In the last couple of months, I have read many articles about COVID-19 and its effect on the meetings, travel, and hospitality industries.
In the beginning, the articles were akin to yellow journalism: the world was going to end, and we were all going to die or at least go bankrupt. Slowly, articles became more hopeful and scientific: this is COVID, and here is what we can do to survive it. Now, after months of crisis management, I’d like to hop on the bandwagon of the newer trend: we are still here; we are alive— and perhaps add onto the coming movement—planning for the new normal now.
For 25 years, ABTS has focused on managing the international attendance of US-based medical meetings. It is not the only thing we do. We have ventured into and established a successful full-service PCO division, creating local and regional meetings abroad, but our bread and butter has always been meeting the needs of the US-bound attendees and those of their sponsors. (If you are a medical meeting planner, you know they have plenty of needs to be met.)
To date, we have had about half of our portfolio of meetings for 2020 canceled. Not only do our meetings bring together tens of thousands of people, they bring together tens of thousands of doctors. This is obviously not a sustainable model in times of COVID, and we wholeheartedly agree that canceling these huge conventions was the right move at the time. We helped our distressed clients twofold:
- When asked, we helped our associations move their meeting online, using a smorgasbord of technologies available.
- We helped our doctors and sponsors by keeping them informed, moving their reservations, and finally fully refunding them.
Let’s be clear: we made no income from either of these actions, but they were the right things to do. We anticipate that more of our meetings will follow suit.
Planning the New Normal NOW, From Local to Regional to Global
After COVID, meeting planners will need to adjust, no doubt, but the travel and hospitality industries will continue to exist. Eventually, the borders will open, travel will resume, hotels will book groups, and conferences will take place again. Medical education, global networking, face-to-face interactions, etc. are too important to who we are as human beings to disappear. The questions is, “How?”
Online meetings are not going away. If we have been fighting against hybrid/online meetings, COVID is here to teach us a lesson. Online meetings are not perfect by any means, but they have made the transfer of information across vast distances and wide populations possible. Education will continue thanks to online meetings. It is time to invest in real hybrid education, to study the pros and cons of available technologies, and make a real decision for what is best for meetings in the future. Rest assured, there is no shortage of online education technologies (from basic YouTube videos to avatar-like worlds), and they are here to stay. No responsible meeting will be able to get away without online education in the post-COVID world.
Local meetings are already happening. In many countries where COVID restrictions have started to subside, local education can once again flourish within hospitals and universities. They are running in partnership with local education providers.
Regional meetings are the next frontier. These meetings are best put on in partnership with local and regional associations, hospitals, and universities. Ideally, regional meetings start with local mini-meetings and grow into larger regional live meetings. They include both online and live components.
Hybrid Regional meetings are not so scary. Here is a case we managed in 2015 that I especially enjoyed:
A major US medical association wanted to grow attendance from Latin America to its annual meeting in the US. To increase individual brand recognition and sponsor engagement in the region with limited investment, we proposed an online course. Taking advantage of the association’s scientific value and brand recognition among local scientific entities, we instigated several partnership arrangements. The US medical association retained control over the entire educational curriculum, and the partner entities helped market the course to their local and regional constituents.
The key to the course’s success was the combination of online, hybrid, and onsite educational and networking components. The 6-week course included pre-recorded online videos that could be watched at any time, live pre-scheduled online meetings and/or Q&A sessions with key opinion leaders, and concurrent local live meetings for networking, culminating in a larger regional networking event. It also incorporated branded sponsorship opportunities, both online and onsite, that helped support the cost of the event without jeopardizing its educational purpose and scientific accreditation.
In the first year, the course had 1500 registered attendees, including specialists, medical students, and sponsors. The subsequent annual updates had over 2000 registered attendees each. The effort considerably increased brand recognition for the annual meeting among both doctors and sponsors in the region.
Global meetings are the ultimate destination. Isn’t it ironic that all we want to do is go back to where we were before? My guess is that global meetings will look more like that hybrid course we just discussed. They will not be as long or as packed as pre-COVID meetings—at least until a vaccine or treatment is developed—and even afterward.
In the end, medical education, global networking, and face-to-face interactions will continue. Online components will be a requirement: hybrid meetings are here to stay. If we start planning for them now, we will be ahead of the curve and might even find some success in the post-COVID world.
~Patricia M. Andrade, MBA
VP of Marketing, Communications, & Community Relations, ABTS Convention Services