Signature Boston Blog
Post-COVID-19 Lessons from Heart Rhythm 2021

Last month, the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center (BCEC) hosted the 2021 annual meeting of the Heart Rhythm Society – the first big convention to return to Boston after the pandemic.

For this week's blog, we sat with HRS Associate Vice President, Meetings & Events, Germaine Schaefer, to talk about Heart Rhythm 2021, lessons learned, and the reality of hosting events during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What precautions did you consider for your BCEC event?
It was a wild ride planning the meeting. Initially when we moved our dates from May to late July in August of 2020, we didn’t have any idea if there would be a vaccine, what the inoculation rates would be or if we’d even be able to have a meeting. As a result, the meeting was “designed” about six different ways as rules and regulations evolved.
At one point we had floor plans with individual chairs 6’ apart – you can fit 447 people into the Grand Ballroom of the BCEC with this spacing. We ended up having the building set most of the rooms in theater style with every other chair missing. In rooms with rounds, we kept it to 6 per round, and in our lounge areas we eliminated sofas and replaced them with individual side chairs.

What guidelines or policies did you put into place for staff and vendors?
HRS Staff and our vendor leads were all fully vaccinated prior to the meeting and as an added precautionary step we all wore masks when we were in any public area of the center. Our yearly staff picture will be one for the history books.

2021 Heart Rhythm Society Boston Source: Heart Rhythm Society 

We did ask the building staff and labor to wear masks around us if they were not vaccinated and they complied with this request (our meeting took place when there wasn’t an indoor mask mandate in place).

*Effective Friday, August 27 face masks are required in all indoor public settings in the City of Boston, as part of a Five-Point Plan for the Delta Variant.

How did you reinvent your event due to COVID-19?
We created a hybrid event that offered pre-recorded content, live streams from our in-person event in Boston, a virtual Innovation Expo, and access to our Abstract catalog for anyone who couldn’t attend in person. About 1,700 people from around the world took advantage of the virtual platform with just over 4,000 joining us in Boston.

In Boston we offered the in-person attendees three different colored lanyards to indicate their comfort level with closeness: green meant they were fine with hugs and close talking, yellow meant they were cautious, and red indicated they wanted to keep social distancing. While we saw the majority of the attendees choose green, about 10-20% chose the red option and wore masks. As these are all healthcare professionals, they well understood any risks involved with attending the meeting in person.

What was your overall experience hosting a large event at the BCEC post-COVID?
The building was in fantastic shape. I don’t know that I’ve been in a cleaner building! Staff was visibly happy to be back, and they were thankful to have us there. I could see smiling eyes with every interaction. Our staff commented on how appreciative everyone was. It was great to be back doing what we love – running in-person events. Our attendees also noted that being back in person restored a sense of normalcy in their day-to-day lives that had been missing for 26 months (HRS 2019 was held in May 2019).

What is your advice to other meeting planners with upcoming BCEC/Hynes events?
Remain flexible – start with planning at the more extreme end of safety (i.e.: plexiglass dividers, masks, social distanced seating, larger stages, and limited shared A/V equipment) and then as things progress see where you can scale back some of those decisions to better fit where society and local regulations are at the time of your event.
With any planning process, there is always going to be a part of the cycle where a decision made months prior seems like it wasn’t the right one, but then the cycle keeps going and sometimes those ideas seem right again. For HRS, I’m specifically talking about our purchase of a large quantity of logo’ d masks back in February 2021. As vaccines were rolled out and inoculations picked up, we saw states and the CDC drop mask-mandates, but then the Delta variant began spreading and the masks were again a wise idea.

Did everything go according to the plan? Did anything surprise you?  
I don’t think I’ve ever had a meeting where everything went to plan! We realized after a half day that we’d all underestimated the amount of bandwidth needed to support zooming in and livestreaming out of a meeting room. After we figured it out the live-streaming went much better. We also saw that attendee behavior has changed – where we used to have a packed house at 8:00 a.m. for a plenary, we saw a much lower number of in-person attendees for those sessions in 2021. We aren’t sure if this is a permanent change, or a temporary one, but we will be looking at our daily schedule to see where we might be able to shift times to accommodate this new behavior.

What would you have done differently if you could go back in time?
I would have liked to have been able to know the vaccination status of the group – I think there is a different plan when you know that your group is 90% vs. 50% vaccinated. It’s also a good selling point to encourage others to attend if they know it’s going to be a safe environment. We also tried out electronic posters for the first time this year and the presentation areas were all too close together to allow for decent audio. That’s definitely something we’ll be fixing for 2022.

In your opinion what are the most important reasons why live events still matter?
So much of science is based on ideas – and meetings are where ideas are shared. I truly believe that many of the advances we’ve seen over the last decades are because of chance meetings in poster halls, or in a session room – or because someone sat next to you on a bus.
While we can certainly deliver great education digitally – the ability to help folks connect with strangers over these digital platforms is still nowhere near the level that happens on-site. When we asked our Board a few years ago what stood out for them in the many years they’d been attending Heart Rhythm, quite a few of them told us about the thrill of meeting a “legend” in the field when they were younger and just starting out in Electrophysiology. Some told us of a life-long friendship forged from the random placement of a poster next to a stranger, and the bonding that occurred during their 4-hour poster session. They’d gone on to collaborate with that person for the next 20 years of their career and that collaboration and the advancements that came of them would not have happened without the in-person event.

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