The Transportation Research Board’s Annual Meeting is going virtual in January 2021-just in time to wrap up the celebration of TRB’s Centennial Year. With so much that will be unique about the 2021 Annual Meeting, we at Kittelson have been curious what the experience will be like and from conversations we’ve had, we know we’re not alone in our questions!

For many transportation professionals, the TRB Annual Meeting is an opportunity to reconnect with industry connections, present research findings from the past year, and build upon years of involvement in transportation research. Others in the industry are acquainted with the conference from a distance, but have never attended due to the travel, time commitment, and intensity of the week in Washington, D.C.

For both of these groups, the virtual nature of TRB 2021 offers unique opportunities to approach the Annual Meeting a bit differently. We sat down with TRB’s Technical Activities Director Ann Brach and Senior Program Officer James Bryant, both of whom have been integral to planning the event, to learn how attendees can prepare for and maximize the experience. (You can watch our recorded conversation here!)

Committee Meetings, Lectern Sessions, Poster Sessions, and Workshops in a Virtual TRB

Ann and James both emphasized that TRB 2021 warrants a new attendee mindset.

“It’s not going to be like the physical meeting. You have to wrap your head around that this will be different and ask: how can I take advantage of the opportunity?” said James. “This opportunity allows you to watch the sessions from the convenience of your home and take a deeper dive. It will allow a depth that we haven’t previously been able to achieve, because there will be fewer things happening at once.”

Every year, the Annual Meeting is made up of several session types: committee meetings, lectern sessions, workshops, poster sessions, exhibit halls, and networking events. Each of these sessions is being replicated some way in the virtual environment. Committee meetings will take place throughout the first two weeks of January-“your typical Zoom meetings,” described Ann. The second week and a half of the conference will take place over a virtual conference platform where attendees can branch off to attend the lectern sessions and workshops.

In a typical poster session, a Walter E. Washington Convention Center conference room is filled with rows of displayed posters, with authors standing by to answer questions and talk about their work. in the virtual setting, all posters will be uploaded to the virtual platform before the meeting along with videos from the authors. The posters can be viewed 24/7, and there will also be scheduled times when authors are online and available for real-time interaction. Similarly, the exhibit halls will be recreated virtually. Attendees can scroll through several “halls” and click on exhibits, watch videos, and at specified times, can interact with people staffing the exhibit.

Advice For Your First TRB Annual Meeting

A typical TRB poster session (photo from the 2020 Annual Meeting).

Photo of the crowds TRB brought in 2020

During a typical TRB Annual Meeting, the Walter E. Washington Convention Center is buzzing with activity from 7am until late at night (photo from the 2020 Annual Meeting).

Event organizers are even recreating the experience of walking into the Convention Center main hall and seeing who’s available to chat.

“There is a networking lounge on the platform. That is sort of like walking into a lobby and seeing who’s around. You can also arrange with people to ‘meet’ in the lounge and there’s the technology to have a videoconference there in the lounge,” said Ann. “It’s a similar capability to what’s in the exhibit booth: you can interact with whoever’s in the exhibit booth over chat and video when you’re there.”

The annual Careers in Motion Networking Fair is also being continued virtually. Job seekers can live chat directly with hiring managers, get instant feedback on their qualifications, and learn about job opportunities firsthand. They can also get their resumes reviewed by a human resources specialist at the Resume Critique Booth.

James noted that while the networking that the Annual Meeting is known for will certainly have to happen differently, there are fewer barriers to starting conversations, and that attendees should take advantage of that many industry leaders converging in one space.

“Dispel the thought that it’s what you are used to. It’s really about how you can take advantage of what’s being provided,” he said. “Maybe you didn’t have the courage or connections to interact with someone before. In this setting, with one click you can connect and have a one-on-one video conversation with someone you’ve been wanting to meet.”

"Dispel the thought that it's what you are used to. It's really about how you can take advantage of what's being provided."

- James Bryant, TRB Technical Activities Senior Program Officer

A Monthlong “Transportation Geekapalooza”

Another significant change to the Annual Meeting is the length: what is typically a five-day immersive experience will spread throughout the month of January, beginning January 5 and concluding January 29. Ann and James explained that this was planned intentionally to help attendees mitigate virtual meeting fatigue, and keep up with other commitments.

“As anyone who’s been to the meeting in person knows, it’s an intense experience-you’re immersed from Sunday through Thursday, 6 or 7 in the morning until 9 or 10 at night,” said Ann. “It’s easier to do that when you’re interacting with people in real time, but it’s really hard to have that kind of immersion in a virtual world. We all know about Zoom fatigue.

“We wanted to deliver as much content as possible without that kind of intensity. So we’ve spread it out throughout the month. This was the best way we could deliver as much content as possible without it being so overwhelming from a virtual experience point of view. Drop in when you can, and the sessions will also be recorded so you can catch them later. You can get even more out of the ‘transportation geekapalooza’!”

As they put it, TRB went from being a huge meeting to just a very big meeting in 2021: from 800 sessions to 400 sessions.

“It’s probably still the most comprehensive meeting in transportation from a virtual perspective,” said James. “There’s a lot of detail, a lot of information, and the attendees can seek out and find the pockets of information they’re looking for. It’s spread out to be a convenience, not only to TRB staff and vendors, but also to attendees-you’re able to plan how you want to use your precious time.”

The “Don’t Miss” Sessions at TRB 2021

With so many sessions to choose from, which ones stand out from the conference organizers’ point of view?

It will be no surprise, Ann and James said, that there will be quite a few sessions addressing COVID-19 and its impacts on all areas of the profession. They also noted a heightened focus on equity as it relates to transportation. And of course, some sessions will focus on TRB’s Centennial Celebration.

“Last year’s Annual Meeting was about history, and this one is about the future,” said Ann. “We’ll have one session that incorporates our previous two executive directors and five people who have chaired the Young Members Council since it was founded, talking about the future of transportation.”

Ultimately, a wide variety of topics are planned so there is something for everyone, given TRB’s broad constituency. Two sessions stand out in Ann and James’ minds, however:

  • The Chair’s Plenary Session on Wednesday, January 27th. Dr. Marcia McNutt, the first woman president of the National Academy of Sciences its founding in 1863, will give a keynote presentation about the new NRC strategic plan and important future issues in science that are related to transportation.
  • The Thomas B. Deen Distinguished Lecture on Monday evening, January 25th. TRB Technical Activities Chair Hyun-A Park will moderate a discussion with Dorval Carter from the Chicago Transportation Authority and former Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx on transportation equity and where we go from here. Dorval Carter will also deliver a lecture titled “Our Work is Never Done: Examining Equity Impacts in Public Transportation.”

Each of these sessions will be available to anyone to attend.

"It's pretty neat that for our 100th Annual Meeting, we have to think about everything completely differently. The theme of this meeting is looking forward. COVID-19 has forced us to do that in a very real way."

- Ann Brach, TRB Technical Activities Director

For First-Time Attendees: Is TRB 2021 a Good Introduction to Transportation Research?

We asked Ann and James if 2021 would be a good year to attend TRB for the first time. After all, it’s easier to attend than it’s been in the past-but is it too atypical of an Annual Meeting to be a good first-timer’s experience?

Their response: it’s a perfect year to attend for the first time.

“Why? Because you don’t have any pre-conceived notions you’re trying to live up to,” said James. “You’ve been involved in virtual meetings for most of this year. Now you get a chance to take that experience and take advantage of all the sessions and the content and the connections that you can make at the TRB Annual Meeting. You may be able to pick up some names: you can look up who the committee chairs and presenters are and connect with people in ways you typically couldn’t.”

Ann highlighted that there are unique opportunities for younger professionals to get a taste of TRB through the virtual meeting. Many companies send a limited number of employees to TRB, with the result that most younger staff don’t get permission to attend. This year, companies can send more employees because no one will have to take a week off for the conference, and registration is less expensive. 2021 is also a good opportunity for international attendees for whom the travel to DC is more difficult.

Event organizers are working hard to provide information to first-timers to help orient them and give them opportunities to meet people and get involved like they could in the in-person meeting. They will provide a technical activities exhibit booth containing information about all of TRB’s activities, not just the Annual Meeting, and how those who are interested can learn about TRB’s committees and get involved.

TRB Annual Meeting Sign 2020

Moving the Profession Forward, One Annual Meeting at a Time

In reflecting on the decision to take TRB 2021 virtual, Ann and James shared that this is the best way to fulfill TRB’s mission amidst the unique circumstances of 2020 and 2021.

“Know that we didn’t take the decision to move this meeting virtually lightly. It is due to our concern for the meeting attendees, our volunteers, our community members, our friends, and their families,” said James. “That is the overarching goal: we want you to remain safe. We also want to provide value to you, continue to do what we’ve done in terms of pushing knowledge of transportation across the world, and we think this gives us a good opportunity to do that in the midst of this pandemic.”

“We knew we had to do something,” added Ann. “We’ve put a tremendous amount of thought into this event-reviewing all kinds of methods and virtual meeting platforms, attending others’ virtual meetings, having consultations with people to get their lessons learned. We really want to make sure this is as high a quality of event as what we normally put on in person: but it is a different event.”

The deadline for discounted registration ($485 for general registration, $95 for full-time students) for the 2021 Annual Meeting is November 30, 2020. Learn more, view the schedule at a glance, and register on TRB’s website.