As the Pandemic Begins to Recede, HIMSS’ Leaders Strategize for their Conference

July 21, 2021
As of earlier this summer, HIMSS leaders were putting the finishing touches on their annual conference, scheduled for August 9-13 in Las Vegas

Much has happened since the leaders of the Chicago-based HIMSS (Healthcare Information & Management Systems Society) pulled the plug on HIMSS20, last year’s planned annual conference, just a few days before it was set to begin the week of March 8, 2020. In the interim, HIMSS has presented a smattering of smaller, virtual events; but, given the tremendous uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted the United States, and the world, since last spring, setting a new date for HIMSS21, or even deciding whether to hold an in-person annual conference at all, has proven to be something of a moving target.

When Healthcare Innovation Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland spoke with Karen Groppe, HIMSS’ senior director of strategic communications, in early June, Groppe indicated that HIMSS21 was absolutely moving forward—though with careful qualification. Asked directly on June 9 whether the conference would begin on August 9 in Las Vegas as planned, Groppe said, “As of right now, yes. We live in a world where things can flip very quickly these days. But the environment has been deemed safe to travel and bring people safely tighter. So for right now, see you in Las Vegas.” The conference is planned to take place across three locations nearby to each other: the newly expanded Wynn meeting space, the Venetian-Sands Expo Center and the newly built Caesars Forum Conference Center.

One major element in all of this is that the HIMSS organization is going to require that all attendees show proof of vaccination in advance, as well as when they arrive onsite. How might that work? “One of the great things about associations is the ability to collaborate,” Groppe told Hagland. “So we’ve brought together a panel of experts who are advising us. It’s going to be some sort of service and program to verify vaccination in advance and onsite. It will lean towards overly cautious, versus casual. And we don’t want to rush it. It weighs on all of us to do the right thing; we’re anxious to do the right thing.”

Will masks be required? “We’re still waiting on that,” Groppe said. “Part of the story that hasn’t been told is what’s going on in Clarke County; we need to find out about that policy, and what the CDC is recommending. We’re kind of waiting to see what all the guidance will be; it will probably out within two weeks.” And what about protocols around greetings and physical contact—e.g., will the shaking of hands be discouraged? Will attendees be encouraged to engage in elbow bumps? That kind of thing. “We have thought about that, and we’re preparing a set of protocols,” Groppe said. “And one of the things we’ve all been saying during the pandemic is, trust the science. And since it will be requirement to get onto the HIMSS campus, that gives me a lot of comfort, that I’m vaccinated and that everyone will be vaccinated. So we want everyone to trust the science and the guidelines and the data, and use the experts; so we’re fanatical about that. It weighs on all of us and we want to do the right thing. So if it takes a couple more weeks, so be it.”

And how many people are expected to attend? Groppe admitted in June that things remained fluid in that area. “We can see what hotels are booking at; we can see registration. I can tell you it’s not going to be our traditional size; but I think people’s expectations are going to be exceeded, those who want to be there for their business purposes. I don’t think we’re going to be jammed in. I think it’s going to be enough people to engaging and to be successful,” she said.

Meanwhile, speaking of the educational sessions—there will be 400 sessions altogether, with 200 of them being digital—when asked to describe them overall, Groppe said that “The one thing we need to remember about the educational sessions is that they’re selected by a large volunteer committee. So they are cultivating that content, which is already up on our website. We take that responsibility very seriously; and they’re what the conference is known for—so that our members, our attendees, can learn, and can go back and further health; that is our goal. I feel really good. I also feel good that, for those who don’t want to be vaccinated, the digital program we’re putting together is just as impressive as our in-person conference. There are multiple paths and multiple ways to engage.”

In terms of what’s new this year, Groppe said that “Obviously, there’s going to be the COVID track. We’re going to lean in hard on cybersecurity; we’ve got a panel of experts coming in, in person, to talk about cyber issues. We’re seeing a lot of engagement around government officials. And that vaccination policy provides a lot of safety and comfort for government officials, both domestically and internationally.”

Hagland also reached out for perspective from Peter Smith, CEO and cofounder of the Naperville, Ill.-based Impact Advisors consulting firm. Reflecting on the challenges facing HIMSS’ annual conference overall, Smith said that “They’re going to face having to balance the need for [the annual conference] to be big, versus providing the quality of a high-quality educational forum. They’ve gotten so big that some of their original mission and objectives have become a bit muddled. I’m not so sure that the e industry is going to value a big vendor show as much. I think they’re losing attendance to some of the boutique conferences. So there are a lot of entries into the market whose focus is boutique and high-intimacy, and I think that’s their challenge.”

Asked where he thinks education is going for HIMSS in the future, Smith said that “If I were to give them any advice, I would say, they should really examine their educational agenda and focus it on things that are strategic and of high value to their member base. What are the most important, critical issues to their base constituency? They need to try to address their needs.”

Meanwhile, looking forward, when asked when the next annual HIMSS Conference would be, Groppe confirmed that “We’re going back in March 2022 to Orlando.” She also confirmed that only a small number of cities have the capacity to support the size that HIMSS was in 2020. And, she said, she and her colleagues are expecting a return to the large, pre-pandemic scale of attendance, by March of next year.

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