World’s First Natural Refrigerants Virtual Conference a Great Success

On March 11 – just three days before the International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration annual conference was scheduled to begin – the World Health Organization announced COVID-19 was officially a global pandemic. Immediately following that announcement, IIAR’s board voted, for the safety of members and exhibitors, to cancel what would have been IIAR’s 49th annual Conference and Expo.

ion, I was on an airplane to Orlando – where the conference was going to be held,” said Gary Schrift, IIAR’s president. “Our immediate task was to notify the membership of the decision.” During that tumultuous time, IIAR asked members and exhibitors to hold tight until questions could be answered and a plan was put in place, Schrift said. It was decided fairly quickly that the conference should still occur, but it should be held in a virtual space. Early May was selected as the date – an aggressive timeline, but a goal Schrift felt confident in setting.

Eileen McKeown, IIAR Vice President of Marketing and Sales, plays a key role in managing IIAR’s conferences. She said the transition was complicated but ultimately was pleased with the successful pivot.

IIAR leadership wanted the virtual conference to be similar to the experience of an in-person event, so the challenge was daunting. It was decided that the event should take place over three weeks – rather than three days – to ensure attendees would have ample opportunity to attend sessions, learn from educational materials and meet virtually with exhibitors, she said.

By transitioning to a virtual event, not only was IIAR able to ensure the safety of presenters and attendees but also it was able to attract additional guests who might not have been able to attend an in-person event.

“I was [initially] surprised by how many people wanted to participate in the virtual event,” McKeown said. “When we opened up registrations for the second time, we got new registrants for the event. That was impressive.”

Technical papers and the workshop were broadcast twice during the three weeks, each followed by discussions with the speakers, providing the live-online audience an extensive list of opportunities for education, said Eric Smith, IIAR’s Vice President, and Technical Director. With the exception of one, everyone who was scheduled to present at the in-person conference presented virtually.

Overall attendance was robust, Smith said. “In some cases, attendance was more than what we might expect at a live conference,” he said. “We believe that a lot of people who might not have had the opportunity to attend the live conference were able to attend the virtual conference – that was the plus side.” International activity, for example, increased noticeably at the virtual sessions.

The use of a live question-andanswer platform added an important educational element to the sessions, Smith said. Attendees were able to enter questions as the pre-recorded presentations were running, and a moderator asked those questions to the speaker for a discussion once each presentation concluded. Some of these Q&As went well beyond their allotted time, indicating how well received the sessions were.

“That was a bit of an advantage and offered a little more insight than what we might normally get,” Smith said. “We attempted to get every question answered.”

In all, there were over 30 technical presentations and workshops offered. Some of the most popular included the regulatory and code updates, as well as the session on emergency response planning. Each offering was valuable in its own right, with mechanisms in place for audience members to document their attendance to receive continuing education credits.

“I’d say that every session was quite good,” Smith said. “We were very pleased with the production of the world’s first-ever virtual conference on natural refrigerants”.

In addition to the wide variety of educational materials presented throughout the conference, this year’s virtual “Sunday Session” focused on secondary coolants, looking specifically at the application and design of these systems.

“The use of secondary coolants in refrigeration systems is becoming more popular in both commercial and industrial refrigeration,” Smith said. “This permits the refrigerant charge and equipment to be concentrated in a machinery room, much like common commercial a/c chiller systems.”

The June 5 presentation helped familiarize end-users and designers with the range and properties of secondary coolants available and their applications. The session covered pumping and piping system design techniques to minimize energy costs and the use of carbon dioxide as a “volatile brine.” Instructors demonstrated engineering calculations, and case study examples of successful applications.

The lead-off speaker, Dave Malinauskas, president of the session’s sponsor, Cimco Refrigeration, said it is increasingly important for industry professionals to start discussing these new, hybrid systems which conflate smaller, lowcharge ammonia refrigeration systems with other types of refrigerants.

While the necessity to transition to a virtual conference was out of anyone’s control, Schrift said he was overwhelmed with the results. With only four weeks to plan the event, he said the conference’s success was tremendous.

“There was no negative feedback,” Schrift said. “Of all of the sponsors and exhibitors, I know of no one that said it wasn’t worth it… it was very much a success.”

McKeown agreed. She said she was most impressed by the conference’s registrants, attendees, and exhibitors. “They were fully understanding of what was going on,” she said. “They were disappointed they weren’t able to engage with our show in a face-to-face way, but I was proud of the way everyone came together to help IIAR and support IIAR.”

The success of this year’s virtual conference has even spurred discussions on how to best incorporate a digital element at next year’s 50th Anniversary event, the Natural Refrigeration Conference & Heavy Equipment Expo in Palm Springs, California, Schrift said. While it’s still unclear how this might look, it’s almost certain this expo will offer some sort of virtual supplement.

“How well [this event] went with such a short lead up time speaks volumes about our staff and our vendors who helped put this together, says Schrift. “The fact that it was backed up by so many positive comments – which I don’t think were platitudes – confirms we should continue.”