We live in a time when people are obsessed with exercise, eating well, maintaining their mental and physical health — and avoiding COVID-19, the disease that has caused a global pandemic. Though conferences, conventions and other gatherings bring many personal benefits, they can seem a little out of step with these values.
“Meetings are notoriously unhealthy,” says Kristina Tarantino, CMP, of MeetingHealthy.com. “They typically involve sitting for long stretches in windowless rooms. The food is [sometimes] high in fat and sugar. Packed agendas don’t allow people much time to work out. Travel is hard on the body, and jet lag can be compounded by an overall lack of sleep thanks to early morning meetings and evening receptions.”
Associations can’t overcome all of these problems, but they can help attendees feel more physically and mentally fit by adding dedicated health and wellness programming to their agendas — something that’s been a growing trend for many years. What follows is a series of examples from associations that have included these services at live and virtual events with good success.
Wellness has long been a major issue in the medical community. “Medical providers spend all day long taking care of everybody else, and then at the end of the day, they don’t have time to take care of themselves,” says Karen Bradley Burnett, CEM, vice president, meetings and business development for the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA). The organization wanted to do something to encourage its members to live healthier lives. Adding wellness programs at events was also a way to help the organization meet its goals. “You’re always looking for new and innovative activities to have at a conference because continuing medical education (CME) will get them there, but it won’t keep them coming back,” Burnett says. She thought attendees, who tend to be younger and extremely high energy, would appreciate fun activities that would also provide them with a chance to get moving throughout the event.
AAPA started by offering morning fitness classes in 2018. They sold out, so in 2019, they added more sessions and a wider range of options, including cardio kickboxing, yoga and piyo, a combination of yoga and Pilates. It also tacked on a mindfulness lounge, a climbing wall, chair massages and, as a nod to the fact that they were in Denver, an oxygen bar. For the last several years, AAPA has also offered 15-minute sessions called TechBytes, where attendees can learn about apps that can help the medical community. At first, those sessions were geared toward apps that physician assistants could use to help patients, Burnett says. Now, several of the highlighted apps are designed to coach medical professionals on how to maintain their own wellness.
Since the 2020 conference had to go virtual, AAPA recorded several mindfulness and TechBytes sessions. “The big challenge for virtual is engagement. There has to be a whole lot more than CME,” Burnett says. Eventually, one of her goals is to hire a celebrity chef for online meetings who can do a demonstration and talk about healthy meals.
Burnett’s advice for planners looking to add wellness programing is to give themselves permission to fail. “You’ve got to try new things and take risks, and find out what works and what doesn’t work,” she says. “That’s been our philosophy in recent years. None of these things are going to have a major impact on your revenue goals.” It may take a while for some activities to catch on, so don’t automatically declare anything a failure. “If it totally bombs, don’t do it again, but if you’re getting some good feedback, you might bring it back another year,” Burnett says.
Like AAPA, the American Society of Hematology (ASH) wanted to find ways for its members to cope with the demands placed upon them by their jobs. “In 2016, we started an initiative to confront the issue of wellness and resilience for health care professionals that may be unique based upon how things work in a medical institution or a medical system,” says Bill Reed, FASAE, CMP, the organization’s chief event strategy officer. Things such as long hours, the demands of caring for people, and the headache of paperwork and other administrative tasks, leads to a significant level of burnout among doctors and researchers. “We embarked on a process where we wanted to raise the awareness level as the first step, because sometimes the people experiencing the difficulty may not see it for themselves,” Reed says. “We were also very cognizant that we didn’t want to blame the people who were experiencing the problem, but instead look at what could the American Society of Hematology uniquely do to give them a different set of skills and tools to manage it more effectively.”
The other thing that was vitally important was to approach the issue in a way that would work for their audience. “For a highly cerebral audience like ours, we needed to start at the brain and help them understand the problem, and then transition to skills building,” Reed says.
The association’s first foray into wellness programs was an art exhibit with a series of pieces done by medical professionals on the topic of burnout. “I think if we had come right out of the gate with doing a wellness initiative, we may have lost some people who thought it was just a yoga studio,” Reed says. “[The exhibit] drew a lot of attention and raised people’s level of awareness.” The next year, ASH created a wellness studio that hosted 10-minute “microburst workshops” on topics related to wellness, resilience and sustainability. People could participate during their breaks so they wouldn’t have to miss the scientific portion of the meeting, which is the major draw. The sessions took place in a high-traffic area on the trade show floor. “We felt like if people saw it, they might be more inclined to tap into it for short periods of time,” Reed says. Putting it in an area with no walls allowed for larger groups and the ability to spread out for physical activities.
In keeping with the needs of its members, ASH wanted all of the wellness content to be evidence based. It brought in experts from Infinity Wellness Partners, a wellness consulting firm, to run the more physical sessions, and paired those with physician-run workshops that presented the science behind the activity or idea. “It appealed to different learning styles and needs,” Reed says. “The combination of the two was really helpful.”
As time has gone on, ASH has added more in-depth classes such as yoga, tai chi, meditation, resilience, the mind-body connection and mindfulness. “The thing we’ve discovered is during any conference, people just need a break,” Reed says. “Our audience is highly motivated and uber engaged. This gives them an excuse to feel like they’re being productive rather than just sitting in a corner somewhere having a cup of coffee.”
The most popular wellness service has been nap pods. It may seem counterintuitive to encourage people to skip sessions and snooze. But, Reed says, “Giving people permission to take care of themselves really is a thoughtful thing to do, and they become energized in a new way, which can empower them to be mentally energized and ready to dive back in for more content.”
When the American Dental Association (ADA) started doing health and wellness events at its annual conference many years ago, the main motivation was to find a way to differentiate itself from the many other dental meetings out there. Programming was mainly lecture-based. However, the organization’s Council on Dental Practice now has a focus on wellness, so providing health and wellness services at the conference now ties directly to the mission. “They’re tackling things like dealing with depression, dealing with addiction, ergonomics and exercise,” says Dawn McEvoy, CAE, CMP, DES, senior director, continuing education and advisory committee on annual meetings. “It made sense as an organization to start offering things for the whole person and not just business and clinical outcomes.”
With that, the ADA started changing its offerings. In past years, it’s done rooftop or beach yoga, and organized several wellness options on the trade show floor. Doctors could make appointments to have ergonomic assessments done, and there were classes that were open to everyone. “[In 2020], we dedicated our mornings to wellness,” McEvoy says. “Every morning we had a virtual yoga class and a virtual boot camp. On Friday, we had a course in dealing with depression, and on Saturday it was a nutrition course. We also did a virtual 5K and cycling event and had people engage with us by posting to social media.”
Like Reed, McEvoy emphasizes that it’s important to take into account your audience’s interests and abilities before planning a wellness component. Self-help topics tend to be popular with the association’s audience, so she brought in Lori Santos, a Yale University professor who teaches a popular class and hosts a podcast on happiness, to give a talk.
Also, the ADA serves people in their 20s all the way up to dentists who are long retired. “We have that safety net of having a really diverse audience in age and ableness that allows them to participate in different things,” McEvoy says. “When you have a smaller group and you’re offering less opportunities, you really need to know, ‘Are my people going to go out and run a 5K, or are they more comfortable with chair yoga?’” She also notes that it’s important to discuss any health and wellness programming with a legal adviser to see if there are waivers or other documents participants need to sign.
When we think about wellness, we often think about physical fitness and eating well. But Chuck Gillespie, CEO of the National Wellness Institute, which has hosted the National Wellness Conference since 1977, encourages planners to think beyond that. His organization helps people tackle six areas of well-being: physical, occupational, spiritual, intellectual, emotional and social. He sees increasing interest in the last two. “The mental health piece has definitely become a full-on need during this COVID timeframe,” he says. During virtual events or as people start coming back to in-person gatherings, there’s a lot to be said for offering programming on how to deal with stress or loss, mindfulness, resiliency, and supporting friends, family, students and employees who are struggling. “I think one of the biggest opportunities we have is increasing people’s overall social wellness,” Gillespie adds. That may also be particularly important in the post-COVID era, given that people have been deprived of in-person human interaction for so long. Consider ways to help people connect in different and more meaningful ways that might lead to friendships, mentoring relationships, partnership or even just chances to swap best practices.
What that programming looks like — or whether it’s even appropriate — will be depend on the group, so be sure to think about what your audience will respond to. “We’re a big, huggy group,” Gillespie says. “We’re a group of folks that truly believe in having not only that social interaction, but that true human contact.”
For the 2019 gathering, the keynote speaker was Ken E. Nwadike Jr., also known as the “Free Hugs Guy.” His talk revolved around kindness and the power of human touch. He brought T-shirts to give away, and to get them, attendees had to form teams and run a relay race around the meeting room. That worked well in this case, but it probably wouldn’t be a good fit for everyone, Gillespie acknowledges.
Wellness doesn’t have to be a major area of focus at an event. Even spacing out some of the meetings rooms and encouraging people with fitness trackers to engage in a friendly competition can be fun. But whatever you do, do it with intention. “If you don’t, it gets thrown into the corner and it doesn’t work, or it only works for a small group of people,” Gillespie says.
The Public Library Association offered a small wellness component for the first time at its January 2020 meeting. “Attendees who came to the yoga classes loved it,” says Lian Drago, meetings manager. “We scheduled our yoga sessions early in the day so that attendees could still do a full day of educational sessions. Meditation sessions, which were free and did not require registration, were also well attended.” They also created some custom stress balls, which were a popular take-home gift.
The local CVB suggested local studios that were willing to teach at events, which made organizing the wellness center surprisingly easy. They provided the classes and mats, which means all she had to do was find space, handle registration and communicate with attendees about the availability of activities. Her one regret? “The location of our wellness center was a bit far from everything. If we had the space, I would put it closer to the other sessions or in the exhibit hall,” Drago says.
Tarantino recommends that planners begin thinking about health and wellness programming during the contracting phase. “When you arrive on-site, you need to have the things you need to facilitate your healthy aspects of the meetings, including food and beverage, extra rooms for wellness rooms and outdoor areas for fitness classes,” she says. Also, make sure the overall agenda will accommodate the planned activities. “It can’t be so packed that [attendees] don’t have any personal time,” she says.
Even if there are trade-offs and risks, McEvoy has no doubt that health and wellness programming is worth it — in part because demand for it will grow. “Millennials and younger members are looking for a more rounded experience,” she says. “They don’t want to just come and sit in a classroom. They’re looking to have a lot of their needs met.”
Drago agrees, saying, “Wellness is the future, not a trend, and I don’t see it going away anytime soon.”
To that end, the most important thing to do regarding health and wellness programming is to simply do something. “Be open to new experiences on-site,” Tarantino says. “From my experience, it’s always been well received.” | AC&F |