Adapting and Evolving: OR Manager Conference Event Planners Talk COVID Impact
When vaccines became available earlier this year, there was a grain of hope visible at the end of the longest, darkest tunnel that we entered in 2020.
COVID rates plummeted from late spring into early summer. Just in time to embark not only on delayed vacations and seeing loved ones face to face, but the conference circuit was ready to get back to business in person. Dates were put on the calendar and flights were booked.
Then Delta happened.
AORN’s Global Surgical Conference and Expo, at the time set to take place in Orange County, FL was canceled and turned virtual. Many other conferences followed suit, highly dependent on what was happening locally.
Thrown into a time warp back to the confusing days of early 2020, conference organizations had calls to make. Stay in person or pivot to back virtual?
This was the dilemma facing Access Intelligence. An information and marketing company, they produce dozens of live events in various markets, notably the OR Business Management Conference, set for San Diego in September, and the OR Manager Conference, set for Chicago in October. As of this writing, as the surge turns from a boil to a simmer, both conferences are still on.
We spoke with Carrie Shapiro, Senior Conference Manager, and Mike Conti, Brand Director, who oversees both OR conferences. The duo discusses how Access Intelligence had to up their digital game, the rough patch last year when in-person conferences became impossible, and their persistent hope that next year will be the true light at the end of the tunnel.
How are people responding to conferences this year and how does it compare to 2019?
Carrie Shapiro: Everyone is really excited about meeting face-to-face again. As always, we are following local guidelines and proceeding as planned with our in-person events. There were some smaller summer events, but most of our events are taking place August through November.
Mike Conti: We are not expecting the numbers we had in 2019. When the Delta variant rose, we had registration slow down for a few weeks. What is interesting is that among all the trade shows produced by Access Intelligence and across the different markets, a trend we’ve noticed is the “late push.” An event in our energy and engineering division had a 33% increase during the last week before the in-person event. People are waiting to see how things are closer to the time of the event.
Have there been any COVID exposures at any Access Intelligence events?
MC: So far, just one in a different division. A person reached out to let us know so we could communicate that to attendees.
What was 2020 like for you when everything shut down?
MC: It was wild. I was at the SATELLITE Conference and Exhibition show in Washington, D.C. that took place in March. Elon Musk was our big keynote speaker—which was a huge get—and we were really excited. It’s an international show and tracking to be our biggest and best event in the company’s history. First, we noticed drop-offs in certain areas, like parts of Asia and countries like Italy. At the Convention Center, the crisis unfolded pretty quickly. We had to shut down a day early and everyone raced home.
Are virtual conferences here to stay? What are the pros and cons?
MC: I’m really proud of what Access Intelligence did because we had to evolve. We all became digital event experts. I’ve seen every digital event platform demo there is. We did a nice job bringing that to our community. Last year, it’s what we had to do. Even though in-person events will be coming back, I think that virtual piece is here to stay. The one thing that is hard to replicate virtually is networking, things like going out to dinner. But we’ve found that people don’t mind streaming a session or checking out a webinar. And even when people are in person, they can’t get to every session. They can watch it when they get home or re-watch their favorites.
You decided against a vaccine mandate for your events. How did you make that decision?
MC: We had hours and hours of conversations with our community members and executive team. There are 3 education coordinators that are retired nurses on the OR Manager staff and over 25 facility nurses on our program committees. We heavily relied on their input. We found that not a lot of people were in favor of a vaccine mandate. We were reminded that they’re infection control specialists and are used to wearing masks daily. That drove us to mandate mask-wearing indoors except when eating, drinking, or speaking on stage.
Did you have to incentivize people to speak or attend this year?
CS: I didn’t have any challenges recruiting speakers for this year, any more than a normal year. There is always someone who is not available or speaker cancellations. We’ve had a few of those. There is usually a strong reason why people want to speak. They have a story to tell and want to share their knowledge. A lot of people are invested in our event.
What topic areas are people most interested in this year, especially post-COVID?
CS: Nurse staffing shortages. That has been amplified by the pandemic with people retiring or getting burned out (more so than usual). We’ve updated our content to address those issues so nurse leaders can find the strength to lead their teams during this difficult time. We have a session on mental health and well-being. We also added a session on the vaccine mandate for healthcare workers. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is mandating COVID-19 vaccination for healthcare workers, including contractors and support staff. One of our committee members has done a ton of research on that. It’s a sensitive issue, but a much-needed conversation to have.
Moving forward, will surges and hotspots impact where you choose to have your events?
MC: Destinations still sell. We’ll be very thoughtful about the venues we choose. We need a partner that is willing to work with us if we need to make changes and is adaptable to the realities of the world right now.
Do you expect a bottleneck of attendance for 2022?
CS: There was so much energy around the vaccine roll out and all of us were taken aback by this variant. I think Dr. Fauci was saying that by March of 2022, things will start shaking out a bit better. Some people will have their third booster and kids between 5-12 will have their first shots (hopefully). You can see the light and I think next year is going to bring better luck for us all.