Column | Leadership Skills Development

The age of COVID-19: What’s a seasoned meeting planner to do?

Column | Leadership Skills Development

The age of COVID-19: What’s a seasoned meeting planner to do?


Being forced to throw out the playbook and draft a new one comes with many silver linings.

As I followed the news of COVID-19’s spread in China last January, it never occurred to me this distant, international story would, in a matter of less than 60 days, become a very American problem that would rock my world as a meeting planner.

It wasn’t until early March that reality set in: We had a worldwide pandemic on our hands and the U.S. wouldn’t be excluded. HFMA has numerous live meetings throughout the year, and it became clear we had to consider the possibility that plugs would have to be pulled and we may have to shift all events to web-based experiences.

If I’m being completely honest here in front of 56,000 friends, it was an overwhelming and high-pressure situation. I’m positive you can all identify with me on this. In 23 years of meeting planning, I had never experienced anything like this, and the daunting to-do list was racing through my head. The Revenue Cycle Conference would have to be postponed. Our new Financial Sustainability Summit would have to be postponed. And — oh my goodness — the Annual Conference may have to be cancelled!

Pulling the plug on one hotel contract can be quite time-consuming in itself, but there were so many plugs that needed pulling in New Orleans, Denver and San Antonio. At the same time, we had to figure out how to overhaul all of our programming to account for COVID-19 and how to take these meetings online. This is the proverbial building the car .… no …. building the airplane while you’re flying it.

I’m leaving out a lot of detail here, but long story short, the HFMA staff pulled together, reset our goals and objectives and accelerated into new territory: Creating a massive online meeting, the Digital Annual Conference. Featuring six days of content over three months, you showed up in force to take it all in; we averaged more than 1,500 attendees per day. Digital conference attendees participated in sessions, learning from industry leaders and peers, and connected with other members and business partners.

Every day brought new lessons, and today, behind the scenes, we are taking those lessons to heart to augment future events. That means improvements in:

  • Platform
  • Production value
  • Access to presentation materials
  • Opportunities for engagement
  • Ways to connect with peers throughout the event

We are also evaluating whether it is feasible to provide digital aspects in all future face-to-face meetings, including next year’s Annual Conference in Boston. Perhaps the silver lining here is we can reach a lot more people by blending face-to-face and virtual experiences for meetings and provide education and experiences to more members than ever.

We’ll have the chance to debut many improvements at our Revenue Cycle Conference on Sept. 30 and Oct. 2, and I hope you’ll join us for that digital event. COVID-19 has changed our lives and our jobs, and like you, we’re trying to figure it all out.

About the Author

Gretchen Bliss

is director of meetings and conferences, HFMA, Denver.

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