report, The Future of Association Convening: Envisioning for The Sciences (FACETS), provides “ideas and suggestions on how scientific conferences can integrate valuable lessons learned from retooling in-person meetings to virtual formats over the past year while also meeting changing demands of their research communities and the conduct of science,” according to AIP.

A key finding from the FACETS report is that virtual conferences can create opportunities to reach nontraditional populations, which could be a long-term boon to increasing the diversity of physical sciences talent. This is consistent with STLE’s experience at its two virtual events. The number of first-time attendees, students and international participants increased for both conferences.

The AIP report describes four other changes likely to affect technical and scientific meetings over the next three to five years.

Technology will progress and improve the virtual experience. Some organizers are already using technology that allows more two-way communication between presenter and attendee during sessions and talks. In the future, this could lead to a more active discourse and dialogue among presenters and participants.

The report suggests planners examine how they could use digital technology to be more inclusive of potential participants and of previously untapped partners in conference organizing. Diverse backgrounds for everyone involved in the conference experience can make the gathering more powerful for advancing science exchange and more meaningful for all those involved.

Engaging sponsors, exhibitors, industry, academia and other societies as partners, not just participants, opens collaboration beyond financial considerations and creates opportunities for success for all. While expanding the chances for information sharing, developing partnerships can create cooperation in addressing possible problems, expand existing outreach beyond traditional members and potentially assist in lowering financial risks from changing meeting environments.

Finally, breaking away from a traditional, all onsite conference experience could create revenue streams through asynchronous access to meeting information, leverage the virtual experience to new members or those who could not make it to the physical meeting site and change how pricing of the conference can reflect the value the participants get from attendance.

The report concludes on this positive note: “Scientific conference organizers have an opportunity to build something new for the community to share information, interact with one another and foster a better meeting experience.”

STLE is exploring ways to add value at both existing conferences and possibly other types of meetings that could be added in the future. What that future might look like is still unknown, but the factors identified in the FACETS report seem to point toward a hybrid model that blends the best of the face-to-face and virtual environment.
 You can reach Certified Association Executive Ed Salek at