Organizing National Conferences 101: Ten Tips from Lessons Learnt

Professor Vandana Dua Niyyar put together this post about organizing a national meeting. Here are her thoughts on how to do this.

I had the privilege of co-chairing the last two national American Society Of Diagnostic & Interventional Nephrology (ASDIN) annual scientific meetings (2018 and 2019), the ASN ultrasound workshop in 2018, and the ASDIN hands-on pre-course in 2019. The process was daunting and intimidating. In this blog, I would like to share some practical tips from my personal experience that outline a methodical approach to streamline this process. Hopefully, these will help make the experience less challenging for others.

1. Building a team: The first step is to put your team in place. It is essential to have a strong cohesive team that supports your vision and will help you execute it. The team is collectively responsible for the scientific content. The Program Committee should be representative of your audience. A diverse group ensures that the content will be well-balanced. For ASDIN, we recently expanded our mission statement to promote excellence in dialysis access care and include all professionals interested in dialysis access. We then set up an inclusive Program Committee that involved all stakeholders: nephrologists, radiologists and surgeons from academia as well as private practice. It is equally important to have exceptional executive administration teams like those at ASN and ASDIN that are responsible for the successful and smooth implementation of your vision in order to bring it to fruition.

2. Scientific content: This is the core of your conference and is the #1 reason attendees will come. A comparable analogy is that of a restaurant – the main reason why people come is the food, and everything else, though important, is ancillary. Your attendees have invested time and money to gain new knowledge, which is fundamental to the conference. In the initial stages, regularly scheduled calls with the Program Committee are essential for brainstorming and formulating the overall theme and drilling down into the sessions and the talks. These must be supplemented by a thorough review of the literature to ensure you have covered all the recent advances in the field, and not just those within your scope of practice. If this is an annual conference, previous evaluations can be a helpful guide to address any issues that may have risen historically and correct them.

3. Vision and theme: Now that you have a general idea of what you would like to include in your talks, it is a good idea to come up with an overlying vision of what you want your meeting to be about. For example, my first year as ASDIN co-chair, our membership had concerns about upcoming changes in the field of vascular access. We emphasized ASDIN’s role as a leader and addressed the changes. We incorporating the Utah mountains in the background (the meeting was in Salt Lake City) of our meeting materials and our theme “ASDIN: Leading the Way in a Changing Landscape” really resonated with our members.

2019 was a landmark year for ASDIN, as it was the 15th anniversary of our Scientific Meetings. In addition, there was a lot of excitement in our field about innovative developments though we were still dealing with reimbursement challenges. Our theme combined all of these issues: “Turning Challenges Into Opportunities: Reflections on 15 Years of ASDIN and the Path Ahead” and our creative administrative team was able to find an image of Atlanta (our host city) reflected in the water that embodied the vision.

4. Sessions: Each session should fit into the overall theme and vision, and be based on the needs of your target audience. In general, a mix of science, innovation, research, and practical tips for everyday practice provides a balanced and scientifically rigorous program. For a large group with diverse interests, the sessions can be tailored to appeal to them. The talks within a session should focus on one common issue or be somehow related. Additionally, it is helpful to provide the faculty with objectives for their talk as they can then align it to your goals for that session. Assign experienced moderators who will keep the balance between running the sessions on time, and allowing for adequate interactions with the audience. Adding “catchy” titles can be another draw. In one of the sessions that discussed changing reimbursement, our title was “When Life Gives You Lemons….” And to round off the talks, we ended with an expert panel discussion “Making Lemonade: Delivering Quality Care in a Changing Landscape”. Similarly, we had a lively debate discussing opposing views on expanding service lines with the title “My Cheese has Moved…. or Has It?” These catchy titles add a little levity and fun and are much appreciated.

5. Faculty: The faculty is key to a successful meeting. Participants can get content online, but it is the lure of networking, meeting the experts in your field and interacting with them that draws attendees to a live conference. It is your job to deliver!  As the organizer, you must decide on the right mix of speakers between those who are lead investigators and vested in a particular topic, and those who can provide an unbiased birds-eye view. It is also critical to ensure diversity and gender balance. Alternating new faculty with established faculty adds another dimension and allows for unique perspectives. In conferences that provide CME credits, any potential conflict of interest (COI) must be addressed. You will need to make tough choices if a serious COI exists.

Hands-on workshops represent a unique challenge and it is virtually impossible to over-prepare for them

6. The devil is in the details: Hands-on workshops represent a unique challenge and it is virtually impossible to over-prepare for them. They require meticulous planning because of needed equipment, patients, actors, simulation models, and materials. Regularly scheduled calls, a detailed inventory, and a comprehensive plan for how you are going to run the stations is crucial to success. Even the most mundane items must be included in your checklist. Additionally, it is essential to limit the number of participants to ensure adequate faculty/attendee ratio and time to learn the skills being taught. The rotation plan through the various stations and timings must be finalized in advance. The thorough attention to detail and the innumerable hours spent by both ASN and ASDIN staff in pre-planning was justified by the success of these workshops. Not only did they fill to capacity, the feedback we received from the attendees was overwhelmingly positive.

7. Flexibility and adaptability: Putting together a national conference has many moving parts. The only thing you can be certain of is uncertainty. You have to be able to think on your feet and adapt to the situation. Even if things go wrong (as they will), be unflappable – e.g. faculty may have change of travel plans at the last minute, presentations may not be turned in on time for COI review, which impacts CME credit, AV systems may malfunction, equipment may not show up, etc. Always remember that for every problem, there is a solution – you just have to find it.

8. Location: As trite as this may sound, location does matter. At the very least, your conference should be in a city that is either easy to get to or has a “draw”. It won’t be the reason your conference succeeds but will certainly add to it - again going back to the restaurant analogy, the people come for the food, but having the right ambience helps.

9. Marketing: In this era of social media, getting your message out is essential. Use all the tools you have to emphasize the draw – unique sessions, panel discussions, lively debates, innovations, research updates and tips for everyday clinical practice. One thing we did not do this year, but plan to do for our 2020 meeting, is to assign an official hashtag for Twitter and encourage everyone to use it so all the information is streamlined. In the last few weeks leading up to the ASDIN 2019 meeting, our Communications Committee also channeled multiple platforms including ASDIN_TV interviews on Webex and Facebook Live. And of course, if you have some NSMC interns and alumni attending the conference, you are golden!

10. Relax, sit back and enjoy the accolades: Some, or perhaps all, these factors were instrumental in both our ASN and ASDIN workshops filling to capacity with long waiting lists. Attendance for the ASDIN 2019 Scientific Meeting was the highest it has been since 2013. Planning conferences can be time-consuming and requires a lot of hard work, but the satisfaction of a job well done and the positive feedback can be intensely gratifying. It is the “team”  that makes it all come together!

Thanks and acknowledgements to my teams: Rajeev Narayan, MD (ASDIN Co-Chair 2018); Jeff Hoggard, MD (ASDIN Co-Chair 2019); Charlie O’Neill, MD (ASN Workshop Co-Chair 2018); Mary Lea Nations (ASDIN Executive Director of Education); Lindsay Fox (ASDIN Director of Programming); Jin Soo Kim (ASN Director of Education); Charyl Delaney (ASN Senior Education Manager); Sarah Hardy (ASN Education Coordinator); Program Committee and Faculty for all conferences and workshops.

Thank you to NSMC Editors Silvi Shah, MD; Gates Colbert, MD; Matt Sparks, MD and Joel Topf, MD for their guidance and edits.

Post by Vandana Dua Niyyar, MD, FASN, FASDIN, FNKF
NSMC Intern 2019