The Successful Journey to Twice Reinvent an Annual Meeting During a Global Pandemic

LitchBhala-SuccessJourneytoReinventMeeting October 27, 2020 By: Bonnie Litch and Rahul Bhala

While the American Society of Neuroradiology was already busy planning a reimagined in-person annual meeting, it had to reinvent it again and make the pivot to virtual due to COVID. A look at how they made it a success.

Planning for the American Society of Neuroradiology’s 2019/2020 annual meeting (#ASNR20), scheduled to kick off in late May 2020 in Las Vegas, was going well.

A newly formed operations team, which included Program Chair Dr. Joshua Hirsch, ASNR Executive Director Mary Beth Hepp, Director of Education Erica Kruse, Meetings Director Lynn Brown, as well as other staff and volunteers, was off and running with a goal to do something different.

“We had to rethink the way we planned, organized, and marketed the meeting and symposium,” said Hirsch. The group’s work included adding new tracks, deepening the event’s scrope, and creating multiple new partner opportunities.

Another important charge of the new committee was curating and finalizing a program much earlier than in the past. Doing so came with many advantages, according to Kruse. “It allowed for speaker/moderator travel planning, the ability to advance market the program, and the early filling of the room block,” she said.

Soon, it became clear that the meeting was going to break many records for ASNR. “The response by industry sponsors was fantastic with #ASNR20 positioned to be the highest sponsor-based, revenue-producing meeting in the society’s history by a remarkably wide margin,” said Hepp. 

When you take a crash course in doing something new, you don’t have an FAQ to follow.

“By February, we doubled the number of vendors over 2019 and significantly increased actual sponsorship dollars way beyond the budgeted target—which was already set at a record breaking level,” added Brown. “… With increased vendor/sponsor cultivation by volunteer leadership, our lead sheet has tripled over the course of one year.”

Enter the Global Pandemic …

“When COVID-19 first showed up in Wuhan, China, we realized participants from that region weren’t going to be able to make the trip in numbers. Then the virus hit Europe, and it became obvious that European involvement was not going to be at the levels we had anticipated,” Hirsch said. “Despite these realities, we still hoped that #ASNR20 could still be a live meeting. By March, however, it became apparent that the world had changed and an in-person meeting in Vegas was going to be, at the very least, challenging.”

The decision to make the meeting virtual was not taken lightly. “We had put so much energy into creating the Vegas meeting that it was hard to walk away from it,” said Hirsch. “As the biggest booster on the volunteer side, I felt like I had to be the first one to say the words out loud: ‘We need to once again reimagine #ASNR20 and go virtual.’”

Moving forward would require intense teamwork and support across the board, with everyone figuring out the various logistics involved. Here’s a look at some of them:

Contract legalities. The first step was to call Caesar’s Palace to figure out how to move forward in a way that didn’t penalize ASNR or the hotel. Thanks to the good relationship that we had developed, Brown was able to renegotiate the details of the contract in a way that all parties were satisfied and with full support of the board.

Policies. The board agreed from the onset that ASNR would operate utilizing the “good will” principle. Anyone who wanted a refund—registrants or vendors—would be given 100 percent of their money back. Registrants were given several options, including the ability to roll over their fee for next year’s live meeting. Vendors were offered a free virtual booth at #ASNR20 if they applied their current fees to an in-person booth next year. If a vendor wanted a refund, they could buy a virtual booth this year for $1,000.

Technology. A key component to being able to shift the meeting from in-person to virtual was finding the right technology platform to host the event. “I think our ability to maneuver so quickly was the fact that Erica jumped in and set up appointments with several different companies to try out their platforms before it became obvious that we were headed in this direction,” said Hepp. “We wanted to have all of our options vetted and ready to go once we made a decision. This legwork put us ahead of other associations … as we were able to be put on the build schedule for platforms before the companies were all booked up.”

Marketing. “Our next step was to get the word out to all meeting stakeholders,” explained Kruse. In addition to usual tactics like email, Twitter, Facebook, and website updates to let people know about the change, ASNR sought creative partnerships with other societies in the radiology and neuroradiology space. In the end, they increased attendance–particularly internationally—to 4,400-plus participants. And nonmember attendance made up 45 percent of the total. The hashtag #ASNR also had more than 15 million impressions.

Training. In order to have a successful virtual meeting, a great deal of time and training went into helping speakers handle the technology needed to give their presentation: recording the speech, uploading it onto the platform, using slides to enhance the lecture, and being able to handle questions/answers during the session. Be prepared to work with speakers and their technology levels

Why Was It a Success?

ASNR credits the meeting’s success to a number of factors. Among them:

Teamwork. You must have a tight working relationship between volunteer leadership and association staff. Without that trust and transparency, an organization cannot move forward.

Flexibility. When you take a crash course in doing something new, you don’t have an FAQ to follow. “We were all figuring out things together in this new world—staff, vendors, speakers,” said Hirsch. “We had to have patience and work to find mutually workable solutions.”

Follow up. One of the most important aspects of this meeting is the “after market.” Available now on download, participants can view the content that was most important to them for 90 days post event. In addition, nonattendees can purchase access to the download. “We found that one third of participants joined us in real time, one third will be watching on demand, and the last third pursued a hybrid of IRL and on demand,” said Hepp.

The ASNR team agrees that this successful pivot to virtual has changed the organization fundamentally. “While this virtual adventure came about for unfortunate reasons, distance learning is something ASNR will embrace and lead the industry,” said Hirsch.

Bonnie Litch

Bonnie Litch is a freelance writer and editor.

Rahul Bhala

Rahul Bhala, MBA, MPH, is director, economics, health policy, and research, at the American Society of Neuroradiology in Oak Brook, Illinois.