The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) has two generally successful annual conferences, which it has decided is one annual conference too many. Starting next year, there will be one big, new, combined conference — which means that this year, ASM’s director of meetings, Kirsten Olean, CMP, CAE, and her team have their hands full both planning the two 2015 conferences and figuring out how to join them together in 2016.
And Olean wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I describe this to people as the kind of project you only get once in a career,” said Olean, who joined ASM last October, after the organization had already decided to combine its meetings. “I have not heard of an organization that has taken two of their biggest shows and put them together. They’re culturally very different shows, very different meetings, and the whole thing is not without some resisters. We’re hearing a lot of excitement about it, but people are skeptical because it’s something new.… The opportunity to take on this project — it was a huge part of what made me want to come here and do this.”
Convene will be sharing in Olean’s once-in-a-career opportunity over the next nine months, following the planning process for the new combined meeting in a series of articles, starting with this one. Let’s begin at the beginning, when ASM concluded that two big — and well-attended — conferences a year was one big conference too many.
‘THOSE WERE THE REALITIES’
With nearly 40,000 members, more than a third of them outside the United States, ASM is a sprawling, structurally complicated organization. It’s governed by the 88-member ASM Council, which is broken down across six boards — Education, International, Meetings, Membership, Public and Scientific Affairs, and Publications — plus the American Academy of Microbiology. Each board has its own committee structure. While ASM offers a number of in-person and online programs throughout the year — including smaller conferences like this month’s ASM Conference on Biofilms at the Hyatt Regency Chicago — its calendar has always been anchored by two main events: the General Meeting and the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC). (There’s also a third, smaller annual meeting: the ASM Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research Meeting.)
The General Meeting, which draws 7,000 to 8,000 attendees, is held every May, most recently this past spring in New Orleans. It serves as ASM’s “annual membership meeting,” Olean said during an interview at the organization’s headquarters office in Washington, D.C. “It’s got the science, it’s got educational sessions, it has exhibits, it has posters, and then it has all that ancillary business activity.” All of ASM’s member constituencies are there — except for the people who go to the 6,000-attendee ICAAC, held every September, including last month in San Diego. ICAAC covers “the infectious-disease aspect of microbiology,” Olean said, “so more physicians and a much more international presence than the General Meeting. [The General Meeting] does have a good amount of international attendance, but ICAAC is somewhere in the 50- to 60-percent range.”
In recent years, ICAAC has seen a drop in attendance and sponsor dollars, leading ASM in 2013 to convene a task force to study the problem. “It was a confluence of [ICAAC facing] competing meetings and a downturn in the anti-microbial segment of the pharmaceutical industry that together made attendance at ICAAC go down with time,” said David C. Hooper, M.D., chair of ASM’s Meetings Board and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Those were the realities of the world. And also, money for grants that might pay for attendees to come to the meeting was going down as the NIH budget went down. It became clear we had to step back and look at how we were configured and what was of value to our membership constituencies.”
At first the task force approached its work from the perspective of “what we could do about ICAAC and how could we make ICAAC better,” Olean said, but eventually its members concluded that “if we really want to have an annual meeting that encompasses the full spectrum of everything we do, it really should include the ICAAC component.” That also would carry “the obvious efficiencies of having one site and time to get together,” Hooper said, “so people with tight travel budgets could go to one meeting instead of two.”
The task force’s recommendation, presented at the 2014 General Meeting: co-locate the General Meeting and ICAAC under one umbrella. After some discussion and debate, ASM went for it — originally planning the new program for fall 2016, then moving it to late spring after some members with teaching responsibilities protested. The new event, called ASM Microbe 2016, will take place at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center (BCEC) on June 16–20.
Then the real work got underway — and not just in terms of canceling General Meeting and ICAAC programs that in some cases were booked through the end of the decade. It’s one thing to say you’re going to combine your two biggest meetings; it’s another to figure out how they’re going to fit together at a molecular, not to say microbiological, level.
One of the first things that Olean did when she started with ASM last October was to work with her 18-person meetings team on a general map of the ASM Microbe program “in terms of, this day is General Meeting, this day is ICAAC, here’s where they overlap, and here’s how many sessions each one gets.” In November, she assembled the chairs, vice chairs, and soon-to-be vice chairs of the General Meeting’s and ICAAC’s program committees — about 10 people in all. “What we did was spend the day in a room to figure out how the heck are we going to do this,” Olean said. “How are we going to make this work? What is this going to look like?”
The group ended up working out the new conference’s program tracks: Applied and Environmental Science, Clinical Science and Epidemiology, Ecological and Evolutionary Science, Host-Microbe Biology, Molecular Biology and Physiology, and Therapeutics and Prevention; a seventh track, Profession of Microbiology, was added later. Both the General Meeting and ICAAC will exist as their own sub-brands at ASM Microbe, but all of their programming will be slotted under those tracks. Poster sessions are an integral part of both conferences — the General Meeting alone has about 3,000 abstracts — and, crucially, the program-committee leaders agreed to have one poster hall for the two programs. “What we walked away from that meeting with,” Olean said, “was a program that from the attendee perspective was going to look pretty integrated.”
From there, the program committees went off to work on specific sessions, while ASM staff concentrated on the conference’s brand, coming up with a few possible names for the new program and putting them to members of the two committees for a vote. The winner: ASM Microbe.
In February, there was another big meeting, this time involving ASM’s board chairs and internal staff directors — “essentially our leadership team,” Olean said — to “look at all the ancillary events that happen around the General Meeting now and figure out how we are going to do this when we bring the two [conferences] together. How do we make sure we’re paying attention to this whole other audience that typically doesn’t experience the General Meeting?” Out of that meeting came the Profession of Microbiology track, which will offer programming on “things like career development, science writing, communication, federal funding.” It was at that gathering where ASM also killed some of the “sacred cows around business meetings” in the General Meeting program, according to Olean — special-interest sessions that had been plugged into the master schedule year in and year out without any review.
Because Profession of Microbiology is such an unknown quantity for ASM — non-scientific content that in some cases will be scheduled against scientific content — it now has its own program committee, alongside the General Meeting and ICAAC committees. To help wrangle them, a 13-member steering committee made up of the leaders of the three program committees and chaired by Hooper has final authority for the ASM Microbe program.
Over the summer, ASM brought all of the committees together at the Park Hyatt Washington for three days of meetings. The General Meeting and ICAAC committees met concurrently for the first day and a half, brainstorming session topics and reviewing speaker proposals, followed by a half-day meeting of the Profession of Microbiology committee. On the final day, the steering committee met “to basically take all of the sessions that had been scheduled by the three committees,” Olean said, “and map them out into an actual program.” There were some bumps along the way — the General Meeting and ICAAC committees work in very different ways, with ICAAC tending to “drill down to a very specific level” — but when the dust settled at the end of the third day, ASM Microbe had what Olean described as a “pretty solid” program.
“The last day of the meeting,” Hooper said, “there developed organically [between the General Meeting and ICAAC program committees] the idea that, hey, you guys have some interesting stuff; hey, you do, too; and strong interest in merging the process even more…. I’m extremely encouraged as to how the [committee] leadership has really engaged and bought into this process and the concept of the joint meeting, and are really eager to move forward and integrate the work of the two committees.”
THE LAST GENERAL MEETING
At the 2015 General Meeting, held at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on May 30–June 2, the work turned from making the case for a combined meeting to showcasing ASM Microbe 2016. There was a one-hour information session featuring the program committee chairs, “which like 10 people came to,” Olean said. “We figured that was a good sign, because we thought if people are really fired up about this and they’re really ticked off, they’re going to show up to let us know.”
In terms of signage, there were a few large banners for ASM Microbe hung throughout the General Meeting, and a marketing piece tipped to the front of the final program. On the show floor, a significant piece of ASM’s booth was devoted to Microbe, with fuzzy little microbe toys, microbe coloring sheets, and a photo stand where attendees could take their picture against a Boston backdrop while wearing a lobster or crab hat. The plan next year is to incorporate giant microbes into the conference’s wayfinding, and one of them was at the booth this year as a teaser. And during his State of the Society Address, ASM President Timothy J. Donohue, Ph.D., showed a marketing video about ASM Microbe and talked up the conference.
But overall, Olean and her team tried to be judicious. “It was a very fine balance,” Olean said, “between wanting to respect the fact that this was the General Meeting — it was kind of like, we never say it out loud, the last General Meeting — and then also trying to really expose people to the [ASM Microbe] brand and the dates and get people excited about it.” And in fact, “We didn’t hear a lot of negative feedback. We heard a lot of positive feedback, a lot of excitement.” Especially among exhibitors. ASM went into this year’s General Meeting with $1 million in sales for ASM Microbe 2016 and left at 84 percent of budget for exhibits next year.
ON THE ROAD TO BOSTON
How does ASM Microbe 2016 look right now? It will take up all of the BCEC, plus meeting space at the Seaport World Trade Center, the Westin Boston Waterfront, and the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel. ASM is planning on 10,000 to 12,000 attendees, with about 8,000 rooms on peak.
Last December, Olean and one of her assistant directors did a site visit to Boston. “That was primarily for me,” Olean said, “because I didn’t know the BCEC space. I had used Boston plenty — and I’m a Boston girl myself — but I didn’t know BCEC, and I needed to really see this space to be able to start to get my head around how it’s going to work.” In March, she returned with her whole team. Freeman, ASM’s general contractor, was there as well, and Olean met more closely with the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We did a lot more diving in and starting to think about where we were going to put things and where we were going to place things,” she said. “We had a much better sense of all the ancillary events at that point, too, because we had started to make some decisions about that.”
The plan is to do another site visit to Boston this fall. ASM’s priorities in the meantime? “Messaging this, messaging this, messaging this,” Hooper said, laughing. “Obviously, making sure we go, if anything, overboard to make people say, ‘Wow, this is a meeting I can’t miss!’ — both before the meeting and after the meeting. It would be naïve to think we’ll get everything perfectly right the first time around.”
Olean is prioritizing fleshing out the programming, especially for the new Profession of Microbiology track, and booking the keynote speaker. After the March site visit, Olean and her team underwent an experience-design process with the Maritz Experience Innovation Lab, centered on the organizing principle of “community.” It yielded “tons of ideas” about “enhancing the experience for our attendees,” and now they’re digging in with an eye on implementing them at ASM Microbe. And they’re thinking intently about how to connect attendees who are used to one meeting community or the other. “We want those trans-disciplinary connections to happen. That’s where the science is happening,” Olean said. “The whole foundation for bringing together the full spectrum of microbiology — we have to think about how we can make that happen. We can’t just assume it’s going to happen on its own.”
Meanwhile, registration goes live in the next month or two. “The thing that’s exciting to me is that we are building something that is so much more than one plus one,” Olean said. “It’s not just General Meeting plus ICAAC. It’s General Meeting on steroids and ICAAC on steroids. There is just going to be so much more value in the whole experience, because we’re thinking about it from that perspective — from the experience perspective.”