Attendees who take the time to fill out an annual meeting evaluation may wonder what, if anything, will change as a result of their responses. That’s because they are rarely informed about how their feedback—good and bad—will actually be taken into consideration for the next annual meeting. But that is exactly what the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) did, once its 111th General Meeting, asm2011, concluded in New Orleans last spring.
Three months after the late-May conference, more than 8,000 attendees—primarily scientists from 72 countries—received an email from the chair and vice chair of the General Meeting Program Committee, letting them know that they had begun the process of planning asm2012 by reviewing the 1,400 responses they had received to asm2011’s online survey. The email went on to say: “We were pleased to learn that many of you were appreciative of many new aspects introduced at the meeting but we were also interested in the areas you highlighted for improvement.”
The email identified those new aspects of the meeting that attendees had rated highly, while giving equal space to those areas they felt came up short—such as insufficient networking opportunities and time to view poster presentations.
ASM’s follow-up email also detailed what kinds of changes would be made to next year’s meeting format as a direct result of attendee feedback. For example, asm2012will have more sessions on areas of interest that survey respondents had felt were underrepresented at asm2011, and longer hours in the Poster Hall for presentation viewing and networking.
Most associations do not share that kind of feedback and resulting changes in strategy except through internal channels—and Connie L. Herndon, ASM’s director of meetings and exhibits, acknowledges that ASM’s post-event transparency “does not necessarily work for all meetings. I do not think a lot of people do it.” In ASM’s case, sharing positive and negative feedback with all attendees “worked for us because we were rebuilding our  meeting,” she said. “We changed everything from soup to nuts.”
With such sweeping changes, ASM was interested in learning whether certain new initiatives— such as shaving a half-day from the meeting and decreasing the number of sessions in order to limit topic redundancy—were well received and should continue at asm2012, to be held on June 16–19 in San Francisco.
Herndon was not surprised to get insightful feedback, because ASM’s General Meeting survey response rates have traditionally been high - between 20 and 25 percent. She said: “We actually do pretty good, but I think [it’s because] our attendees are pretty opinionated. ”What she did not expect was such a positive reaction to the survey’s follow-up email. “We got a lot of comments,” she said, along the lines of “‘I never thought anybody read these. Thank you for sharing, I see my comments were covered in your feedback.’ One email reply simply had ‘Nice!’ in the subject line.”
The follow-up email “was a simple process,” Herndon said, “and it just seemed like a natural progression of all of the other changes that we had made to the meeting. But it was so extremely well received that we will probably make it standard operating procedure from now on.”
Take Away High Marks for Trying
ASM’s Connie Herndon said the one area of attendee survey feedback that most surprised her had to do with the launch of the General Meeting’s mobile app. “It was the first time we had ever done that,” she said, “so obviously ... you are going to have some glitches when you launch any new product.” Despite those snags, attendees gave the app a thumbs-up. “The feedback that we got was interesting in that it said basically, ‘You are not quite there yet, but this was a really great addition to the meeting, and here are some suggestions of how you can improve it,’” Herndon said. “So people rated it really high, but they had lots of constructive criticism to give us.”
To learn more about the American Society for Microbiology, visit www.asm.org. For more on asm2012, visit http://gm.asm.org.
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