Grassroots Vol 20 No 3 | Page 9

CONGRESS 55 toration, dairy pastures of the future - including nutrition and cultivated pastures, next-generation/4th industrial revolution advances in rangeland management, game farming, nature conservation and tourism, water production and fire management in rangelands and research project proposals. Interestingly, attendance was similar across all these disciplines. That there were no parallel sessions no doubt allowed for greater attendance of all the sessions. Delegates appreciated the wide range of topics covered and considered them highly relevant to the Congress theme and considered them of high quality. It is intended to make session packages available for purchase in order to extend the opportunity to people to participate in the online congress after the actual event. Some of the session chairs found it challenging to juggle listening to the presentations (especially if the sound was of poor quality), monitoring the chat and question and answer box and preparing for the next presenter. Unexpected were the comments received from many members who expressed the opinion that a virtual congress was a format which is long overdue. The lower costs of the registration fee due to the online nature of the congress and the savings related to travel and accommodation costs were appreciated by many delegates, especially at this time. The lowered environmental impacts of a virtual congress compared to a physical congress were also appreciated. Despite these advantages, congress attendance numbers were lower than anticipated: 141 delegates from nine different countries in comparison to an average of 193 delegates per annum over the last five years. It is felt that the lower than expected attendance was directly related to the economic implications of the pandemic rather than the virtual format. Going forward the Society will consider an online format for congress which may even result in the development of a hybrid format of a physical and online congress. Maintaining an online congress would help the Society to meet its objectives of growing its southern African and off-continent contributions with other rangeland groups and help to profile the GSSA beyond its current membership. Given the travel challenges in Africa even in normal times, a hybrid congress would allow for much greater intra-African connectivity and reach a much wider and very important audience. The newer technologies facilitated certain aspects of congress. For example, the automatic reports generated by Zoom ® greatly facilitated the collation of delegate session attendance and hence the calculation of CPD points required to generate the CPD certificates. Similarly, we were able to offer electronic ‘goodies’ for the delegate ‘swag bags’ which proved very popular with the delegates. ‘Goodies’ included electronic books, magazines and vouchers to tourism facilities. Key lessons Internet connectivity remains the most important consideration in hosting a successful virtual congress. This will remain a challenge in South Africa for the immediate future. In the absence of reliable data connectivity, backup plans need to be made, such as making the sessions available for later viewing. This also alleviates other potential problems such as electricity supply disruptions. Similarly, redundancy needs to be built into the system and must include items such as having more than one internet service provider in the event of system or streaming errors occurring during a live event, so that it can be switched rapidly to a different provider if needed. Having the videos pre-recorded was very useful, however, when the systems failed on the first day, this necessitated having to request the affected session speakers to present live. Having presenters forewarned and prepared to present live is a useful redundancy. One needs to be ready to ‘adapt on the fly’ as the challenges arise. Whilst there was a choice of software platforms available to host the congress Zoom ® was selected because it is software with which many people are familiar. Indeed, several participants commented on picture quality and the interactivity between several people in a single session being better than that of other commonly used platforms. That more people preferred Zoom proved invaluable given the short time available in which to organise the congress. Zoom ® also offered the best value for money: an essential criterion given the current economic situation in RSA. Hosting an online-only event presented some novel challenges for integrating all events normally associated with an actual congress. For example, the awards ceremony usually takes place at the gala dinner on the last evening of Congress. Because this was not possible, the awards ceremony was moved to the Annual General Meeting which was held online the day after the congress. The AGM is usually only attended by GSSA members and not necessarily all Congress delegates. This meant that congress delegates did not automatically know who the award winners were. This also had the effect of extending the duration of the AGM and extra-long meetings are not always popular. It is important to try and make the event as interactive as possible. The Zoom ® meeting host and the session chairpersons have a vital role to play to ensure that all questions posted are attended to and raised hands are acknowledged and people are given an opportunity to ask questions. We found more questions were asked than during a physical congress as a level of shyness was removed with delegates being able to type in their questions. Ensuring a full programme, even during the breaks, ensures continuity of the programme. In this regard, the virtual tours worked well during the breaks. To simulate a live environment, presentations were acknowledged by playing a clapping recording at the end of each presentation. Some participants felt that this made the presentations somewhat artificial. Despite the COVID ‘curveballs’ thrown this year and inexperience in hosting an online conference, especially under lockdown conditions, the event was hosted successfully. In conclusion, the authors would like to thank the organising team for all their hard work in making the 55 th Congress a success, as well as all our sponsors for supporting us. We would also like to thank the delegates for their patience and tolerance of the ‘glitches’ which occurred. REFERENCES Reshef, O., Aharonovich, I., Armani, A.M., Gigan, S., Grange, R., Kats, M.A. and Sapienza, R. 2020. How to organize an online conference. Nature Reviews Materials 5:253-256. Grassroots Vol 20 No 3 September 2020 08