The American Society of Neuroradiology (ASNR) has a reputation of putting on very strong annual meetings. This year, the 2019/20 ASNR annual meeting (#ASNR20) surpassed all expectations to become one of the most successful meetings in the society’s storied history. Originally planned as a re-imagined in-person meeting to be held in Las Vegas from May 30th-June 4th, the organization had to quickly pivot to a virtual version once COVID-19 became a reality. How did they get there and what lessons does #ASNR20 hold for societies and distance learning in the future?
Bringing New Life to the Familiar
When Dr. Joshua Hirsch took on the role as program chair of the #ASNR20, he thought that its robust academic base could expand to include new vendor partners, untapped participant markets, and a greater level of buzz on social media. ASNR Executive Director Mary Beth Hepp, herself less than four years in that role, had recently hired Director of Education Erica Kruse and Meetings Director Lynn Brown. Hirsch points out that rather than seeing new hires as a challenge, it allowed the group to think creatively and out of the box right from the outset. With board support, this team set out to change many long held annual meeting assumptions and break a few records in the process. An operations group was quickly formed and populated by a strong subset of volunteers and staff. “This working group had an amazing symbiosis. To accomplish our goals, we had to rethink the way we planned, organized, and marketed the meeting and symposium.” Hirsch states, “#ASNR20 added new tracks, deepened the scope of the event, created multiple new partner opportunities, and made a concerted effort to get the schedule and abstract topics out earlier to members, non-members, and vendors – both nationally and internationally. We held nothing back.”
Embracing New Ideas
And the planning was going extremely well. An important charge of the newly formed operations committee was curating and finalizing a program much earlier than in the past. While always a goal, the early release of a populated schedule typically is challenged by time constraints and other obstacles and rarely gets done as a result. Kruse notes that there were “many obvious advantages to prioritizing the final schedule early on in the process: It allowed for speaker/moderator travel planning, the ability to advance market the program, and the early filling of the room block. I’m very proud of the fact that the program was completed in record time and it was published online in September 2019. That itself was an amazing accomplishment.” Further, the agenda highlighted the upgraded content of the meeting. States Kruse, “Beyond the mechanics, we had a host of new options for the meeting, including essentials programming, basics programming, embedded abstracts, and late breaking abstracts. There were so many great ideas and we were executing them all. It was exhilarating!”
Soon, it became clear that the meeting was going to break many records for the society. As this was a new version of the event, very aggressive parameters had been set for many metrics including vendor partnership. Per Ms. Hepp, “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.” Early registration suggested that more than 2000 attendees would be present, putting the societal record set at its 50-year celebratory meeting in sight.
Meetings Director Brown comments that “the original floor plan needed to be modified as early as February as we ran out of our allotted floor space. Working carefully with the venue (and the fire marshal), we were able to creatively fit additional exhibitors by adding pre-fabricated kiosks in the hallways. 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. Moreover, high-dollar sponsorships were being discussed or pre-contracted as there were still three months to go before the meeting. While I am relatively new to the organization, I don’t believe ASNR had traditionally seen the level of volunteer participation in cultivating vendor sponsors. This new approach will lead to tangible changes in future planning as our lead sheet has tripled over the course of one year. And these vendors came from all over the world and all aspects of neuroradiology, e.g., software, hardware, AI, interventional, and more.”
Enter the Global Pandemic…
“It was probably around February we started to wonder about our ability to host an in-person meeting.” Hirsch explains. “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. 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.”
Could this team of volunteers and staff quickly pivot and re- reinvent #ASNR20?. Would vendor sponsors join them on this journey as their own organizations faced turmoil and cutbacks? Would physicians register with all the other programming that was now available online? Were there lessons to be gleaned from other professional organizations that had thought about turning virtual but had opted against? These were just some of the tough questions the team faced.
ASNR20 Virtual Meeting – What We Needed to Address Moving Forward
The decision to make the meeting virtual was not taken lightly. Other options existed, including pausing the conference this year and starting over again in 2021. In the aftermath of COVID-19, many groups chose this option and just put their materials on their website. ASNR took a different path: “We had put so much energy into creating the Vegas meeting that it was hard to walk away from it,” states 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, including contract legalities, policies, technology, marketing, training, all while maintaining good relationships.
Contract Legalities: “Our first step was to call Caesars Palace to figure out how to move forward in a way that didn’t penalize the society or the hotel. Thanks to the good relationship that Lynn Brown had developed with her contact at Caesar’s, she was able to renegotiate the details of the contract in a way that all parties were satisfied and with full support of our Board,” explains Hirsch. “I think that dealing one-on-one with our contact and having calm conversations on how we are all in this together helped us find a win-win for both the hotel and for the society,” states Brown.
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% 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 $1000. Says Brown, “we set the price of the virtual exhibits low as we had no idea what the market would be—a lesson learned for next year. We actually had to cut off requests at two weeks prior to the virtual meeting as staff time couldn’t be allocated for helping create new booths.” This sets the tone for next year, Brown continued “because when vendors became aware of how #ASNR20s live event was on track to become one of the hottest shows of this 2020, a substantial number chose to roll over their space into 2021. This gives us a tremendous head start for next year as we go in having sold over 1,000 square feet of booth space.”
Technology: Says Hirsch, “ASNR has been thinking about adding virtual components to its offerings for some time now. Today’s technology enables options that would not have been possible before: You could have wanted to do a virtual meeting 10 years ago but the tools weren’t there. The sledgehammer of a global pandemic has helped us to overcome technological trepidations to open up other opportunities.”
A key component to being able to shift the meeting from in-person to virtual was finding the right technological engine to host the event. Kruse began searching for an online platform immediately. “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,” says 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 who were also moving to a virtual meeting as we were able to be put on the build schedule for platforms before the companies were all booked up.” The organization streamlined the amount of content and turned the abstracts into eposters – increasing the number from 400 entries into 1000.
Marketing: “Our next step was to get the word out to all meeting stakeholders,” explains Kruse. “We already had a communication system in place for all of our COVID-19 messaging. We used vehicles such as email, Twitter, Facebook, and our website to educate registrants, speakers, vendors and the like on moving virtual. We sought creative partnerships with other societies in the radiology and neuroradiology space. We wound up increasing registration – particularly internationally – to over 4,400 participants. Our non-member attendance soared to 45% of the total.” The team credits ease of access as the primary driver, together with setting the right price point and managing the content so that it was plentiful without being overwhelming. The hashtag #ASNR went viral with over 15 million impressions, confirming that the marketing was successful.
Sponsor Realignment: “You have to reset your expectations on what is appropriate for a sponsorship. For example, one of our sponsorships involved a company distributing the Wifi password in Vegas, so things like that needed to be updated.” explains Hepp.
Training: In order to have the virtual meeting be a success, 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. Recording lectures is not as easy as getting on a zoom chat. Be prepared to work with speakers and their technology levels. In addition, participants needed to be able to interact with the conference platform in order to view the presentations and navigate the meeting to meet their individual needs. Interestingly, ASNR had a 95% retention rate for their bench of speakers.