As medical and pharmaceutical meetings strive for a “new normal,” planners must figure out what has changed, how meetings are evolving, where they’re meeting and what they see coming in the future.
Michelle Kann, CMP, DES, associate chief of operations with the Society of Hospital Medicine, calls the past couple of years difficult. “Meetings are smaller. Hospital medicine teams, our members and attendees, are still on the front lines of the pandemic, making a ‘quick’ comeback challenging.”
Exhibitor numbers are also low. “We believe there was still a fear we wouldn’t meet in person due to our audience, so exhibitors waited until the last minute or didn’t budget at all,” she says, adding that a hybrid option wasn’t a solution for the society’s mid-spring meeting in Nashville this year. “Many of those not in attendance are covering the wards in the hospital while their colleagues attend the conference in person. But those in attendance seemed ecstatic to be back in person and meeting together.”
Nashville, Kann notes, “fits our program perfectly.” Six hotels comprised the room block for 2,703 attendees, with the Omni Nashville Hotel and JW Marriott Nashville as headquarters hotels due to their location near the Music City Center (MCC). “We were the only group in MCC for the majority of the meeting, which is helpful from a planning perspective. Nashville is a safe and walkable city with many hotel rooms within easy walking distance to MCC. And the number of outlets outside of the center is also hugely beneficial.”
Kann says space at MCC is well laid out, with all larger breakouts on one side of the building. “That makes sense for signage purposes and for communication. The staff was also outstanding, very friendly, knowledgeable and they want to partner with you. The location is fantastic with the amount of guest rooms surrounding the center.” While the Omni and JW were chosen primarily for their location, Kann calls both properties “outstanding from a service perspective, and the quality of their products is top-notch.”
The meeting also included hands-on courses on the campus of Vanderbilt University, which Kann says helped make for a successful and budget-friendly option.
She also praised Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., which contributed substantially to the meeting’s success. “The Nashville CVB is amazing to work with,” Kann says. “They walk you through everything and have a thorough understanding of the city and what you can and can’t do. They’re super helpful in negotiations and have relationships with all of the outlets and vendors. They’re your go-to for understanding what works in the city, and the first stop when considering a meeting in Nashville.”
Chicago is another great city for med/pharma meetings. That’s where the American College of Physicians met in mid-spring for its Internal Medicine Meeting 2022, with 6,100 in attendance. Bobbie Turner, director of convention and meeting services, notes that since the pandemic, live attendance has dropped to 60% to 70% of the numbers prior to the pandemic, with international attendance down significantly. A hybrid option was important. “We livestreamed about 40% of our program,” she says.
Masking at the event was strongly encouraged, and Turner estimates about 90% of attendees were masked. “Registrants were very happy to be at a live meeting. There was good energy, even with smaller numbers,” she says.” However, attendees were livestreaming the morning sessions and other sessions, too, so even those in Chicago were often watching the scientific program from locations other than the meeting room. I think to some degree that’s here to stay. Registrants like the flexibility. It will be important to make the in-person experience richer and more impactful moving forward,” she says. “Encouraging active participation in live meetings is critical.”
Chicago’s central location makes it easy to get to, and, Turner says, “It’s also an attractive location for restaurants, things to do, cultural activities, museums and iconic architecture, and it has wonderful choices for lodging.” Normally, the group would interact with local medical schools, but due to the lingering effects COVID-19, that wasn’t possible this year.
Turner calls Choose Chicago “a superior partner” that assisted in many critical areas, including lodging, local recommendations and updates on the COVID situation. “They’re a highly professional team, and it was a pleasure to work with them — both sales and services. They attended to all meeting needs and stayed in constant communication with our staff.”
The group used the West Building at McCormick Place. “The building functioned beautifully, was super clean and our experience with all building staff and [catering vendor] Savor was outstanding. The staff is amazing in every way.” The West Building, Turner adds, “was a perfect layout for our meeting — for any medical meeting. We especially liked the Concourse, as we used that not only for registration, but also as a general activity hub.”
The fact that Marriott Marquis Chicago is connected to the West Building via skywalk made it very convenient, plus it offered a large room block, and the group used much of the hotel’s function space for evening and social events. “The suites are great,” Turner says. “It’s a beautiful property — wonderfully maintained with an excellent staff. I highly recommend it.”
The Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) also lauds Chicago for many of the same reasons. “Chicago is a world-class city with a wide range of quality hotel accommodations, dining, shopping, entertainment and cultural options for our attendees,” says John Jaworski, RSNA assistant executive director, meeting services & corporate relations. “Its central location in the U.S. with a large international airport makes it a convenient destination for both our domestic and international attendees. Chicago also has several highly regarded academic medical institutions, and a large number of medical groups and organizations — including RSNA — are based in the Chicago area, making the city a sound choice for medical meetings.”
The group meets annually in November/December and uses multiple hotels across the downtown area as the meeting requires thousands of room nights. Last year’s meeting brought in 29,273 attendees. “Each year, RSNA works with Choose Chicago to introduce our attendees to the wealth of visitor experiences the city has to offer. Choose Chicago’s website is an invaluable resource for anyone visiting the area,” Jaworski says. He continues, “Obviously, holding a large international meeting presents challenges, particularly in planning during an evolving pandemic. Every year, RSNA works closely with McCormick Place and the city of Chicago to promote the safest possible meeting environment and to prepare for the possibility of any emergency that may arise. Through comprehensive planning with McCormick Place management and staff, we enacted successful protocols to protect the health and safety of our attendees.”
RSNA has held its annual meeting at McCormick Place for many years. “The central location in a large transportation hub like Chicago is attractive for our international attendees. The RSNA annual meeting features the presentation of high-quality science and education, as well as the opportunity for medical imaging-technology companies to exhibit their products and services and generate sales,” Jaworski says. “As such, the convention requires over 2 million gross sf of exhibit and meeting space. McCormick Place offers the quality and quantity of space required by RSNA in one location — a tremendous convenience for our busy attendees. Because of our long working relationship, McCormick Place staff understands what we need for our meeting and go out of their way to meet those needs.” He adds, “Chicago is an ideal destination for meetings of all types, and McCormick Place offers an expansive range of meeting rooms, exhibit space and services, making it a good option for large groups needing flexibility. Every meeting is different. Determine your priorities in location and requirements and plan accordingly.”
Like others, RSNA has seen a drop in attendance due to COVID and travel restrictions, but has long offered a virtual component for attendees unable to travel to Chicago. Jaworski thinks hybrid meetings are here to stay. “We’ll continue to offer attendees virtual access to nearly 100% of all meeting programming. However, there’s no substitute for the in-person experience and the networking and meaningful interactions it provides, particularly on the exhibit floor. We saw a great deal of enthusiasm from attendees returning to McCormick Place for RSNA 2021, and we’re looking forward to hosting another successful meeting this year.”
The American College of Rheumatology (ACR) met at Hyatt Regency Orlando also in mid-spring for its Education Exchange Conference with 500 each in-person and virtual attendees. Crystal Green, CMP, CMM, senior director, meeting services, says it was the first time the meeting was held in Orlando and the first time ACR joined nine meetings under one event umbrella. “It was a big moment to realize we could potentially house everyone under one roof. It was also a big deal to go from what our attendees had always known toward the unknown of a hybrid event. Orlando provided a great space that adheres to the safety protocols expected by the medical professionals attending our events. Orlando is also a draw for airlift.”
Green is already working with Visit Orlando on ACR’s 2026 annual meeting. “Visit Orlando really rolled out the red carpet for our 2022 event. They helped us put together a plan for VIPs and participants and arranged shuttle service between the hotel and convention center. Everything was easy and accommodating. We made a last-minute decision to come down to Orlando for this event, and they made it seamless. Working with the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) and Hyatt Regency Orlando helped connect the dots. From a CVB perspective, working with Visit Orlando was a first-class experience. They presented us with a ton of options, and it made me excited to come back for an in-person event.”
Working with OCCC was a positive, too. “Our attendees are medical professionals regularly dealing with immunocompromised patients. The center followed all safety protocols, created a distanced dining hall with tons of elbow room, and allowed people to social distance to their comfort. We had plenty of space to do that. The center offered very clearly laid-out spaces, making it easy to direct attendees and signage was well located.”
Green says Orlando “feels like a city that does hospitality right in terms of getting folks to where they’re going and where they need to be. Conventions can be overwhelming, and the grounds of OCCC and Hyatt Regency Orlando are just blissful. The site visit was amazing, the connected bridge between the hotel and convention center allowed attendees to start their mornings with views of a beautiful landscape and provided a warm welcome to the destination.”
Hyatt Regency Orlando worked well on several levels. “It has the space to host us,” Green says. “It’s a beautiful property with many amenities, and it’s nicely laid out. It’s also a great place for attendees welcoming their families. The resort made accommodations for staff dinners, VIP meetings and receptions.”
Orlando’s flexibility, Green notes, is an asset for planners. “If you have a smaller event, you can start at the Hyatt. If your needs grow, so does the space around Orlando’s convention district. There are so many options to utilize at the Hyatt or grow even more at OCCC. Flexibility is the key for future considerations. Orlando allowed us to fit in and adjust as needed.”
Looking forward, Green says she’s seeing more people excited about in-person meetings and less hesitancy to travel. “Our attendees need to connect face-to-face for didactic talks or workshops. They like to convene and get together to talk shop. Mentors can connect with mentees. In-person events have more sizzle to them.”
But even those attending in person want on-demand content. “Virtual and hybrid events accomplish that goal. If attendees miss a session or attend a concurrent meeting, they have the option to catch up with content on demand later. We don’t want to separate the events and workshops — we want everything to mesh together for the benefit of attendees to allow people to get the content how and when they need it.”
The pandemic, however, has changed priorities. “Something substantially pivotal changed in the way we live our lives,” Green says. “Our attendees are making choices on what they prioritize in their lives. Planners and leadership need to think about what these events offer attendees and make sure it’s more than just a meeting. As planners, we need to look at what’s important to our audience, which includes intentional programming, longer session breaks with healthier options and encouraging attendees to bring their families to the event destination.”
Jolene McNeil, CMP, DES, CEM, director, event operations with the American Public Health Association (APHA), says data confirms that attendance at medical meetings is down. However, she’s seeing growing excitement among members to be fully back in-person. While most pandemic protocols such as social distancing are now gone, she says groups continue to use hybrid components to bring in a new audience and new revenue stream.
Like Green, she says the pandemic created a fundamental shift to more intentional planning. “As an event planning team, we’re being more intentional in creating experiences that fit attendee goals and helping them achieve those goals. For instance, we know that attendees come on-site to network, but we’re asking ourselves what the attendee goals are in networking and how we can help them achieve them.”
McNeil thinks those who want to attend meetings will fly if the meeting isn’t drivable, and she says APHA has no plans to go with regional meetings or other modifications. Currently, they’re planning a meeting in Denver. “Denver is a great choice for conventions because the city has a nice walkable hotel package, great restaurants and friendly people. The airport also has good lift. There are enough hotels near the convention center that attendees are able to easily walk.”
Additionally, she calls Visit Denver “an excellent partner that helps with any need, from recommending restaurants and local vendors to displaying welcome signage throughout the convention district. “CVBs are an indispensable partner, particularly during the planning stage. Without the assistance of a CVB, organizations cannot effectively learn about a destination, find local supplier partners or negotiate with hotels and the convention center.”
The October 2022 meeting is expected to draw 3,600 in-person attendees and Hyatt Regency Denver is the base hotel, with other hotels close to the convention center also booked. “The Colorado Convention Center (CCC) is quite awesome,” McNeil says. “It’s bright, in a great location and has wonderful space. The staff is friendly and helpful, and The Bellco Theatre is a wonderful surprise for attendees.”
Looking ahead, McNeil says she’s marginally optimistic. “We have a great opportunity to re-envision how we execute meetings and how we help attendees achieve their goals,” she says. “We’ll get back to pre-COVID attendance numbers if we can show how in-person meetings are the best way to achieve those goals.”
The American Dental Association’s SmileCon 2022 will be in Houston in October. Catherine Mills, CMP, V.P. conferences & continuing education, says Houston is easy to get to with good airlift. The George R. Brown Convention Center (GRBCC) package fits the group’s needs with two large hotels with ample meeting space, plus overflow hotels located near the center. Houston’s medical district is also a significant draw. “The medical district near the convention center was a huge attraction. We’re working with MD Anderson on continuing education sessions around oral cancer, as well as a medical speaker from NASA to talk about how medical and oral health emergencies are managed in space,” Mills says.
Mills adds, Visit Houston has been a terrific partner. “They’ve been our main conduit for constructing our hotel block, they helped us connect to MD Anderson with their medical-district liaison and we’re using Houston First, the DMC arm of Visit Houston, to plan our Street Fest outside the convention center. Houston has been a great city to work with.”
The GRBCC is the primary location for meeting sessions and exhibits. “I just returned from our final site visit and it’s all very fresh,” Mills says. “The center is easy to navigate as all space is stacked within three levels. While the large pillars in the exhibit hall are a challenge, we’re all getting creative, and our vendors have worked in the building before and have workarounds to help. [Also,] center staff has been great in our pre-planning and planning process, and they’ve been excellent partners in connecting us to their exclusive partners as well as helping with other resources.”
Marriott Marquis Houston serves as the headquarters hotel. “As we’re a larger meeting, we use many hotels. At the time of choosing the Marriott, it was the newest large convention hotel and the meeting room configuration, along with the number of suites they offered, helped tip the scales in their direction.”
Mills admits things are still tough across the industry. “Every day, I talk to someone struggling with filling open positions, staff morale, capacity and staffing shortages, uncertainty if we’ll need to ask attendees to mask, test, vaccinate — it’s been exhausting for everyone. But Visit Houston has been a great partner every step of the way.”
While COVID still has an impact, medical meetings are moving forward in new and positive ways. | AC&F |