When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit in early 2020, nearly everything turned virtual — from doctor visits to large medical conferences.

Over the last year or two, however, there’s been a significant return to in-person events and conferences. Now, a study released this week indicates a general preference for in-person events among healthcare professionals (HCP) who attend congresses and conventions.

Healthcare events agency Ashfield Event Experiences, which is part of Inizio Engage XD, partnered with the International Pharmaceutical Congress Advisory Association (IPCAA) to conduct the study. 

The goal of the report was to better understand how HCPs attend international conventions, how face-to-face meetings have impacted their experiences compared to virtual ones and how the pharma industry can glean the most from these industry events.

The report found the main reason HCPs attend conferences is for medical education, with 58% saying they valued the events for helping them learn and stay up to date with new developments in medicine. The second biggest motivator is networking.

The study also pinpointed that HCPs were growing tired of virtual conferences and estimated that attendance for virtual settings will continue declining next year. The average HCP attended two in-person meetings, as well as two virtual meetings, in 2023 – and that’s expected to drop to only one virtual meeting in 2024.

“[T]he pendulum has swung dramatically from virtual-only… to virtual taking a back seat,” the authors of the report noted. “Medical societies have either substantially cut real-time virtual access, or simply pulled the plug — particularly specialty associations with smaller congresses and fewer members worldwide.”

HCPs consider virtual conventions a decent opportunity for medical education, but lacking on the networking front. For the best networking opportunities, HCPs prefer informal, spontaneous meetings at booths to pre-planned meetings.

“We found this year’s report particularly telling in how HCPs’ behaviors were impacted by the pivot to virtual congresses or conventions and our subsequent return to face-to-face,” said Isabelle Merillet, head of congress at Ashfield Event Experiences, in a statement. “It’s entirely possible that if we ignore the learnings from lockdown, that we will deny valuable opportunities to connect and learn.”

Nicky Simpson, co-president of IPCAA, explained that the survey showed some of the changes industry observers predicted have not been as permanent as they first thought. Going forward, virtual events will not necessarily have the staying power assumed at the start of the pandemic.

“It’s so important to hear directly from HCPs about what they really want from their medical congresses in the future,” Simpson said. “How congresses are delivered, and how pharma companies show up, must be built on these preferences.”