AKRON—The ACS Rubber Division has made the decision to take its 2020 International Elastomer Conference virtual because of the continued impact of the coronavirus global pandemic.
The event had been scheduled for Oct. 20-22 at the Knoxville Convention Center in Knoxville, Tenn., but now will be conducted online from Oct. 19-23, the Rubber Division said.
Because of the still-unknown factors related to containment of the coronavirus, and with attendees and exhibitors traveling to the event from both U.S. and international locations, the Akron-based technical association said that canceling the in-person event was the "safest and most responsible action," Lakisha Miller-Barclay, Rubber Division executive director and CEO, said in a statement issued July 29.
"The health and safety of all involved with the International Elastomer Conference ultimately outweighed any other considerations and guided our decision to convert the in-person conference, planned for Knoxville, Tenn., to a virtual event," she said.
The Rubber Division will work with scheduled speakers, exhibitors, sponsors and industry partners to plan the IEC 2020 experience, Miller-Barclay said, and will share additional details as they are available.
Thus far, 2020 has been far from what Miller-Barclay expected when she took over the position in January from former Executive Director Edward Miller. With the COVID-19 pandemic spreading around the globe starting early this year, the Rubber Division first had to cancel its spring technical meeting and now convert the IEC to a virtual event.
"Whenever you take on a new leadership position, everyone wants to know what do you want to accomplish in the first 30 days, 60 days, 90 days," Miller-Barclay said in an interview with Rubber & Plastics News. "I don't think any new leaders envisioned COVID being part of their timeline, but we all had to adapt to it and keep pushing forward. That's all you can do."
She said people would be a lot more comfortable if there was a definite end date to the pandemic, but nobody has that crystal ball. "So we all have to deal with whatever information we have at that time, and make decisions based at that moment," the Rubber Division executive director said. "And that could change based on new information, just as we receive it.
"With this decision that we made, we had to take a look at everything that we knew as of that moment, and what would be best for all the participants. So we're confident we made the right decision."
Making the tough decision
When things started closing down in the U.S. in March, Miller-Barclay said a lot of people still perceived the coronavirus to be just an accelerated flu. When it became clear that it was a crisis that needed closely monitored, the technical association created a task force that met regularly to review all information it was receiving from convention officials in Knoxville, as well as those in the rubber industry.
"We took a look at all of those things, as well as what would a physical conference actually look like based on what we knew at this time from Knoxville," she said. "We just didn't feel it would be a value if we had that conference and we weren't able to provide the quality that we normally would provide to the community."
Rubber Division officials sought out feedback ahead of time from those impacted before making the call to take the IEC virtual. It did a survey of exhibitors and also asked board members to talk to their customers to get a feel for what they thought of potentially attending an in-person event.
Feedback from exhibitors confirmed what Rubber Division officials had thought would be the case, that most wouldn't send as many people, if they could participate at all, and that they didn't have a high level of confidence that their customers would be able to attend, Miller-Barclay said.
"For me, quality is very important, not just the quantity," she said. "What I keep hearing from exhibitors specifically is the quality. So if their customers are not there and their potential leads are not there, can we really provide them the quality they are looking for at the expo?"
The same held true for the technical program, as many speakers likely wouldn't have been able to come to Knoxville because of travel bans and restrictions.
It also helped that convention officials in Knoxville have been easy to work with, providing updates as soon as possible as the Rubber Division was making its decision, Miller-Barclay said. Though no contract has been signed, she said the plan is for the IEC to return to Knoxville for the 2022 event. Holding the event there in two years, she added, will help reduce the financial impact from expenses and penalties incurred for having to cancel this year's event.
Working out the details
While the event will lack the physical expo portion of the agenda, Rubber Division officials are hoping for a boost in participation on the technical side. All technical and educations programs will be online, along with the student colloquium.
"I'm confident we'll still have the quality of content. Our speakers are committed," Miller-Barclay said. "We're working directly with our exhibitors and sponsors to see what we can still bring to them to provide the quality that they require of us."
"We don't want to assume what people want. We want to make sure we provide them what they want."
It's still being worked out which presentations may be live or pre-recorded, particularly as international speakers are living in different time zones. The Rubber Division also wants to have networking and chatting available, along with Q&A sessions with presenters.
A number of events were scheduled for the in-person IEC, including the technical meeting, expo, educational symposium, a Women's Preconference Workshop, keynote address and a variety of networking events.
The Rubber Division also had planned to have its Science & Technology Awards Ceremony and winner presentations at the Knoxville event. Those normally are part of the division's spring meeting, which was canceled this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gretchen Cermak, Rubber Division marketing and communications director, said no decision has been made yet when the Science & Technology Awards events will be held. She said the division may hold a separate event, as the winners typically give technical presentations as part of the program.
Cermak added that, thus far, all feedback about the decision to go virtual with the Knoxville IEC has been positive, with members saying they know it was a tough decision, but the right one to make.
As the schedule and pricing for the virtual event are finalized, the association will share details on the conference website at rubberiec.com.