Injecting New Life Into a Scientific Conference


Laura Metcalf Jelinek, CAE

“Hip” and “scientific conference” are terms that may seem incongruous. But Laura Metcalf Jelinek, CAE, associate vice president of meetings and travel for the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), helped make both concepts work together at the association’s annual Osteopathic Medical Education Conference (OMED). Jelinek, a finalist for PCMA’s Event Designer of the Year award, has been instrumental in infusing OMED with arts, wellness, and family activities since the 2016 OMED, making entertaining attendees and building a strong community experience part of her job.

For most of its history, OMED was an academic event that stuck to the traditional format for scientific conferences. But once Jelinek joined AOA in 2015 — working with a physician-led volunteer committee, staff, and a specialty-college partnership — she set out to make it an entirely new meeting. Experience-design agency 360 Live Media also helped Jelinek transition the event into “something new, interactive, and inspiring,” she said. Or, as one attendee worded it in a post-2016-OMED survey: “Best, hippest, healthiest, most up-to-date OMED ever.”

Letter Perfect

The OMED conference shows new ways to break the conference mold.

The 2016 OMED conference, held in Anaheim, Oct. 17–20, started with the idea of renewal. Its tagline — “Renew your purpose. Renew your passion.” — reinforced that focus. “There’s so much burnout in medicine,” Jelinek said. “It was really about coming together and taking care of yourself, too.”

Alongside that focus on wellness, AOA also wanted plenty of sizzle. Jelinek thought the excitement should hit before attendees walked into the Anaheim Convention Center, where OMED was held. When she scouted out the venue, its fountain and courtyard sparked an idea. She imagined life-sized letters spelling out “OMED” and pictured people balancing on, gazing at, and snapping photos of those big letters.

She envisioned the letters as not only a wow moment and social-media fodder, but also a gathering place. “There must have been hundreds of thousands of photos taken with these letters,” Jelinek said. “And if you look at those pictures, you’ll see people from all backgrounds, ages, everything. They were out there taking pictures from first thing in the morning all the way through the evenings, when we had the letters illuminated.”

It was an expensive but long-term investment. The letters are a permanent part of OMED, and have been disassembled, trucked across the country, and rebuilt in Philadelphia for OMED 2017, and in October, they’ll travel west again for OMED 2018 in San Diego.

From Yoga to Flu Shots

Each day began with yoga in an outside plaza.

With the renewal theme top-of-mind, Jelinek slid wellness elements into the conference at every turn, from activities to snacks. Each day began with yoga in an outside plaza — three 20-minute sessions that were open to all attendees and followed by smoothies, juices, and yogurt. Jelinek said all 40 slots were filled at each morning session.

AOA borrowed towels from the conference hotel and bought yoga mats. Like the OMED letters, Jelinek saw the mats as having a long life. They now travel with the conference from city to city — and yoga-friendly weather isn’t required to use them. In Philadelphia, AOA turned an indoor concourse into a parklike setting with benches and trees.

The 2016 OMED focus on wellness continued in OMED Central, the exhibit hall’s main hub, where attendees could get flu shots and participate in hands-on healthy food demos. Yoga instructors taught them exercises they could do at their desks.

Jelinek took massage chairs to OMED’s outdoor festival at the conference, and since all DOs are trained to perform osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) — a hands-on way to diagnose, treat, and prevent illness or injury — she placed OMT tables outside at the festival and into foyers indoors for the duration of the event.

While attendees train with the tables inside particular sessions, “we know learning also happens outside of the session room,” she said. Two doctors may be chatting about an OMT technique and “they turn around, like, ‘where’s the closest table?’” she added. Or even if someone just has a sore neck, “they’re always looking for a table.”

Hitting the Right Note

OMED attendees include medical students, residents, young physicians, and longtime practitioners, and Jelinek is tasked with uniting those varied demographics. How did she entice people to mingle and meet in between sessions at a 2016 conference that broke new ground for the group?

“There are certain commonalities that bring people together,” Jelinek said, “and music is one of them.”

The 2016 OMED conference broke new ground for the group with live performances between sessions.

She made sure the conference rang with voices and instruments. A local singer/guitarist played in the lobby. A pianist performed there, too. But Jelinek didn’t want it to stop with listening. She rented guitars from a local music shop and left them out in the lobby, in a spot where people tended to meet for lunch dates or to chat between sessions.

“People who didn’t even know each other would pick up a guitar, sit down, and share their love of music,” she said. “They just started jamming and connecting that way. It was like, ‘Oh, wow. I didn’t know you played.’” When the nearby piano was not being used for a performance, attendees tried it out.

“The physicians are under so much pressure all the time,” said Jelinek, who has since purchased guitars for OMED, toting them from site to site and also sending them to regional meetings. “Music is often the way they really de-stress, and it also helps them feel inspired.”

Massage chairs and jam sessions don’t usually spring to mind when thinking about a conference that draws 5,000-plus attendees and is centered on doctors earning continuing medical education credits, but Jelinek said attendees have been enjoying the new elements she has added to the meeting.

“We listen to what our members say they want and try to deliver it in a way that’s unique, experiential, and not always inside of the four walls of the session room,” she said. Along with enhancing their education, “we want them to sit down and chat with each other. To meet each other’s families. To establish those bonds that last for a lifetime.”