It’s no secret that market segments across the board struggled with meetings and events over the past year.
What is a surprise is that medical organizations found a way to take the lemons from 2020 and turn them into lemonade. While medical meetings took a virtual turn just like everyone else, meeting planners found participants didn’t really mind.
“Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, we had a conversation about how we could lose anywhere from $400,000 to $1.7 million by canceling our in-person meeting and going fully virtual,” said American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA) chief growth officer Eric O’Connor. “We had this realization, and it was a conversation I never thought we’d have. My goal was to erase the loss, and my long-term goal was to profit. We ended up doing both. We profited almost what we do at an in-person meeting.”
The American College of Rheumatology had a similar experience. After converting its annual in-person meeting to a 100 percent virtual event, it surpassed its numbers from the previous year. “We were trying to be conservative with expectations because it was the first time we had gone completely virtual, but … it was a huge win,” noted senior director of meeting services Crystal Green, CMP, CMM.
The benefits to virtual were evident to participants like Jennifer Walker, a pediatrician in Fairhope, Ala. who took a course from the American Academy of Pediatrics completely online for the first time. “It was great because I didn’t have to take time off work or spend the weekend away from my family,” she said. “I got everything I needed virtually.”
After more than a year of virtual meetings, many markets are trending back toward in-person. The AANA conducted a survey of its membership to help decide the course of their meetings in 2021, and the results were overwhelmingly positive for getting back to an in-person meeting. “We really weren’t sure if members would want to go to a meeting yet,” O’Connor explained. “Our survey, which we held in February, pointed to pent-up demand. People wanted the in-person meeting to see their colleagues. We asked, and it was an overwhelming yes.”
But with many medical organizations experiencing success with the virtual option, many groups have decided to keep that component and schedule hybrid meetings this year. “The hybrid component is going to be here to stay,” said American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) managing director of education and management services Michele Byers. “It’s going to be part of our event platforms going forward. Certainly, people are tired of Zoom this year, but enough people saw value in it.”
The AANA will be hosting its first hybrid event, their 2021 Annual Congress, this August in Austin, Texas. As shown last year, a virtual option opens the door for attendees who otherwise may not be able to attend. “There are always many potential attendees that have to stay home for various reasons, so we think the virtual option is an opportunity to engage those members that come every other year,” O’Connor said. “I anticipate that two of our three meetings each year will continue on as hybrid. It increases our opportunity for member engagement.”
ACEP saw this theory in action last year with its annual meeting. It maintained strong numbers when it went virtual last year, and some of its activities even saw an increase in attendance. This year, the annual meeting will offer both in-person and virtual options when it convenes in Boston in October.
“There will always be people who can’t or won’t travel,” Byers added. “This gives them an opportunity to participate and allows us to expand our audience, particularly beyond our North American border as we’re not sure if our international participants will be able to attend this year.”
New revenue stream
While the virtual option does come at a cost—as O’Connor stressed, it can be between $50,000 to $150,000, depending on the meeting size—it does add another benefit: a new revenue stream.
Many organizations are putting the recorded content from the virtual event online for their members to consume over time, which provides another way to create revenue. “I’ve seen throughout the industry, and our members made it loud and clear that they are no longer interested in consuming content over just a week,” O’Connor said. “We can now hold the meeting but have a conference for six months instead of five days, so that makes advertising dollars go a lot further. Sponsors like that we can put them in front of the audience for a longer period.”
The ability to offer programming for longer has also created an added value for attendees. Specifically, many medical personnel were unable to attend meetings in 2020 because of their responsibilities on the front lines of the pandemic. “We heard from many of our members that they can’t sit in front of a computer for five days, much less sit in a meeting in another state for five days,” O’Connor said. “Many have literally been told they can’t take a vacation or travel. Some want to attend, but they have so many patients coming through the doors that they need to take care of. So that’s another benefit to augmenting the program to allow them to consume the content over time.”
The American Holistic Nurses Association (AHNA) has experienced the same issue.
Therefore, the association is pre-recording much of its content this year for its annual conference and allowing members to watch as they can. “We will have a few specific live events, but we’ll be very specific with them so that they can plan ahead to participate,” said AHNA’s Nicole Malcom.
In addition to giving their members more time to watch sessions, many organizations are also scheduling sessions for different times of the day that work better with the schedules of medical professionals. “We’ve scheduled sessions across all time zones,” said Byers. “Last year, we started really early in the morning and went until late at night. We had really strong participation because emergency room physicians are on the clock 24/7, so they work at all different hours. We wanted to make sure we had courses available for nocturnists working overnight or those that work the day shift and want to do the work later in the day. It’s encouraging to see hundreds of people logged on to an educational session that starts at 10 p.m.”
Creating networking opportunities
While the virtual platform has worked well for medical professionals thus far, organizations must still help members network and interact in real time. The American College of Rheumatology is introducing some piloted activities to encourage involvement and networking. One activity will be livestreaming from some of its member institutions. “We’re hoping to give off somewhat of a New Year’s Eve vibe by streaming from different cities,” Green said. “Because we have a global reach, it’s a great way for us to get people from behind the screen and be part of the delivery format.”
The AANA had to limit its student members to virtual attendance only, but to keep them as engaged as possible, organizers hybridized the College Bowl, a part of its annual meeting in which students play against the professionals. “Normally we’d have 2,000 people in one room for this, and it’s a fun event we wanted to continue,” O’Connor explained. “We’re making do the best we can to create the best experience for everyone.”
After its virtual meeting last year, the ACEP learned several ways to engage virtual participants that they plan to use again this year. One element that attracted a lot of attention—and brought members together to converse—was ‘quarantine rooms.’ The association hosted a variety of online chat rooms all based around specific interests. “They were just 30-minute networking rooms that attendees could pop in and out of,” Byers explained. “We had great attendance. I think people enjoyed being able to pop in and see others from around the world that shared their interests.”
ACEP also hosted ‘Mix and Mingles,’ which included well-known faculty members or physicians virtually sharing their favorite cocktail. “It was sort of our version of a happy hour, and it was really well attended,” Byers added.
Focusing in specifically on emergency room physicians, ACEP also introduced another networking opportunity called ‘S’mores and Storytelling,’ an evening event in which participants can network after children go to bed. “It’s a chance for them to engage with their colleagues to talk through what they are all going through and almost debrief,” Byers said. “The ability to chat with colleagues helped their spirits and lifted them up because they understand what each other is going through.”
The virtual variance
Keeping a virtual option as meetings transition back to in-person does present challenges that host organizations and meeting planners must keep in mind. An example, according to Byers, is that registration patterns with virtual events are very different than in person. For an in-person meeting, attendees typically register early because they want the early bird discount and to get in on the hotel room block.
“In a virtual setting, there is no sense of urgency,” Byers said. “Last year, we even offered some early bird discounts, but about 40 percent of our registrations came in the last two weeks before the conference. We had nearly seven percent of participants sign up the day it started. The jury is out on what registration patterns will be this year as it’s hybrid instead of just virtual.”
Regardless of what medical organizations have learned over the last year and what they are still learning, flexibility continues to be key in creating and hosting a successful event. “Our success story stems from the fact our CEO and board gave our staff the flexibility to be agile while listening to our members to create the best experience,” O’Connor stressed. “A lot of times in the medical arena, there are rules and specific things you follow. We basically threw the playbook out the window. We were given the freedom to be creative, and because of that our staff moved mountains to make meetings successful.”
Paige Townley is a lifelong Southerner and freelance journalist based in Birmingham, Ala. For the past 15-plus years she’s been writing on a variety of topics—and loving every minute of it. When not crafting her latest story, she’s usually spending time with her husband and two little girls or chasing around their French bulldog.