Organization is evolving to offer a combination of onsite and virtual content; CEO & President Hal Wolf sets a positive tone for a "joyous reunion."
HIMSS20, the largest healthcare IT conference in the nation with more than 40,000 people expected to attend, was one of the first convention casualties of the coronavirus crisis. Canceled only days before the event was set to begin on March 9—even before the pandemic was officially declared—the termination of the event was a harbinger of what was to occur in the convention scene across the nation, resulting in financial consequences for the industry and missed opportunities for professional education and connection.
On Friday, the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) made an announcement that it hopes will eliminate a similar scenario next year, and HIMSS President and CEO Hal Wolf set a positive tone for the future with the announcement that HIMSS21 will move from its scheduled date in March 2021 to August 9‒13, 2021, in Las Vegas.
"We just felt March was too much of a risk," says Wolf. "Talking to many of the epidemiologists and people around us, we really believe that we have a very good chance for a tremendous celebration … a really joyous reunion" in August 2021.
In a conversation with reporters Wolf addressed some of the issues caused by the cancellation of the 2020 event, how HIMSS has evolved to deliver content virtually, and how this will impact future conferences.
- HIMSS20 paid registrations will be transferred to HIMSS21, and all registrants will receive further details and instructions regarding the registration process later this summer.
- Registration and hotel reservations for HIMSS21 will open this fall.
- The call for reviewers will open September 14.
- Call for proposals will open October 5.
- The HIMSS22 Global Health Conference & Exhibition will return to the usual schedule, taking place during March 2022 in Orlando.
Remedies for Prepaid HIMSS20 Fees
HIMSS20 was canceled only days before the conference was set to start, creating a challenging situation for the organization to address how to credit fees exhibitors and registrants had already paid, says Wolf.
"Remedies with the exhibitors has been a tough story in the sense that when the cancellation took place in '20, the contractual environment that we had really limited us to how we could respond," says Wolf. "A lot of that is because of two fundamental things. First of all, we had already absorbed a tremendous amount of costs in anticipation of being a week away from launching HIMSS 20. You can imagine all the facilities, logistics, and the costs that go into it. We have an insurance policy there, but we're still in negotiations. It's very complex. It's very large, but we began the remedy process by, frankly, dipping into our pockets for what we could afford."
HIMSS began with a 25% remedy for exhibitors, redirecting 15% of their fees into HIMSS21 and 10% toward HIMSS22. Universities and startups received a 100% remedy with 50% applied to HIMSS21 and the remainder to HIMSS22. "We want to give [startups] the best break as we possibly can," says Wolf, "to encourage innovation in the digital health ecosystem."
Altogether, these remedies involved "a little over $7 million, literally coming from our pocket," says Wolf. "This is what we can afford at [this] time." Our intent from a remedy standpoint is that once we are fundamentally resolved on our claim—and we know that there are people looking forward for additional support—it is absolutely our intent to be able to come forward with additional remedies at that time."
The Birth of Digital HIMSS
HIMSS also tried to address concerns about the cancellation of the in-person event in Orlando by launching HIMSS20 Digital, moving a number of activities online. "This was a big change for us," says Wolf. It involved offering thought leadership presentations through the HIMSS Learning Center so that the individual market suppliers and exhibitors had a way to reach the core audience that would have been present in Orlando. The effort has "some pretty strong results," he says, with hundreds of presentations reaching nearly 30,000 users in 210 countries.
In addition, HIMMS launched a digital initiative called "Map Our Show," which "allowed us to map individual exhibitors products and services back to people who would have been at the conference and to get them in front of those connections and to help them develop leads, says Wolf. "We've learned a lot from it. We've gotten some good results and feedback, and we've also gotten opportunities to improve."
These endeavors led to the development of HIMSS 365, a platform to bring together all 80,000 global members of HIMSS and market suppliers to share services, information, thought leadership every day of the year. The new virtual environment, he says, "really starts to become a crescendo to the engagement with our members and the market supplier communities, which we're going to be building out through the entire year, then with this opportunity come together" at HIMSS21. "It is about market leadership and it is about connectivity."
"We've actually been very pleased with the responsiveness to … the virtual environment that we've been able to create so far," says Wolf, "and we're really excited about what we see on the horizon that we hope to launch this spring."
Safety at HIMSS 21
Wolf says that while there is no way yet to predict where the health crisis will be a year from now, "we will set up the proper appropriate protocols for HIMSS21 based upon the environment that we're in." The organization plans to set up a team to review the situation and follow guidelines and protocols recommended by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
"If we're still in a mask environment, we will do that," says Wolf. "Our hope, of course, is that the vaccines will be brought on board and then there'll be an easing of tension across our entire ecosystem, but we will follow all appropriate guidelines and safety will remain our number one concern."
How Might the Pandemic Impact HIMSS21?
If the pandemic doesn't subside, "it wouldn't be the same situation as '20 because '21 really is going to be an incredible blend between the physical event and the virtual events that the new HIMSS platforms are allowing us to do," says Wolf. "We actually see ways forward between the two environments, which we think will be very helpful for the market suppliers, and more importantly, for our members. That is a big change. It's a recognition going in upfront and we have to adjust our backend for budgets, personnel—all of those things to make sure that in the event that happens."
Wolf says that the HIMSS global conference plays a role in the health IT financial environment and that there is substantial momentum to move forward with an event where people can meet in person. Elements under consideration include:
- While acknowledging there is "only so much space" in a convention center, HIMSS is working to honor signed contracts that enable exhibitors to keep them in their preferred spots.
- The organization is closely examining traffic flow and floor design, planning for multiple scenarios that allow for more space to accommodate physical distancing, if needed. As part of this effort, the city of Las Vegas will be building an air-conditioned bridge to connect separate buildings across the street from each other, says Wolf.
- In addition to the traditional conference, HIMSS is exploring "virtual packages that allow people to actually be a part of it, even if they're not there." The organization is examining a variety of packages and how to price them. "We're going to have a really interesting and positive mixed environment for people to be able to take advantage of both," he says.
Positive Reception for Changed Date
Before announcing the new date for HIMSS21, the organization's leadership consulted with members and exhibitors, and received positive feedback, says Wolf. "The response has been fantastic," he says, People are saying, 'This is a timeline that makes sense for us.' "
Wolf acknowledged that some exhibitors have been frustrated with the protracted remedy process, "and I'm right there with them." The situation was further complicated by contracts which limited the organization's ability to communicate.
Canceling HIMSS20, "I will tell you all in candor, has been the most challenging and stressful time of my career," says Wolf. "It's been "devastatingly hard for our entire organization," which puts its "heart and soul into getting this environment right for its members and market suppliers." Yet putting the safety of people first was the right thing to do, he says.
Moving forward, "We'll continue to try and always to be as transparent as we are allowed to be," says Wolf. "I just want to thank the ecosystem overall because, honestly, the support has been phenomenal. The biggest lesson learned is always do the right thing as best you can, when you can. That will continue to be our mantra."
“We really believe that we have a very good chance for a tremendous celebration [at HIMSS21]… a really joyous reunion" in August 2021.”
HIMSS President and CEO Hal Wolf
Mandy Roth is the innovations editor at HealthLeaders.
HIMSS has moved the date for its 2021 conference to August 9‒13 in Las Vegas.
The organization's efforts to issue "remedies" to 2020 exhibitors have been stifled by protracted insurance negotiations, but additional remediation should be coming.
The evolution of virtual and digital innovations are offering new ways to connect members and suppliers, and will impact the way future conference content is delivered.
The 2021 conference will abide by health precautions in effect at the time and the city of Las Vegas is building a bridge to help expand and connect conference sites.