When the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) decided to cancel its live annual meeting and hold a virtual program in its wake, organizers didn’t necessarily have the highest of expectations. But by making registration low-cost for most and free for ASA-member students and residents, they saw their highest professional attendance yet — close to 14,000.
“We were surprised,” said ASA CEO Paul Pomerantz, FACHE. “We did very well financially.” ASA priced registration at just $99 for member physicians, $399 for nonmembers, and free for member students and residents, who comprised one-quarter of participants. Pomerantz added that ASA’s members were also supportive of the pivot from the get-go — “two-thirds said we’ll be part of this, and take the risk with you,” he said. “This really opened the gateway for their very active engagement in the meeting.”
Logistical changes to accommodate the new virtual format included trimming the meeting from about six days to four, as well as ensuring more hands were on deck. “Probably more staff from ASA was involved than ever before,” Pomerantz said, adding that ASA wanted to ensure each session had a producer working behind the scenes to ready speakers and take care of any snafus, should they arise.
‘We Needed to Drive Them There’
Working with Intrado to build out the platform for the virtual meeting took a few months, but in the end, “it had most of the elements of the live meeting,” Pomerantz said, including high-quality keynote sessions, breakouts held over Zoom, and a virtual exhibit hall. However, the latter was a pain point that motivated the ASA team to come up with creative new alternatives.
“We knew, going into the meeting, that the exhibit hall was not going to be a sought-out destination for meeting attendees, and that we needed to drive them there,” Pomerantz said. So, they did what they could, using responsive design to encourage mobile participants to visit, as well as linking to the virtual exhibit hall from other portions of the event platform. But it wouldn’t necessarily help with another hurdle — getting smaller or unknown exhibiting companies in front of attendees. In a live setting, Pomerantz said, “they benefit by just being in the [exhibit] hall, where attendees are.” That kind of happenstance is wiped out in the virtual space.
So, the ASA deemphasized the exhibit hall altogether, instead steering participating companies to invest in “engagement packages” — non-CME sessions, organized networking opportunities called “Table Talks,” and educational resource offerings. These were highly attended, Pomerantz said, and often drew hundreds of people. Participants relished the opportunity to ask questions or converse via the chat feature, and sponsored roundtables about career development and diversity also proved particularly popular. For the latter, the team used Remo, a platform that has reworked the virtual conference space to allow for easier networking. “It was almost like walking into a large room of roundtables, scoping out the room, looking at different topics — you click on the table of interest, and you’re there with four or six other participants,” Pomerantz said. “The energy was high; it was really quite remarkable.”
For the future, Pomerantz said that they’re going to have to continue to think creatively when designing sponsored opportunities for the virtual space. “We will stick with our formula of deemphasizing the exhibit hall/booth in the future, but we have work to do on strengthening the opportunities for engagement and better ways to share their educational resources.”
As successful as the 2020 meeting turned out to be, next year will be different — “we know more and we’ll charge more,” Pomerantz said, adding that they received particularly positive feedback on the new on-demand format.
The 2021 annual meeting is currently scheduled for Oct. 9–13 in San Diego, but the program will not be strictly live. Even if a vaccine is ready and available by mid-year, “people know that there are virtual alternatives,” Pomerantz said, and “they might be a leery of traveling.” Instead, he envisions a potentially smaller live meeting complemented by a robust virtual program, with “a lot of overlap between the two [formats].” ASA is still working out the fine details, but the direction is clear. “This has really expanded our audience, and expanded the opportunities to be creative,” Pomerantz said.
It also helps paint a clearer picture of what live events in health care will look like in the future. “If your purpose is strictly education, you’re going to be more and more satisfied with online events,” said Pomerantz, adding that advancements in simulation and virtual reality will make it even easier and more accessible for health-care practitioners. But when it comes to networking and experiential elements — that’s where in-person events will continue to shine. He likens the evolution to trajectories at other kinds of live events. “You can watch the football game on TV, and it’s very enjoyable,” he said. Or, you can go to the game, “and it’s a different experience.”
Jennifer N. Dienst is managing editor at Convene.