In this episode, ASCA public affairs team member Charlie Leonard sits down with ASCA Chief Executive Officer Bill Prentice to discuss planning for the ASCA 2021 annual conference, now a virtual event.
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Charlie Leonard: 0:37
Hello, and welcome. My name is Charlie Leonard, and I am a member of the ASCA public affairs team. I'm joined today by Bill Prentice, ASCA's chief executive officer. Bill asked for today's podcast so that he could come on and provide ASCA members with an update regarding the 2021 annual meeting. As ASCA members know, the COVID-19 pandemic upended our annual meeting in Orlando this past spring, and required us to move the entire event online. It was a first for us, and a first for everyone who attended. Yet, we still managed to record and present general sessions, educational breakouts, keynote speakers and a virtual exhibit hall. By all accounts, we presented some great content, even if most of us were still missing the chance to gather in person. For several months, we remained hopeful the pandemic would be brought under control and that it would be safe to travel and meet in person again. Regrettably, however, the virus has continued to spread, and public health officials continue to advise us against large public gatherings, particularly indoors. As a result, ASCA was compelled to announce on November 9 that the annual meeting scheduled for April 28 through May 1, 2021, in Washington, DC, would need to be moved online to a virtual format. In place of an in-person conference, ASCA will present a virtual event with a more accommodating schedule and format. Here to tell us more about the decisions that led to these announcements and the planning that is already underway is Bill Prentice. Bill, welcome.
Bill Prentice: 2:06
Hi, Charlie, thanks for doing this with me and I look forward to conveying some information, hopefully, about our virtual meeting next year.
Charlie Leonard: 2:14
Great. Bill, I'm sure we have listeners who are both disappointed and relieved with the announcement that the annual meeting will take place virtually. Can you share with us how you and the Board of Directors came to make that decision?
Bill Prentice: 2:26
Sure, and that last comment you made is absolutely true. We actually did a survey not too long ago of our members to solicit their thoughts about meeting in person in 2021, and their comfort level in traveling. And, actually, those results were fairly promising in terms of, I think, people did have a hope that they'd be able to travel and a desire to travel to a conference in 2021. So that gave us some momentary pause and thinking that well, maybe we could pull off this in-person meeting at the end of April. But as we really thought long and hard about it and really looked at where we were in terms of the pandemic and the likelihood of having a vaccine, even though we obviously very recently have gotten some really promising news about the potential to have a vaccine available before the end of this year, the reality is that not enough people have taken the vaccine, we don't know how many people will have the availability to it, we don't know how many people would still have a susceptibility to get the virus even if they've been vaccinated. The risk really at the end of the day turned out to be too great. The one thing that the ASCA Board and I could not abide was the possibility of even a single attendee at our conference contracting COVID-19 as a result of either traveling to or from our conference or getting it while on site, and then bringing it back to their community in a way that could have obviously allowed for spread. That was just too high a risk for us. We were all very disappointed because we think the ASCA conference each year is the number one education destination for ASC professionals. I think we put on a great meeting, it's a great opportunity to meet with each other and to learn from each other. But at the end of the day, all those benefits were outweighed by just the simple risk of somebody getting COVID-19.
Charlie Leonard: 4:25
Well, so here we are. I think another question that I'm sure is on people's minds is that, in addition to being ASCA's premiere event of the year, the annual meeting is also a very significant source of revenue for the association. I'm sure many members are eager to know how this decision will impact ASCA financially. Can you share with us the impact of canceling this meeting and the costs associated with substituting a virtual event?
Bill Prentice: 4:50
That is an excellent question and it will have obviously a significant impact on our bottom line. The annual conference is a great source of revenue for ASCA and really helps us to to do all the good work we do for the ASC community, whether on the advocacy side or communication side, putting on our educational program throughout the year. And we really obviously had to tighten our belt for next year with the recognition that we're not going to have that revenue. Like so many businesses out there and surgery centers, I think this is our new normal. We're going to have to try and find a way to live within our means in a way that is responsible, and I think knowing today that we're not going to have that revenue, rather than waiting, at least gives us a better chance of planning for it and doing things responsibly. One of the things I'd ask for our listeners, if they're ASC members, is to really don't hesitate to renew that membership, to use the products and services that we offer. All of that revenue goes directly back into the work we're doing to try and promote the ASC model in Washington, DC, and around the country, and indeed in the media and with the public. So we're going to do the best we can. I think we've got a good plan, a good budget, the board's fully behind what we're trying to do. But to the extent that our members can support ASCA through membership or the other things that we sell, whether it's our education or other products, please do so—it's really important.
Charlie Leonard: 6:28
Bill, we are going to take a short pause so that we can hear a few words from the sponsor of today's podcast. We'll be back in just a moment.
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Charlie Leonard: 7:08
Welcome back to the ASC podcast. Before the break, Bill Prentice and I were discussing the financial impacts of moving the 2021 ASCA meeting to a virtual format. Bill, my understanding is that the Gaylord Convention Center in Washington, DC, has agreed to move our reservation to a future date. Is that right?
Bill Prentice: 7:27
Yes, we have had a great relationship with Marriott and the Gaylord properties. Listeners who've attended our previous conferences know that we've enjoyed a really good relationship with their properties around the country. Look, they're in a very tough situation, too. The hospitality industry has been devastated by COVID-19 and the lack of travel, so I understand where they're coming from, they understood where we were coming from. So, fortunately, because of that good relationship, we were able to reach a very equitable agreement to cancel this meeting in April and instead we're going to come back two other times to Washington, DC, over the next decade and put on some really great conferences that, in addition to obviously being able to put all the education and networking that we normally do by being in Washington, DC, in that area, we're also going to be able to put in an advocacy element so that more of our members can get up to Capitol Hill, see their lawmakers and staff and talk about the importance of the things that we're working on that can really help our healthcare system.
Charlie Leonard: 8:30
Okay, so let's pivot and talk about the challenges and, frankly, opportunities for moving to a virtual format. This past summer, ASCA constructed a virtual annual meeting from scratch without a playbook. By all accounts, as I mentioned earlier, there was great content. But at the same time, I know that you believe that with the benefit of that experience, we can do better. And so can you tell us where the planning stands at present and how you believe we can improve on last year's inaugural effort at conducting a virtual meeting?
Bill Prentice: 8:59
Sure. And you know, you stated that quite accurately. I mean, we had to really adjust on the fly this past spring when the meeting in Orlando was canceled because of COVID-19. That was a force majeure event. So essentially, the Marriott had to cancel on us, and we had to turn around and try and figure out what kind of virtual learning experience we could offer for our members out there, who we knew were looking for sources of education and training, and we created the event that we put on in July. As you noted, we did that rather quickly, and I think we pulled together a really great platform in a really short amount of time, but I think that in looking at it retrospectively, I think there's a lot of things that we can improve on. It's one of the things that we're really excited about now that we have a little bit of a longer runway to put together that next virtual conference, that we're going to be able to put on something that is even better for our members and easier for them to use and to digest the education that we're going to be offering. And Charlie, the fact is that even as we tried to stay the course for an in-person meeting, we knew there was a high probability that we would have to return to the virtual format. So in anticipation of that happening, we recently surveyed our members to learn what their preferences were, and how a virtual format could better accommodate their schedules. And what we learned, and have now adopted, is a virtual meeting format spread out over three consecutive Mondays—April 26, May 3, and May 10, 2021. And we think that that's the better way to go because I think we all recognize the challenges of trying to stay engaged online for two or more consecutive days. And as we all know, we're in this age of Zoom and that's hard to pull off. So we think that spreading the meeting out makes it much easier for everyone to better balance their personal and professional lives with their desire to still participate in as many of our great education sessions as possible. So while we recognize no virtual format can fully replace the in-person experience, I do believe we have a plan that will make the best of the current situation.
Charlie Leonard: 11:13
That's great. I want to circle back a bit to a comment you made earlier because one of the big advantages of holding an event in Washington, DC, as we have in the past, is that has enabled members to go up to Capitol Hill to meet with members of the administration and to help advance our government affairs agenda. With new members taking seats in both the House and the Senate and now a new administration coming in, that kind of relationship building is really critical to our success. Can you share your thoughts on what ASCA members can be doing in the interim to compensate for the loss of those in-person meetings?
Bill Prentice: 11:45
That's, I mean, a critically important question because it is something that we can't allow this pandemic and all this social distancing to stop. So long as Congress is still legislating and the administration is still regulating, we need to find ways to make sure that our message is heard, that our members have the ability to interact with their lawmakers and key decision makers so that healthcare policy that's either enacted by Congress or codified by the administration reflects what we want to see. So whether it's having an annual conference in Washington, DC, like we did a few years ago, or our fly-ins, where we've had our separate events that we've held throughout the year to invite our members to come in, learn about our issues and go up to Capitol Hill, meet with their lawmakers and staff and develop that relationship, we can't just let that just sit there idle until this pandemic is over. So one of the things that we've done is we've created a virtual facility tour program that members can learn about by going to the ASCA website where we actually show you how to invite your member of Congress or his or her staff to meet with you virtually online, and you can actually show them around your surgery center using your smartphone. And we have all sorts of educational materials to help you set that up, as well as, obviously, resources, so that you're up to speed on the issues that we hope you'll be able to convey with your member or their staff. So we're going to continue to do that through the rest of this pandemic. Quite honestly, the early experience from folks who have used this new platform and this new approach have really enjoyed it, and the members of Congress and staff members who have been invited have also really expressed a real interest in it and the way it worked and they found it fascinating. So I'm really hoping that more members will take advantage of that. While we still hope that eventually we'll get back to in-person meetings because, God knows I'm looking forward to seeing people face-to-face as well as you are, but we just got to do things safely until we get to that point.
Charlie Leonard: 13:57
Well, that's great. Thanks, Bill. This concludes today's episode of the ASC podcast. I'd like to thank Bill Prentice for coming on the podcast today to update us about the planning for the 2021 annual meeting. As always, if anyone listening has thoughts or suggestions for future podcasts, please don't hesitate to share your thoughts with us. Finally, I would also like to thank the sponsor of our Advancing Surgical Care Podcast, The Joint Commission, a leading accreditation organization helping to keep outpatient surgery as safe as possible for both patients and the healthcare professionals who care for them. Until next time, please wear a mask, practice social distancing and wash your hands frequently so that we can all stay healthy and safe.