Medical Meeting Planners Weigh in on When and How In-Person Events Will Resume

Returning to face-to-face gatherings is easier said than done for an industry at the front lines of the pandemic. 


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There's one question on every meeting planner's mind: When will face-to-face events resume? Those who craft meetings for the medical community are anticipating the possibility of a particularly long lull before in-person gatherings return. 

"When your audience is in health care, you need to make sure the participants are going back to their work environments in a healthy state so they can take care of their patients," said Tricia Rawh, executive director of the Center for Education at the Cardiovascular Research Foundation. "They’re on the front lines, so we want to create a healthy and safe environment for them. This is challenging for everyone -- but for us, there’s an added pressure."
Even health-care professionals who aren't on the front lines probably won't be attending in-person events for at least a few months due to the growing backlog of patient appointments and elective surgeries.
"The other sector of the medical community is those who are not necessarily on the front lines, but their practices have been severely hit with elective procedures cancelled and people afraid to come into the office for appointments," said Nathan Scott, education director of Medical Education Resources, which plans more than 120 primary care conferences each year. "They're anticipating a very busy summer and fall as they try to bring back lost revenue. A lot of them are not looking to resume normal travel and normal face-to-face meetings for some time."

Gregg Talley, president and CEO of the Talley Management Group

Still, some medical meetings remain on the calendar for now. MER, for example, cancelled all of its May meetings and most of the events in June. Meanwhile, those later in the year are currently expected to go on. According to Scott, all MER meetings take place in hotels and therefore will be subject to local restrictions on hotel operations and events.

Uncertainty around how long restrictions will remain in place, coupled with complicated contracts, have led to putting off many decisions around cancelling or postponing an event until the final few weeks before it is scheduled to take place, noted Gregg Talley, president and CEO of the Talley Management Group. The company, which provides full-service event planning and consulting services for associations, has many clients in the health-care industry who are currently grappling with these challenges.
"We know it's not safe for people to meet face to face, but nothing has changed around cancellations and insurance," said Talley. "People are caught in these circumstances where they don't see a way to hold their meeting and have people come but can't afford to cancel unless there's a government lockdown in place. They can't talk about cancelling or postponing until closer to the date because then they wouldn't be able to get insurance. It's a horrible catch-22 that groups are continuing to get caught in."

Going Digital

Telemedicine has taken off amidst the pandemic, so it should come as no surprise that many medical meetings that cannot take place face-to-face are moving online as well. For some organizations, it is their first time doing so -- but the results are encouraging.
The Italian Academy of Prosthetic Odontology, for example, was scheduled to hold its annual congress in Riccione, Italy, in late March but a nationwide lockdown meant meeting in person was no longer possible. Instead, the event organizer, AIM Group International, transformed the meeting to an entirely digital format. The virtual event, which was held from April 30 to May 2, included seven sessions, a live talk show and an online exhibition area. More than 1,850 attendees tuned into the three-day event -- an increase of 130 percent compared to the 800 people who attended in person the previous year. Better yet, the average attendee consumed 8.5 hours of content.

"When COVID-19 hit, we talked with the client and the options were to cancel the meeting, postpone to 2021 or go virtual. We decided to embrace this change" said Patrizia Semprebene Buongiorno, vice president of AIM Group International. "We were used to going hybrid with our meetings, but this was the very first, completely virtual meeting that we organized. We have many other meetings on hold in the last quarter of the year, but I'm now seeing more and more of our clients deciding to go virtual."
Kenes Group, a global conference management company, had a similar experience. Rather than postponing the second-annual Advances in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Therapies Focus Meeting, the organization decided to move the meeting online. Lectures were shared remotely, and posters were uploaded online. In total, 1,143 health-care professionals from 56 countries participated in the four-day virtual event — just a tad less than last year's 1,337 in-person participants. 

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According to Kenes Group brand manager Magdalina Atanassova, one benefit of holding a virtual event is that attendees have more flexibility and aren't limited to viewing only a handful of sessions, as they would be in person. In addition, on-demand content can increase the lifespan of the event and boost overall reach. The organization plans to move more meetings scheduled for the summer and early fall online.

"We have postponed a number of events for the coming summer months but have started to move them to virtual, as we do not see the possibility to hold international medical meetings before October 2020," said Atanassova. "At this stage, we have four virtual conferences scheduled in July. When it comes to live events, we hope that by October this year they will start their comeback. Our guess at this stage is as good as any, however. If we do not experience any major aftershocks or new waves of the virus, it does seem like a possible scenario. It doesn't only depend on government regulations, but also on the different suppliers in the industry and their recovery plans."

When transforming an in-person medical meeting to a digital format, Talley recommends that planners ask the attendees how long they anticipate being available during the day and what they would like to get out of it. The agenda should be adjusted accordingly, and Talley suggests including a mix of live and prerecorded content, so busy medical professionals can come and go as they please.

"There's only so many hours in the day. We have to be mindful of that and gauge what's an acceptable time commitment given everything that's going on," he said. "You really need to understand your audience and then understand what are the prioritized elements of your meeting that you want to bring online in a live format vs. what you can prerecord and have available 24/7."

Talley notes that the meeting format and time schedule will vary depending on the audience. For the American Headache Society, one of the Talley Management Group's clients, a poll revealed that registrants are most comfortable committing three and a half to four hours a day to the association's Annual Scientific Meeting, which will be held online in June. 

Restarting Events at the Local Level

When in-person events do pick up once more, industry experts expect that smaller, localized meetings will be the first to resume. This trend can already be seen around the world, with the Czech Republic and New Zealand now permitting events of up to 100 people.

Patrizia Semprebene Buongiorno, vice president of AIM Group International

AIM Group International expects this will continue and is working on planning an event that could be broken up into a number of smaller meetings held across different cities.

"Clearly for the moment, we have to continue going virtual; but in the last quarter of the year, we may have small, local meetings," said Buongiorno. "So, we are thinking of some interesting solutions. If we have to organize a national meeting of 1,000 people but can only organize meetings of up to 200, why not create different hubs? So, a meeting of 200 in one city, 200 in another city and so on. We are actually starting this for an association. They don't want to lose the face-to-face and are not sure they can have the meeting as usual, but we can probably do smaller groups."

Moving Meetings Outdoors

Another option medical planners are considering is moving parts of the meeting -- or perhaps the entire event -- outdoors. The risk of transmitting COVID-19 is believed to be lower outdoors than it is indoors

"We are starting to think about how we will go back to meetings and when we do, we have to redesign them for the future," said AIM Group's Buongiorno. "We have to forget the coffee breaks and lunches as we were used to. But if there is good weather and you have a conference center with a good garden, why not go outside and organize a networking picnic in the garden?"

Other events, such as the Voice of Healthcare Summit, are moving the entire meeting outdoors. The one-day conference in early August has been moved from Harvard Medical School to the outdoor venue of Boston Winery. In a recent interview on the Eventful podcast, event organizer Bradley Metrock discussed this strategy and the safety protocols that are being implemented for the meeting.

The Future Is Hybrid

A growing number of health-care event planners are pivoting to digital meetings for the time being. While they are eager to get back to face-to-face gatherings, industry professionals say some virtual components are likely to remain and the future of medical meetings will likely be a hybrid approach.

"Virtual was a growing component before, but I think we're going to cross over the tipping point where virtual will maybe become the bigger component of face-to-face events." said Talley. He believes lowered event capacities and the growing use and ease of virtual meeting technology could drive hybrid events to the forefront.

"If you're having an event in 2021, I don't think there's any expectation that it's going to be the same size that it was in 2019," Talley said. "So, then the question is how much smaller will it be? You've got to do research on your audience and what their threshold might be. But from a base point, I think you've got to consider something that is 25 to 50 percent less so then we need to talk about a hybrid solution."