Medical and pharmaceutical organizations are returning to in-person conferences after two years of virtual and hybrid events, and
for the industry, it’s a welcome change. Traditional face-to-face conferences offer healthcare professionals the opportunity to network with peers and renew acquaintances with colleagues.
More than that, conferences offer informational workshops that allow professionals to update their clinical knowledge and keep on the forefront of rapid changes in their field. They also are big business. For example, when the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society returned to the Orange County Convention Center for an in-person meeting in March, its 26,000 attendees injected about $77 million in economic impact into the Orlando, Fla., area.
A little more than a year ago, some questioned whether face-to-face formats would be viable post-pandemic. Now, even with virus cases presenting an upswing, in-person events are coming back in a big way.
The best medicine
In 2020 and 2021, the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) held virtual conventions that had lower than usual attendance numbers. “It went well, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve faced in my long career,” says Windy Christner, the group’s associate vice president of meetings and expositions.
So, when the APhA held its 2022 Annual Meeting and Exposition in person—the organization’s first 100 percent face-to-face convention in two years—the atmosphere was festive. The gathering boosted spirits, providing the perfect remedy for those weary from two years of virtual and hybrid events.
“The folks who came were over the moon ecstatic to be there,” Christner says. “The energy was amazing.”
Although attendance was down, about 3,200 people gathered March 18-21 at the Henry B. González Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas. “We had approximately 60 percent attendance from pre-COVID numbers,” Christner notes.
About 80 exhibitors set up displays, down from the usual 150 but still a good turnout given that several organizations had travel restrictions in place at the time, Christner points out. “The hall looked terrific, and the intimate feel gave our participants and exhibitors great quality time together,” she says.
San Antonio also benefited from hosting the event. As a result of the pandemic, the Alamo City reportedly has lost an estimated $475 million in economic impact from canceled conventions.
Navigating safety protocols
Holding virtual meetings required an immense amount of creativity and adapting as the world learned to navigate the pandemic on the fly. But returning to an in-person format presented its own challenges for the APhA. As one might expect from a healthcare organization, the 2022 convening included precautions and adhered to strict health and safety protocols.
Doing so involved adopting easy-to-manage technology to help attendees navigate the requirements. The CrowdPass app, for example, was implemented as a secure way for attendees to upload proof of vaccination prior to the event. In lieu of the app, organizers accepted vaccination cards.
“Testing negative was not an option,” Christner says. “We based our decision regarding vaccination on our office and CDC protocols and lifted the mask mandate to voluntary just a few days before the meeting, based on revised CDC guidelines.”
In addition, organizers hired a medic specializing in COVID-19 management to be onsite at the vaccination verification area.
They also had test kits available for urgent use.
“Masks were readily available, as were hand-sanitizing stations,” Christner says. “We notified attendees of positive test cases via the app, of which there were only a few. We followed up with those notifying
us of cases to ensure they were okay.”
Safety also will be a priority when the National Pharmaceutical Association (NPhA) holds its Annual Convention July 29-Aug. 1 at the Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel & Convention Center in Georgia.
“We’ll have masks, onsite care, and testing, and we’re encouraging the vaccination plus booster,” says NPhA president Ryan Marable.
Organizers expect 700 to 1,000 attendees at this year’s convention, representing a recovery to pre-pandemic numbers, Marable says. In comparison, the virtual conventions held in 2020 and 2021 had an average of 500 attendees.
In addition to continuing education, professional-development sessions, and networking events, a special draw this year is a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the NPhA, a national professional organization of pharmacists committed to serving the underserved and promoting minorities in pharmacy. The 50th year of the Student National Pharmaceutical Association also will be recognized.
Ironically, masks covered the smiles of attendees at the American Dental Association (ADA) SmileCon 2021. This October when the group meets for SmileCon 2022 in Houston, it remains to be seen whether masks will be required. But as a science-based organization, the ADA takes health and safety seriously, and organizers say they will monitor the virus and look to local and state guidelines to develop safety protocols and requirements.
Between 15,000 and 18,000 attendees are expected at the annual gathering, a joint meeting with the Texas Dental Association and the Greater Houston Dental Society scheduled Oct. 13-15 at the George R. Brown Convention Center. The joint meeting allows participants to attend a local, state, and national meeting in one event; the convenience benefits not only the dentists and their teams, but also the event exhibitors.
Although the meetings will be face-to-face, some learning experiences will be offered as monthly online events following the general meeting in order for those not attending in person to brush up on their continuing education. Offering virtual events throughout the year also encourages attendance at SmileCon 2023, which will be held in Orlando, Fla., organizers say.
This year’s event will be the first fully in-person SmileCon since the start of the pandemic. SmileCon 2020 was held virtually, and the 2021 event was a hybrid meeting with both in-person and online attendees.
Even with the excitement surrounding the return of in-person events, online events are not expected to disappear. Medical professionals have been practicing online events, webinars, and continuing education for years. Indeed, the American Medical Association has an extensive lineup of online learning options.
Still, the full chart of healthcare conferences in 2022 indicates a healthy and robust desire for in-person events within the medical and pharmaceutical communities. By all accounts, the healthcare market sector is alive and well.