An interview with Rachel Lambert-Forsyth, CEO, and Nic Engler, Head of Events & Partnerships, at the British Pharmacological Society (BPS)

The BPS is a charity with a mission to promote and advance the whole spectrum of pharmacology. The Society leads the way in the research and application of pharmacology around the world. Connecting over 4,000 members from more than 60 countries, it is a global community at the heart of pharmacology.

In the last seven years, the Society has grown substantially in performance and impact. Membership has risen by over 20%, while diversification of the Society’s business portfolio has seen annual revenues also grow, providing stability to the organisation and supporting the delivery of a huge range of charitable activities.

As the pandemic hit in March 2020, the UK went into its first national lockdown. A year on, Peridot speaks with Rachel and Nic of the BPS to discuss the challenges and opportunities they have faced whilst supporting their membership and evolving their events portfolio.

Initial messaging to members and partners

BPS, like all societies, had to respond to the directives from Government, closing their office, postponing or cancelling in person meetings and switching to digital engagement overnight. Their members were suddenly in a state of flux and under increasing pressure, especially those at the clinical frontline or in drug discovery pre-clinical sectors.

Rachel said: “Our Trustees, Committee members and advisors were supporting the national response in various ways. So we wanted to communicate our understanding that, for now, some Society activities would take a back seat, but that we were here to promote their science and the interdisciplinary nature of drugs and medicine development, of which pharmacology is a core scientific discipline.

“We created a COVID HUB to communicate the Society’s response, and share pertinent information in one central space. From the outset, we communicated that we were here to support our members in any way that we could, keeping open channels of communication with them, and responding as needs and requirements became clearer.”

Scenario planning

Speaking with Nic, she articulated that in the early stage of the pandemic BPS were yet to understand the full extent of COVID and the impact it would have on their meetings programme. There was a need to talk through the challenges this created, as well as look at the new opportunities it might also bring them.

Nic and the team reflected on the why and how and gave them the chance to be creative and re-invent their approach to the meetings programme.

“We felt a huge responsibility to ensure our programme retained all its successful elements, but in a new and innovative way,” Nic said.

“For every meeting either existing or in the pipeline, a virtual and hybrid proposal was created. The face-to-face plans were now enhanced with a deeper dive into risk mitigation should cancellation or postponement occur.

We worked on a series of worst case scenarios from a planning and commercial perspective, so we could fully realise our current situation and the impact it might have on the Society should we need to move to either fully virtual or adopt a hybrid model.”

It was explained that creating these detailed plans of what might happen across their entire meetings programme took a significant amount of time and thought, as well as keeping abreast of what their partner societies were doing as well as what was happening in the wider meetings industry.

Rachel said: “We also took into consideration the various voices that we needed and wanted to listen to. Our members are incredibly engaged with the Society and there was a desire to support the vibrant community they have created over the last 90 years, but in digital settings we had yet to try and test, so there was always an element of the unknown in our plans.”

Transitioning from 2020 to 2021

“Decommissioning an event takes the same amount of time as the organising of one. Sometimes longer, depending on the complexity,” explained Nic.

The team discussed their scenario planning that they undertook at the start of the year which helped them in this regard, as they were very clear about the contracts they had in place and what needed to happen. Key to this was the ongoing conversations they had with their suppliers.

Nic continued: “There was a real sense of understanding, worry, but also camaraderie during what was going on and the devastating effect it was having on a vibrant industry that is based on people coming together.

“We had also clearly communicated to our event attendees and wider membership our plans to either cancel or postpone. We were keen not to jump in with a virtual offering immediately. There was a huge initial run of free virtual meetings taking place from April 2020 onwards and this provided an interesting opportunity to see how it was all working.”

Rachel added: “The meetings team were really mindful of the challenges facing individuals during this time and throughout all the planning stages and I would link the successes we have had with our offers and the praise received on our platforms because of this mindful approach.

“Having an events team linked into the wider events industry also really benefitted us as they kept abreast of changing good practice in the wider sector and brought that learning into the Society.”

Moving to digital events

By the time BPS decided to move their Annual Meeting virtually, the Society team and their members had attended many virtual events.

Nic said: “There was a very clear understanding from everyone of what worked well and what didn’t.

“We encouraged creative collaboration through being open to the new ideas and positive experiences our members and committees would share with us. From that we created a framework that outlined the key elements that were important to us.

“As a result, we realised that there wasn’t anything in existence that would be 100% effective for us, so we opted to work with a developer to create our own platform to suit our specific needs.

“Also, we launched our new webinar series ‘BPS Live’ and, as a result of the first webinar taking place in October 2020, we have now launched a call to our membership to submit topics and applications for our future webinars.”

Pivoting duty of care with members and partners

How did the BPS navigate this effectively and ensure the transition from F2F time was comparably and as enriching and effective?

“Speaking to our membership and keeping open lines of communication through our committees, social media channels, e-newsletters and also looking at research from outside of the Society on the impact on early career individuals more generally,” Rachel said.

“This constant flow of information in and out of the organisation meant we were bending and flexing all the time to address changing needs.”

By end of 2020, they had created clear messaging on this duty of care and were confident they are making the right decision based on risks and the information you have at the time, and importantly based on the Society’s core values.

“We kept this discussion at the heart of decisions so we were constantly asking ourselves: Why are we doing this? How can this solution support our members? Can our staff deliver this safely? Are we mindful of government guidelines?” Rachel added.

“By asking these questions each time we could be confident our decisions were centred on the individual and not the organisation’s needs – we are a Society for the community led by members and this connectivity really helped us keep clear on our charitable objects and the values of charities as laid out in charity law.”

The natural next step? Provide a digital hybrid offering

Rachel explained that when the need to go digital was discussed in Board meetings, all different views were taken into consideration, including the understandable desire to connect in person.

“Our board is made up of individuals from across the commercial, academic, research, regulatory, business and charity space and each sector is approaching opening up differently and each person will have had a different experience in lockdown,” Rachel explained.

“We tried to ensure that any decision was taken with full and frank conversations, weighing up the risks and benefits to each decision. By allowing these discussions to ebb and flow naturally throughout the year, we became more confident that we were taking decisions that weighed up these differences of opinions.

“This allowed us to bring solutions to the table that compromised on the how we delivered meetings and training but without compromising on what we were trying to achieve through their aims and objectives.”

Looking to the future

Finally, how do they feel about the immediate and long-term future and what exciting things are on the horizon?

Nic concluded: “Without a doubt, virtual is here to stay for a while but we recognise that it’s not a replacement for face-to-face.

“We know that meeting elements such as exhibition and networking require human connection to make them the best they can be and streaming content offers us a global stage and brilliant reach, especially to our international members.

“Moving forward, the Society will continue to adopt a ‘mixed-mode’ meeting format based on what is right for the audience. It will not always be necessary or appropriate to stream an entire meeting online so we will execute flexibility around what is the ideal approach for content dissemination, networking and opportunities for our partners.”

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