Hosting a conference satellite for the first time - five lessons learned

Conference satellites: The best of both worlds - minimizing carbon emissions but meeting in person. Let’s do this more often.

flyless
Author

Mario Angst

Published

September 19, 2022

tl;dnr

Conference satellites are a great way to avoid long-distance flights to conferences without giving up on in-person interaction. When hosting a satellite it pays to:

  • Make the satellite thematic and not too big
  • Add value by organizing local side-events
  • Coordinate early with the organizers of the main conference
  • Check your tech setup

A satellite

This July 2022 we organized Sunbelt@Europe conference satellite here in Zürich. Sunbelt is a big social network analysis conference and important for our smallish community of researchers working on social networks in environmental and sustainability governance.

Sunbelt was happening in Australia. That’s a long flight from Europe - and a lot of carbon emissions. As researchers, cutting down on air travel is one of the most impactful individual-level(!) climate actions we can take 1. Still, especially after years of virtual conferences, we were longing for the magic and inspiration of in-person interactions.

So we2 decided to host conference satellite! We would host researchers here in Zürich for three days and jointly virtually participate in the Australian conference. This way, we could gather in person but still cut down massively on our travel emissions.

I had heard of this format before as a way to reduce long-distance air travel to conference, but it never appeared in our field. So we just did it.

Since hosting the satellite this summer, I have been approached by a number of people who consider doing something similar in their fields and research communities. That’s what we wanted to achieve! I am super happy about it. So I thought I’d summarize some lessons learned from our event in writing here as well. Here’s my top lessons learned.

Lessons learned

Make it thematic

Our main conference was huge (social network research on everything from football transfers to statistical network models) and we were only a small part of it. So we purposefully limited the scope of our satellite to only gather researchers working on environmental and sustainability issues. This makes planning a satellite program and administering the satellite much more feasible:

  • For conferences with lots of panels happening at the same time, you can likely find one to focus on in the satellite that most participants are interested in.
  • A more narrow scope leads to a smaller community. Roughly 25 researchers participated in our hub. This sort of number we could handle administratively and it made finding a suitable room and tech setup easier.

Have some local side-events

By making the satellite thematic, we were also able to add some local side-events to our satellite. I felt that this greatly added value to the format. We did three “official” side events:

  • A poster session at the very beginning of the satellite where everyone prepared a poster about their research. We were able to leave the posters up for the whole event on the walls of the premise, which in my opinion contributed nicely to the atmosphere. We were also able to persuade the senior researchers attending to do posters as well, which I felt was crucial.
  • We had one local workshop organized by a senior researcher in the field about current topics in our specific community.
  • We even had a (fittingly) virtual keynote from the US, which was really cool (although I might have been biased because I am such a fan of the research the speaker does). I heard afterwards that it might have been a too much though, as the keynote came at the end of a long day.

We also had a dinner and lots of coffee ;).

I would definitely do these side-events again, but probably not more of them. I think it’s important to have a relatively easy program for a satellite to capitalize on the in-person interaction and mitigate the strain of virtually attending sessions.

Get in touch with the main conference early

This might be one of the most important lessons learned, especially if you are hosting a satellite for a large conference. Get in touch with the organizers early, especially because they also have to plan ahead and may not be able to consider your requirements any more if you are too late. This most crucially includes ensuring that they even make virtual participation possible. If they don’t, maybe consider lobbying for it, which you can also only do if you are early. Also consider explicitly communicating to them that you will ensure that people participating in the satellite do pay the requisite conference fees.

We were very lucky. Our idea was warmly welcomed by the Sunbelt organizers we engaged with3 and they afterwards were nothing but supportive. They did their best to ensure a superb hybrid setting tech-wise, tried to mitigate the time difference by hosting panels with European involvement late in the evening in Australia and generally made us feel that we were a welcome part of the conference.

Now, your mileage may vary about this aspect and we were faced with the best possible scenario. But reaching out early is likely a key thing you can do in any case.

Get funding

We generously got funding from the Swiss National Science foundation who has a funding instrument to support scientific exchange between Swiss researchers and researchers from abroad. With this, we could support some satellite participants for travel to and accomodation in Zürich. The grant added a lot of administrative burden, but it made it possible to get a slightly more diverse group of researchers and gave our event some credibility for communication. If you find a funder who has a suitable funding instrument, consider applying - if you keep it small, the grant can be small and by covering both climate action and supporting scientific exchange, likely attractive for the funder.

I personally feel that applying for grants for this format is also important as a way to communicate the format to funders. As overseas travel is expensive, I think that funding these formats is even in their interest financially.

Don’t forget the tech

One thing we did not do well was preparing our tech setup. One would have thought that after two years of Corona we would have been aware, but it really pays to test everything in advance - preferably also with the main conference. We basically had a big screen and a laptop facing our group, which meant that to participate in the Australian session, someone had to go up to the laptop, which was less than ideal. We also did not consider that some of us had to host a virtual session while another part of the group would participate in the same session.

Still, our setup was the most limited possible and still worked so I think this shows you can actually host a small satellite even without an elaborate setup.

Doing/ did something similar?

I would love to hear from others who have hosted a conference satellite on their learnings. The format is relatively new (at least in my field) and I think we have a lot to learn from each other about what works and what does not work. I am happy to append this post as well or link to other resources.

Footnotes

  1. For more information about the topic of air travel in the research context, ETH Zürich has put together a lot of great resources here↩︎

  2. Our organizing team was Martin Huber and I, and in the beginning also Giulia Donati at Eawag.↩︎

  3. Especially the organizing team of the special theme “SOCIAL NETWORKS, DISASTER RECOVERY AND ENVIRONMENTAL GOVERNANCE IN THE FACE OF CLIMATE CHANGE” around Michele Barnes and Angela Guerrero.↩︎