PCMA Visionary Award Winner Ready to Reinvent Conference Again

Mary Pat Cornett, CAE, CMP, was awarded Digital Experience Strategist of the Year at the 2022 PCMA Visionary Awards after leading the American Society for Nutrition to success with new digital events in response to COVID-19. She's now planning a return to an in-person event.

Author: Casey Gale       

Mary Pat Cornett raises arms in celebration

Mary Pat Cornett, CAE, CMP, accepts her Digital Experience Strategist of the Year award at the 2022 PCMA Visionary Awards. (EPNAC Photography and Video)

When the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) was forced to switch its in-person meeting scheduled for May 2020 to a digital conference just 60 days out due to the emergence of COVID, its small team of organizers had “no idea” what to expect, Mary Pat Cornett, CAE, CMP, chief strategy and operations officer for ASN, told Convene at the time. Under Cornett’s leadership, the organization introduced an entirely new event, Nutrition 2020 Live Online, that offered free programming and a truncated schedule. Cornett’s team felt uncertain about the audience’s appetite for digital offerings and, with a typical in-person attendance of 3,500, didn’t want to price out members who were already struggling from COVID-related financial issues. But ASN’s first digital meeting was a massive hit, growing nearly 10 times its typical in-person attendance to 30,000 online participants. In 2021 and 2022, Nutrition Live Online has lived on and evolved even as many organizations have returned to in-person events.

“In 2021, we went back to more normal pricing,” Cornett said. “We did not bring in tens of thousands of new people again, but it turned out to be our largest paid meeting ever, so it did surpass any of our previous face-to-face meetings.”

Cornett and the ASN team’s vision earned her the honor of Digital Experience Strategist of the Year at the 2022 PCMA Visionary Awards. She recently spoke with Convene about how the Nutrition Live Online event has evolved over the past three editions, what’s in store for ASN’s future, and her greatest lessons learned from creating virtual experiences.

How has Nutrition Live Online evolved since it first launched in 2020?

We have chosen up until this point to focus 100 percent on virtual — we have not yet had a face-to-face meeting [since the pandemic started]. For 2022, we were not booked anywhere yet, so we made the proactive choice last fall to go virtual one more time. We switched it up, though — basically like a year-round meeting. People could still do a shortened, three-day event, similar to the past virtual meetings, but then we’re offering about 12 other activities throughout the year that people can either buy all-access — register once and participate in all of them — or we’re selling them all individually as well. It was yet another experiment in how to deliver content and a new business model, to see if people prefer this. We completed the big part, which was the three-day virtual meeting, and we’ve done about three of the smaller events. It was a great experiment in terms of how we want to do our education program in the future.

What was the driving force behind going virtual again in 2022?

We didn’t stop 100 percent because of COVID, but obviously the [circulating] variants had us put on the brakes. We can’t imagine having to plan for five different scenarios. We’re just not that big of an organization, and it all seems very wasteful to have to go forward with, “Okay, here’s an in-person meeting, here’s what we’ll do if COVID strikes or if we have to cancel, and here’s what we’ll do with the virtual option.” We realized we would do a better job if we just said, “We know we can do it virtually.” That was where our board gave us a lot of support because they understood. I hear a lot of peers who have doubled their workloads but haven’t increased their staff and they had to do it all — the virtual, the hybrid, the in-person events. Some of them did have to cancel again, and I feel like we were able to [eliminate] all that chaos and instead just go all-in on trying to learn how to do this virtually and deliver the best experience. We didn’t split our resources.

How will the event be held in 2023?

We hope that we might be returning to face-to-face next year, and if we do, I think we’re going to do a complete 180 and go 100-percent in person, and really put that same energy and focus into just the in-person and not even mess with a hybrid situation. We don’t want to lose that virtual audience, but I think what we could do is just repackage and do things on-demand for them later, as opposed to trying to do it live.

I think what we would do is reposition [digital content] as our education portfolio, basically, and uncouple it from the meeting. Right now, we’re treating it as a meeting that has been a little bit deconstructed and branded the whole thing with the name of the meeting. I think we would instead still do smaller events throughout the year, but we would not tie it to meeting registration.

What have you learned from these virtual experiences that you’ll take back into the face-to-face environment?

It’s such a complete change in perspective and in mindset. I just don’t even think I can put back on my old meeting planner hat from three years ago and see anything the same way, not just because of virtual, but just because of everything that we’ve all been through and everything that we’ve learned, including learning from our peers. You can isolate what is special about being in person and what is special about being online. I think our face-to-face meetings will now put more and more emphasis into the interaction and the engagement and leveraging the benefits of being together, and maybe try to have our sessions be shorter so that you’re not doing something you could just sit and do on the computer. You’re not sitting in a conference listening; you’re having more chances to engage. Honestly, our 2019 meeting — to me it’s like ancient history. We really have to start with a blank slate and design it again.

I think my main thing has just been how we would not have done any of this without our community working together. I just feel so grateful, first for being in such a great career, and then having access to so many generous, kind, caring people. The ASN team is beyond belief in terms of how we work so well together and how nimble we are, and how much our leadership gives us free reign to create a vision and figure out how to do it. I wish the same for everybody else. I just think that it’s a whole new way of thinking and feeling. A lot of it has to do with what we did those first 60 days. That 2020 vision changed the trajectory of our organization and all of us — our careers and our relationships.

Casey Gale is managing editor of Convene.