E58 Karen Norris On Conferences

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Karen Norris  00:00

The conferences that we attended virtually speaking in 2020. They were planned. The conferences that we’re going to be attending in 2021, virtually speaking, are going to be designed.

Chad Ball  00:24

Welcome to the Cold Steel surgical podcast with your hosts Ameer Farooq and Chad Ball. We’ve had the absolute privilege of chatting with some amazing Canadian as well as international guests over the past year. While the topics have been broad in range, whether clinical, social, or political, our aims for the podcast continue to remain the same. We hope to inspire discussion, creativity, scholarly research, and career development in all Canadian surgeons. We hope you enjoy our second season as we continue to highlight some incredible guests, deliver detailed masterclass sessions on a myriad of clinical topics and introduce some fresh new features, such as debate and companion formats. We hope you relish the podcast as much as we do.

Ameer Farooq  01:25

We’re absolutely delighted to have Karen Norris join us on the podcast for this episode. Karen Norris is the Conference Manager at the Canadian Association of General Surgeons, or CAGS, and manages the Canadian Surgical Forum, the largest annual meeting for Canadian General Surgeons. In this episode, we get her thoughts about what the future holds for conferences in a COVID and post-COVID world, including how organizations can optimize their virtual conferences, and what hybrid conferences might look like.

Chad Ball  01:53

We have the absolute pleasure of chatting with Karen Norris today on on Cold Steel. And I can honestly say that we are extremely excited by what Karen has to say. And she’s one of the most dynamic personalities, the hardest working people. We know in terms of, you know, the impact on Canadian surgery. So Karen, welcome. Thank you for being with us. For those few listeners – and it’s probably very few who don’t know who you are already – can you tell us where you grew up? And how you ended up in your current career, in particular in Ottawa?

Karen Norris  02:26

Yeah. First off, thank you both for extending your audience to me to be able to talk about one of my passions, and more importantly, congratulations on the first season of Cold Steel under your belt. I’ve heard only good things about it. So congrats to you both. So, to start, I guess I was born in Montreal. And my father moved the family to Ottawa when I was five years old. And I’ve been here ever since. I graduated University, went to Queen’s University, and I graduated with a degree in Political Science and a Degree in Sociology. And right from there, I took the typical path that you would upon graduation. And I immediately started working. I worked at a crown corporation for seven years, and I absolutely detested it. I hated the work there. I hated my life. So I said, I got to make a difference. I got to change something up. And I went back to school and I actually did a degree in Event Management at Algonquin College here in Ottawa. And I sort of lived I guess, the resident lifestyle for a year. And that was all I could handle. So I don’t know how you guys do it for five. But I went to school with a full course load, I worked 40 hours a week at my crown Corporation job and studied and it was just “lather, rinse, repeat” for a year. So upon graduation, with that degree, I actually went immediately to work in the event industry, but specifically with weddings. So I was hired by the top wedding planning firm in Ottawa, and I saw some incredible stuff there. And I’ve gone on record saying this before and I’ll say it till my dying day. That experience was the best event experience I could have ever been given. There is no margin of error with weddings. There’s no “hey, we’ll try it differently next year”. There’s no safety net. So it was fantastic learning for me. And no surgeon or physician or medical conference can scare me now after some of the brides and some of the mothers of the brides that I’ve worked with. Um, from there, I actually moved into the association world. So I did weddings for three years. And then before I got too jaded, I moved into the association world in 2012. And I started working at the Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada. And I loved it. I was there for three years as A Conference Coordinator. So I helped plan their Canadian conference on medical education, which was about 1300 delegates. And then from there, I actually got a job As the conference manager at the coaching association of Canada, so I moved into sports. So I was there for just under two years. And I planned their annual conference which brought together 600 coaches, all the way from sort of the community level up to Olympic athlete level. So that was really inspiring for two years. It was incredible to be around those individuals and the high performing athletes. And then I took the job that I have currently now in 2016, in September. So I was hired by the Canadian Association of General Surgeons, and my current role here is the conference manager. So I currently oversee the Canadian Surgery Forum, which you both are familiar with. And it’s the largest surgical meeting in Canada, which brings together 1000 delegates, every year.

Ameer Farooq  05:53

It’s really amazing, all the different things that you’ve worked in, and I guess it shouldn’t be that surprising, you know, it clearly reflects in the way that you you do your work and in terms of that  expertise that you bring to CAGS and to CSF. So what has made you sort of really commit to the medical community and has allowed us to retain you in this field, when you clearly could have done so many other different things and have done so many other different things? Like where does that passion for the medical community come from?

Karen Norris  06:29

Yeah, that’s actually a great question. And I actually thought that “an event is an event is an event”. And I thought I could just sort of plan every event and plan it well and have that passion for it. And I noticed when I moved into the sports arena, and I was planning their conference, I didn’t have the same passion that I had for medicine when I was planning medical conferences, at AFMC. So that was a learning lesson for me. And that sort of brought me back to the medical world, where I am now. I think my passion – I’ve been asked this before, so I’ve actually had an opportunity to reflect on it, because it was hard for me to put into words, because it’s so innate, you know. My passion for doing this is so innate, it was hard to describe. But when I really had to sit down and think about it, because I kept being asked this, I think I got lucky in the sense that this role is perfect, because it’s a perfect marriage between two things that I that I know very well, and I’m familiar with. So a lot of this sort of pulls on my education and my training in sociology, and, you know, just the concept of gathering groups of individuals, and we’ve been doing this for, you know, for centuries, and how it contributes to the fabric of our society and our growth as human beings and the, you know, the effects that it can have on our health, mentally and physically, when we’re not together. So I understand it sort of from an academic standpoint. But I think personally, it’s something that I thrive in, and I enjoy so much, because I am an individual that is naturally drawn to other people. I think you guys both know me well enough to confirm that I’m an extrovert through and through, I feed off the energy of other people. And I really enjoy the magic that happens when you bring groups of people together, whether it be you know, socially speaking, or at an academic level, you know, which is why what I do professionally. Related to that, I’d say, one of the one of the best books I’ve ever read, and that really speaks to me about that is “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters”. And it’s by Priya Parker. And I would recommend it as a read to anybody because you don’t have to be doing that, professionally speaking to sort of understand the importance of it. And she really gets down to the nitty gritty about the the importance of human beings coming together and those lasting connections and making those meaningful connections wherever you are. So whether it be at work, or whether it be a dinner party with your friends. Why I’m drawn to medicine, that’s an easy, I think that’s an easy question now, because I’ve always said to people, if I ever start, you know, planning things that don’t make a difference or aren’t impactful, you know, shake me, slap me in the face, because I think if I can be a small part of the process of changing the world or changing the way somebody thinks or, you know, changing an individual for the better that can contribute to society in a positive way. That’s an incredible privilege for me, and it’s an honor to be a part of that process. So medicine, you know, as well as a lot of the other sciences, hard sciences is at the top of the list for me. So if I can be a part of that, whether we change the healthcare system or just even better a patient outcome, if I was a small part of that in some way, because I created the modality to bring you guys together to learn how to do that – that’s incredibly humbling and I can sleep well at night knowing I was a small part of that.

Ameer Farooq  10:22

For anyone who’s seen you running around at CSF, you know you’re probably not a small part of those those conferences for sure. We will get back to that whole concept of meaningful connection, because I think that’s a very important material topic for how things are going to change and maybe how virtual conferences or hybrid conferences are going to achieve that. But let me ask you as someone who has worked in conferences and event planning on many different fronts, like, can you give us a sense of how big this industry really is? I think we have a bit of a skewed perspective in that we see medical conferences, but how big is the event planning world? Like what is the scope of what we’re talking about?

Karen Norris  11:06

Thank you for asking that question. First of all, those that know me,  if there’s any listeners from the event world, or my world that are listening to this episode right now, one of our biggest pet peeves is we’re constantly talking to each other about our importance. And we’re preaching to the choir, what we need to do is we need to educate the lay person about how big our industry is, and the impact that we have on the economy and local communities when we’re there. So, Meetings Mean Business is sort of the advocacy arm of my industry. And I’ve done some work with them when they’ve asked me to, and there’s a phenomenal video, maybe I’ll send it to you guys after and you can post it in the show notes. But they have some great advocacy videos out there that really succinctly summarize our importance. And I think the statistics that I have in my head, I remember I think they’re from 2017. So I apologize if there’s anything more recent, but we’re enormous. I mean, I’m going to speak to Canadian stats, because that’s obviously my area of expertise. So just with our country alone, our industry, so the business events, community generates $33 billion through our spending related to just conferences and business events. In relation to jobs, like direct jobs for industry, it’s 229,000. And when you’re looking at Canada’s GDP as a whole, you’re looking at $19.3 billion dollars that we contribute to our country’s GDP. Now, if you look at that, globally, because we do have a day that’s dedicated to our industry, as a globe coming together. It happens every April. We actually have an impact of $1.5 trillion on the global GDP. So that’s trillion, with a T! So if you break that down, and you make our industry, the business events, community, a country, globally speaking, we would be the 13th largest economy. So that makes us bigger than Australia and Spain and Saudi Arabia. And, you know, sometimes we have to sort of dumb it down, you know, or chunk it out like that, to have the lay person actually understand our importance. And there’s been a lot of research that’s been done, and we’re getting the word out there. But I know a lot of people just sort of come and go to conferences, sort of as they please, or weddings, or music festivals, whatever. And they don’t really actually realize how important we are to the communities, financially speaking, especially for job creation, and whatnot. And COVID has definitely highlighted our importance in a way that we wish it hadn’t. But I’m glad people are starting to understand now.

Chad Ball  14:03

Karen, that’s a perfect segue. You know, the footprint that you’ve described economically, socially, personally, is unmatched by almost anything else. I think that crosses disciplines. And it’s fascinating to hear that. As you also pointed out, the last calendar year of 2020, you know, has impacted everything in our lives, I think probably forever. Can you tell us and the listeners, give us a sense of how COVID-19 has impacted your industry in general and then maybe break that into the medical conference world? And maybe in particular, if you’re willing, how it’s impacted CAGS and the CSF specifically?

Karen Norris  14:43

Yeah. This year, yeah. This year has been tough. I don’t think there’s a better word to sort of describe what’s happened to us than catastrophic. Our industry was hit the first when COVID came, we were hit the hardest. And we’re going to, unfortunately be the last one to return. So personally speaking, I mean, it’s been hard for me, because I’ve watched, you know, an industry that I’ve invested so much time and energy in, that I thought was so powerful, you know, just based on the statistics that I told you, I mean, we were equivalent to some, you know, world economies. And I watched the same industry shatter like glass in seven days. So, experiencing our fragility, if you will, has been a very sobering experience for me. We’re working as hard as we can, you know, to sort of get help, get government officials, get funding to support us. But I am concerned for sure about our industry, and I’m concerned about how it’s going to affect events face to face when we do come back. Because there’s going to be a lot of talent that’s going to be lost, people have already gone ahead and found jobs outside the industry, because I mean, you can’t go without a job for eight months, even if you are on CERB. I’m worried about hotels and conference centers that may not open again, or if they do open, they’re going to be sort of at half staff. So I am concerned when face to face events return how we’re going to be able to keep up with that demand if there is sort of a resurgence, or “revenge attendance” as people are calling it. So in regards to how it’s impacted medical conferences, the good news is it hasn’t. I don’t want to say it hasn’t affected medical conferences. But I would say COVID, in the lack of face to face interaction and moving sort of virtually has affected medical conferences a bit less than it has some of the other industries, more specifically, creative industries, like my own. So, for example, medicine, as you guys know, is very didactic. It’s very, you guys are used to talking heads, you guys are used to lecture formats, you’re not necessarily used to doing that online for eight hours, but you are used to that format. Now 2020, the virtual conferences that you’ve attended, have done exactly that. I mean, they haven’t necessarily been great, but the information in the research has been disseminated, you know, period. It’s lacking in a lot, (and I’m sure we’ll get into this later in this episode, but you know, it’s lacking in networking and audience engagement and all that. And medical conferences, that’s a huge part of medical conferences as well. It’s the number one reason why people go to conferences. So in that sense, we’re still able to sort of push out education and push out research, the way that we did before, it’s just done at a very crude and rudimentary level at this point. The one thing I think, and I’m trying to sort of be positive about this, but the one thing that I have sort of seen with, you know, this pivot to virtual for medical conferences, specifically, which I’m proud about, and I’d like to be a part of that in the future, is the democratization of the access to science. There’s been a lot of medical conferences that have been offered virtually this year, that has had a very lower price point than if you could attend in person or maybe they’ve even offered it for free. And that’s been sort of a change, I feel for the science or the medical world, specifically. I feel that, you know, we’ve locked down information and we’ve kept it to ourselves, very much so. And, I mean, conference content by its very nature is ephemeral. So by making it sort of virtual and allowing access to it to everybody at a lower price point, or no price point at all, having it available long after the live event virtually happens, I think is actually going to be a great thing for medicine. And it could make a difference on clinical trials, on research, the more people that have access to this information in research and can be involved. So CAGS and CSF, we’ve definitely been affected by COVID. We canceled the Canadian Surgery Forum in April, and there was no appetite to move to virtual this September when we were supposed to execute the conference in Vancouver. So thankfully, I mean, that’s allowed me some time to definitely learn how to do it properly if we have to do that again in 2021. But from an academic and education standpoint, CAGS has continued to push out information for our members because we are well aware of the enormous loss that the CSF brings to our members. And we may not be able to provide that networking opportunity for you that the CSF does, especially with industry partnerships and your colleagues. But we can still continue to push out information for you related to COVID or not. So we’ve been offering one to two webinars a month, since April, and I think we’re going to continue to do that long after we have a vaccine.

Chad Ball  20:25

You know, I love that you’ve talked about access to information, I guess, in this context, CME type lectures or webinars or talks. And, as you know, that was one of our goals and passions with Trauma Conference International that we ran for three years. You can find that, it’s: www.traumacon.org. And, you know, world class lectures, and we tried to use a bit of a different financial model, which was to, to charge individuals, more commonly centers in North America, a small fee, and then use that to pay for translation fees, and the tech to then distribute all of that content over two days through Central and South America. And I’ll tell you, by the third year, we had close to 10,000, folks online real time watching it. And you would get these testimonials from groups all through Central and South America where they were in tears, because as you point out, they were so happy to have access to content that historically, they’d never be able to fly up to, you know, New York or Miami or wherever else. And I agree with you entirely. Like, I think that’s the future. So how do conferences, traditional groups like CAGS, for example, how do you think they can deliver that content? Maybe that’s  potentially more available to folks beyond their paying membership in Canada, for example?

Karen Norris  21:59

So the way that I mean, we haven’t talked about it, as of yet. But you’re absolutely right, there are groups out there that you know, have already done it, and I commend you and your team for doing that, because I am aware of that conference, and I know that has always been part of the mandate of trauma con. You know, was to make the information more accessible, and make the conference more inclusive. And I think COVID has just accelerated a lot of conferences to do that. I think it was the wake up call that we needed. I think we need to be more inclusive, with education, especially when it comes to the academic sciences that, you know, whether it be engineering, or whether it be medicine, that’s important. So I think CAGS’ future, you know, or the CSF, the future is going to be that of a, I mean, I’m hoping, that of a hybrid model. And I’m hoping that is going to sort of, start the concept that I think a lot of planners and a lot of conferences, you know, academic or not are going to start to embrace. And we’ve got to start recognizing that, you know, education should not, I mean, we all know that pandemics highlight the social inequalities of our society, and it definitely does so,  academically speaking, and for conferences as well. There’s no reason why we should be holding this information so tightly to our chest, and not make it available to those that otherwise cannot come to a conference, whether it be limitations because of childcare, limitations because of transit, you know, transportation, whether it be limitations for cost. We need to find a way to make it available to everybody that should have access to this. And it’s not just those that are going to be receiving the information that’s going to be better off for it. We’re going to be better off for it as well. Anyone that’s involved in the research that’s being presented, the concepts that are being put out there, I know you’ve spoken about this on your podcast, and I strongly believe that as well. You know, the more diverse groups of people that are included in discussions, especially, you know, in research in science, the better we’re going to be. And the faster we’re going to come to results and solid results. So I think that’s our future.

Chad Ball  24:26

Yeah, I think we both agree with you entirely. That’s beautifully stated. You know, over the past few months, Ameer and myself, like a lot of us, have attended some interesting virtual conferences, surgical and medical in general. Some of them have been really tremendous experiences. Others far less so. So I was wondering what you in particular and most importantly, but also your industry – what do you think of these changes? And where do you see some of the more innovative solutions and things that might be coming down the pipeline in the future?

Karen Norris  25:03

I’m with you, I’ve definitely sat on some fantastic ones. And I’ve sat on some terrible ones as well. I guess I want to clarify something which I think could bring some happiness or some positivity, you know, to your listeners that may have to sit on virtual conferences for another year. The conferences that we attended, virtually speaking in 2020, they were planned, the conferences that we’re going to be attending in 2021, virtually speaking, are going to be designed. So there’s a huge difference between those two words in the sense that when COVID hit, and when it hit in March, the conferences that were already planned for the 2020 year, or the conferences that were already scheduled to happen, were planned to be face to face. So that’s how they were designed. And it’s all they’ve known. So when they pivoted to virtual, you know, I mean, I don’t blame them, it’s not their fault. They didn’t know what they were doing. Right. None of us have been educated to put together a conference of our size, virtually, with all the components that you’re supposed to be able to get face to face. So they were drinking from a firehose, as quickly as they could. They couldn’t turn to anybody for assistance, because no one has been through this before. And the AV platforms that are there, yes, I mean, there are hybrid, you know, conferences that have been going on for  years. Hybrid isn’t new. But the demands that we are placing on these AV companies in these virtual platforms that we need, it’s unprecedented. And they simply weren’t ready for the demand when we came at them. And we also didn’t know what we wanted. So 2021 is going to see conferences being planned, virtually, well not planed, designed, right from the get go for a virtual audience. So it’s going to be – the content is going to be curated specifically for virtual audience needs, including the length of time, the networking is going to be specifically for your virtual needs. It’s going to be different, it’s going to be better. So I hope that brings people some hope. The technology has been advancing. I mean, we’ve advanced in virtual platform technology more in, you know, these eight months, than we have in the last eight years, and it’s just going to keep getting better come 2021. So some of the things. I mean, in general, the things that I’ve seen thus far, the best sort of virtual events that I’ve been a part of have been very mindful in their design, and aware that sort of everybody is virtual, so they tend to be very, very much inclusive and very, they want to involve their audience as much as possible. The ones that have done a very good job have also had a heavy lean towards a production feel. So, you know, think about if you’re watching TSN, when you’ve got an anchor desk, and you’ve got, you know, James Duffy like he’s the thread that sort of brings all the panelists together, and that kind of stuff I’m starting to see now and I truly believe that if you’re going to be planning an event, a virtual event, it’s got to be done from a production level. You’ve got to start thinking like a TV producer, and not just trying to take your face to face conference and make it virtual. So I’ve seen anchor desks, I’ve seen soundstages where keynote speakers are actually, you know, on a soundstage at an AV office in one of the major Canadian cities. I’ve seen, I was a part of one conference where the speaker actually put up two topics. So he or she was well versed in both of them. And the audience got to choose live, what topic they wanted. And whatever topic won was the one that the speaker went full steam ahead with in the moment. So that was pretty cool. A little bit of an unconference design there. I’ve seen an empty chair format. So the last panel of the day, there’s somebody from the virtual audience that’s actually brought on board to be a part of the panel based on a phenomenal question that they answer. So involving the virtual audience that way. There’s a lot. And I mean, what’s coming is going to be even more exciting. What if you’re talking about holograms, and you’re talking about augmented reality, which I’ve also been a part of, which has been very exciting, and I think it’s definitely the future.

Ameer Farooq  29:31

I want to get your thoughts about what you think a hybrid meeting will look like. Let’s say, you know, assuming that we go back to normal sometime in the near future, do you do you think there’s going to be a hybrid type format where there’s some people live and some people virtual, and have you seen any good examples of where that potentially has been done?

Karen Norris  29:58

Yeah, so I guess as a disclaimer for my own, you know, credibility is, I don’t have a crystal ball, I can’t necessarily predict what conferences are going to look like. But based on industry reports that have been coming out from, you know, from my industry, I think we’re looking at statistics like 80 to 90% of planners are committing, you know, to a hybrid format for their conferences for the future. So I think it is safe to say that, you know, hybrid is the future, whether we want it or not. And for those listeners that don’t understand sort of what a hybrid model is, just very quickly: it’s basically one event, and you’ve got two audiences, right. So you’ve got an audience that is there live on site at the event, and you’ve got another one that’s attending virtually, from anywhere, probably from all over the world. So the statistics that are coming out of my industry, I can give some numbers here. That’s been based on some research that’s been done. So hybrid is going to return in 2020. Or I should say, hybrid, we’re going to experience hybrid for the first time in 2021. And they’re expecting that to happen around Q2, Q3. Now, again, I’m speaking for Canada only, I can’t speak to the other countries. Some are full steam ahead, some are completely still shut down. But in Canada, we’re going to start to see the first hybrid events emerge in Q2 and Q3 of 2021. Now, these are going to look weird, for lack of a better term, it’s going to be very different than the conferences that you’re used to if you feel comfortable enough attending these in person. So these hybrid, I mean, this is all based on, you know, the news with the vaccine. You know, the population will not be vaccinated by Q2, Q3, of 2021. So all COVID measures will still be in place at these events, should you choose to go to them. So it’s going to be a very small number of people who are face to face, and the large part of the participants will be online. So you’re going to see everything from oh my God, contract tracing with your badges, long queues, socially distanced set up rooms, so everyone’s going to be six feet apart. You’re going to have limits in all of the ballrooms, there’s going to be no food that’s served buffet style, if you’re served at all. It’ll be plated, there’s going to be no networking, there’s going to be masks everywhere, if rapid COVID tests have been developed, those will be on site. Your temperature may be taken before you go into the room. There may be immunity passports that you may have to show if the vaccine has already started rolling out. Or you may have to show  negative COVID test in the last 24 hours. It’s going to be weird, it’s going to be different. So that’s what we’re going to see first and we’re going to see it happening on smaller levels. So you’re going to see it happening first, regionally, and then you’re probably going to see it more like you know, provincially, like in sections, maybe the western area, or the western chapters may meet, you know, for example, and then you’re going to see it rolled out nationally. And I mean, based on studies that, again, have been coming out from my industry, the major reason why people don’t want to gather face to face right now is because it’s a major concern for their safety. And even if they feel like they are being careful and cautious, they can’t trust the person next to them in the ballroom. So that’s the reason why people are afraid to gather. Now if you limit the points of transmission, or where they could sort of contract the virus, then there’s even more likelihood that they’re going to gather. So that’s why nationally or even, you know, provincially speaking, those events will come back last. Because you’re obviously going to need to get to an airport, you’re going to need to get on a plane and all those expose you and your risk is heightened. But if there’s, you know, for example, if one of the events that I’m a part of here in Ottawa. If we have an Ottawa chapter, and we’re gathering, I’m comfortable going there, if COVID measures are in place, I will take that risk. So that’s how you’re going to see events come back. The way that we recognize events and conferences, and, you know, the CSF specifically, that’s not coming back until at the earliest, according to reports, Q3 of 2022. So that’ll be when we’re back sort of to “normal” without any COVID measures in place. So, again, you know, I spoke about it earlier, but there definitely are some positives with the hybrid model, and it’s one that I definitely want to adopt and I do hope, you know, leadership at CAGS and leadership CSF do embrace that. But there’s a lot of pros. And I took me a while to embrace it, I’ll be honest with you, it took me a while, but I’m on board. And I’m excited. When you eliminate sort of, you know, the need for time and space, your options are really limitless. So when we’re not confined to a ballroom that 60 people can fit into, or you’re not confined to like three days, we have to shove all the information into three days, because people flew here, and they have to get home, you have a lot of options to offer a lot of education in different ways for different periods of time. So I’m excited with what hybrid can sort of bring us. And we are continually evolving and working on how we can incorporate those elements of face to face events that we do so well, virtually, because we know that’s where we’re lacking right now. We are aware of that. And we’re working on it. And I don’t know if it can ever be replicated, but it’s coming.

Ameer Farooq  36:00

Yeah, I mean, that’s what I was gonna ask you about next. Because, you know, frankly, it sounds like kind of a frigid experience to envision a conference in 2021, where you’re sitting six feet apart, you can’t congregate, you can’t sit and eat lunch with someone like, it almost seems like well, why would I go in person? Unless I was there, or I really wanted to meet a certain person, like you almost have to ask yourself 10 times why would I go to a conference in person? If if I’m not going to have that opportunity to network? And I think that’s something that you’ve always talked about. So you mentioned a few things where conferences are trying to involve members of the audience. But do you see any other ways that conferences are going to be able to get that networking? Because that really is the only thing I think that you can deliver over a couple of days, like it’s the networking part of it that really is missing from a lot of people’s lives and conferences. So any thoughts about how people are going to address that? Down the road?

Karen Norris  37:08

Yeah. Great question. And I know that that’s one that we’re struggling with right now. And I mean, I echo all your comments, for sure. I mean, when I go to conferences for my industry, that’s the reason why I’m going there  first and foremost. To connect with everybody sort of, you know, nationally at this one event. And that’s the main reason why people go to the CSF to be quite frank, it’s the main reason why people go to conferences in general. I think the number is something like 75 to 80% of people are there to network first and foremost, and education is secondary. So I’m not going to sit here and tell you that we’re going to be able to replicate it, or it’s been replicated the same way that you will get in face to face. It’s not. They’re doing the best that they can, but it’s not the same, and I’m just as disappointed as you. And we’re working as hard as we can to sort of, you know, close that gap. I think, again, though, I’m trying to sort of be positive. And I think there some positives that we can look at, in regards to the networking that has been available for the virtual conferences that I’ve either been a part of, or that I’ve read about. And one thing that conferences don’t do very well is we don’t design. We don’t design our conferences for introverts. And I mean, conferences are essentially, you know, hundreds of people or 1000s of people in one area, and you throw them all in a ballroom and you say, you know, have fun, and you have to put a mic at the back of the room, and oh, you have a question, you know, ask your question in the mic with 700 people staring at you. To an introvert, that’s pretty intimidating, right? And the social networking is the exact same way. You walk into a room and you’ve got 500 people looking at you, and you’ve got to go up to a group of people you don’t know, and introduce yourself. So the one thing that I actually have seen that I’m proud to say is, I’ve seen a lot of targeted networking happening at these virtual events. It definitely is going to be great for introverts, but I mean, to be quite honest, I think it could be beneficial for the extroverts as well, or anybody that just really wants to connect with somebody that’s like minded, or share similar research topics or whatever the case may be. Because our time is precious, and it’s very limited right now. So if you can guarantee me that I can connect, you know, with somebody that I’m going to have positive outcomes with, like, we’re going to share research, we’re going to have commonalities in our working environment, and I can better myself in my job because of this connection. That’s absolutely worth it and you don’t necessarily get that face to face because you’re sort of running into whoever you’re running into, or you sit next to somebody for lunch, and you don’t actually know who they are. So what I’ve seen with some conferences is, you know, you’re in an area, everybody has profile pics, or avatars, if you will. So you can physically see them and where they’re seated or where they’re hanging out, just like in real life. So that’s great. But what they’ve also added is for networking opportunities – some tables, or they have topics posted above the table. So you actually know what’s going on in that room, or what’s going on at that table, what they’re actually discussing, what’s important to them at that time. I’ve also seen, you can hover over that individual who’s at that table and you know, their bio will pop up, or a little bit about their profile. So you can actually see where they are, you know? What their interests are, in my case, what kind of conferences do they work on. I’d rather connect with medical planners than non-medical planners, in your guy’s case, you may be particularly interested in the research areas that they’re interested in. So that’s what I’m talking about in regards to sort of strategic networking, because at least you know, if you plop your avatar down at that table, it’s probably going to be a pretty productive discussion that you guys are going to have, because that topic, you know already what you’re talking about. And you know that the person that you sat yourself, right beside, is actually interested in the same topics that you are. There was another scientific conference that I actually read about that. They match two people. They used an algorithm, I think it was a mathematical conference. And they used an algorithm on the back end to match individuals or delegates solely on three abstracts that they submitted, that were like representative of the research or the research area that they’re most passionate about. So they submitted three in advance. And the algorithm was actually able to find them six colleagues or six other participants at this conference that they can connect with for 15 minute conversations. And that too, was set up in the virtual environment, like the matchmaking and the scheduling assistant, that was actually also available via the conference. So I mean, socially speaking, that’s sort of targeted networking, if you really want specific outcomes. If you just want that networking sort of feel, I mean, I was just at an award show, virtually this Wednesday, I want to say I think, and it was great! They had a live feed coming from a separate URL, we all had our profile pics at tables. And we all were able to move tables whenever we wanted. And we were all able to again, see in advance who was at that table. There was no bios or profiles that came up. But we still have the opportunity to to see where our colleagues were. And what was really cool about this app. You could actually hear the conversation at the table next to you. So exactly as if you were in a ballroom. So you could actually hear if they were talking about something that you were maybe interested in, you could sort of mosey over there. And when the actual awards presentation happened, like I said it was in a different URL. So you opened up that browser, but you actually stayed with the people at your table. So all of us were sitting together, you know, for lack of a better term sitting together at the table, watching the awards presentation, like we would have if we were there in real life. So we were able to clap together and do our virtual cheers together and that kind of thing. But what I found really interesting about it was, there was almost this expectation that you’re not supposed to stay at the table that you’re at, you’re absolutely supposed to pop in and out. So people would sort of give an update about what they’re doing. And then they would just say, okay, you know, I’m going to walk over here, I’m going to go visit other people at another table. We’ll see you guys soon. No one was offended. You know, nobody thought that was rude. Nobody also thought it was rude if somebody popped into your table for two seconds, saw who was there and decided they didn’t want to stay and left. So there was no judgment, there was no expectations. It was different. Because that doesn’t happen in person. I feel very stuck with sort of who I’m sitting with at my table, you know. So I think that may change in the virtual world. There’s that expectation that you should meet as many people as you want.

Chad Ball  44:27

That’s so interesting. And it’s so exciting. You know, your initial descriptor off the top of COVID-19 – and so much that’s come with it as catastrophic is certainly accurate. But, you know, there’s also some really neat things that are happening in your world, in the clinical world, in our world in general. And that’s really exciting to hear about. Karen, one of the things that’s been very interesting and enlightening for me personally, you know, being lucky enough to sit on many committees and execs on a whole bunch of different scientific and surgical organizations is the financial side. And by that, I mean, if you had honestly asked me, even two years ago, if some of these societies would have been financially decimated by not having their individual conference annual meeting, within a year or two, I would have sort of thought that would have been impossible. But that’s certainly the case for many societies and not the case for others. So I was curious, in general, outside of, you know, the industry and the job creation side of it, what your impression of this COVID-19 impact on the financials of medical and surgical organizations and the conference side of things from a revenue generation standpoint, would be?

Karen Norris  45:54

Yeah, that’s a great question. This has been a real sort of awakening for a lot of associations, a lot of medical associations. Generally speaking your annual event and associations annual conference, annual general meeting, congress, whatever you want to call it, is usually the second highest generating revenue line item, in the associations budget. It usually falls right after membership. So before COVID hit, if you’re an association, that hasn’t really diversified your revenue sources, and you rely solely on membership, and the conference, you’re in trouble. And 2020 has been a real eye opening year for you as a result. Hopefully, you know, it won’t be catastrophic in the sense that, you know, the entire chapter or Association dissolves. I don’t think any of them sort of rely on it, you know, that much. But it’s definitely taught us to expand, you know, the revenue sources. I think it’s also the difference, sort of, you know, modalities that we’re now using to sort of offer, you know. Education has also shown us different ways to generate revenue outside of the conference. It’s also strengthened, at least, you know, I can speak for CAGS and the CSF, some industry partnerships that we otherwise wouldn’t have had throughout the year. And that’s the problem with conferences is you focus on three days or a week, or however long your conference actually is. That’s the only time that you’re presenting this education, that you’re interacting with people, you know, that you’re providing those networking opportunities, when really, it should actually be all year. And I think COVID has sort of, you know, forced a lot of associations, whether they want to or not, to pivot to that new business model, to actually provide those networking opportunities to provide that education throughout the year, not only for your members, but also from a financial standpoint as well. And I think, you know, I’ll give sort of like a word of caution, you know, to people attending conferences, or working on program committees or at executive levels. If you’re returning to a conference after COVID that hasn’t, you know, innovated or hasn’t changed, or the association, you know, business model as a whole hasn’t changed, hasn’t learned from the lessons that COVID has taught us, you may want to invest your dollars elsewhere. You may want to find an association that can adapt to change, can learn from mistakes, can grow, can be better, can be stronger. Yeah. And I would say that for sponsors as well, you know, if any sponsors are listening, if you return to a conference or an association that’s still doing the same thing, after COVID is done, they’re probably not a partner you want to work with long term because they’re probably not really strategic or creative, or innovative. So you need to use crises like this to grow and to change, and we definitely have and will continue to do so.

Ameer Farooq  49:17

You know, we talked a lot about the uncertainty surrounding all of this. What do you think is the most challenging thing about preparing and predicting the future of this work in the current context?

Karen Norris  49:31

You know, this is sort of like a cop out answer. But honestly, the most challenging thing, you know, that I’m facing right now that I have been facing since COVID hit is just so many unknowns. And I think the thing that’s most difficult for me, I can speak for myself, but a lot of other individuals who are in positions like myself, we’re the same person. We are, you know, a group of individuals that by their very nature, they plan everything. You know, we’re trained to anticipate things in advance, we’re very risk adverse by nature, because there’s so many moving parts, and there’s so many people dependent on us. And we’re control freaks, we need to have control all the time. So 2020 has left us, you know, feeling very alone, very sort of untethered. I mean, I’ve been drinking as my other planner friends, been drinking from a firehose with regards to the information that’s been out there. I have been, you know, reading articles on webinars more in the last eight months than I have in my entire life. And things are changing as well, you know, like, week by week. What’s promising, I am talking about a lot of unknowns, but what is promising is the news of the vaccine. And hopefully, it will be positive in a rollout and we can meet, you know, face to face soon. So at the very least, my industry has sort of a targeted date to return or at least a light at the end of the tunnel. When this first happened, there was talk about years of maybe never meeting. So, there’s a lot of questions that are also being thrown around my industry as well, just saying, you know, what if this bubble is just going to burst? This virtual bubble. Like, what if, what if it’s only existing, because right now, because people are home, and they’re in front of their computers, and their quarantining, and they can’t go anywhere, you know, is there still going to be that same demand for education, you know, and conferences, sort of on a virtual scale, once that’s all lifted, and once we can sort of run free again? And I spoke to this earlier, too, and this is a concern, like, as mentioned, our industry, you know, has been decimated, and we’ve lost a lot of talent. The new grads that have been trained with this specific skill set to, you know, plan and develop and execute massive, massive gatherings. They haven’t been working for the last year or two, right. So they’re losing all the education that they learn, because they can’t sort of act on it right away. So if we’re losing key, senior players in the industry, because they have to find work elsewhere, and we’ve got years of, you know, we’ve got newcomers coming in who actually haven’t been working, is there going to be a service gap? You know, when people return to events, when people return to face to face events, as I mentioned earlier, are we going to have the hotels that are going to be there. Is the convention center going to be there? Is the staff going to be there. I mean, just the speed at which technology is developing, it’s almost impossible to keep up. And the last time that I checked, there was 94 virtual platforms that were available to offer a virtual conference. I mean, a planner can’t go through that amount of platforms to see which one fits best for the needs of their audience and of their association. So that’s sort of the challenges that I’m faced with right now is, my program committee members, my steering committee members, my delegates are looking to me for answers. They’re looking to me for timelines, they’re looking to me for solutions. And I should be in a position of, you know, power and experience whereby I can tell them, this is what’s going to happen, this is what I’m going to do. This is how things are going to get better. And that’s normally what I do in a non pandemic situation. I can reassure them, because I’m confident, you know. But it’s the unknowns for somebody that plans and needs complete control. That’s been my biggest challenge. People are looking to me for answers. And I can’t give them any solid answers right now. And it’s definitely frustrating from a personal level.

Ameer Farooq  54:05

What are some of the things that you see for CAGS, specifically in CSF, in the next year or two in terms of where we’re going to go with conferences, and maybe beyond as an organization, if you had to summarize? And do you think the future is still bright for conferences?

Karen Norris  54:24

I absolutely do. I think I’ve heard this word thrown around a lot, and I 100% believe in it. I think we’re going through a renaissance right now. And I think we’re going to only see the products that are going to come out of this are going to be even better. You know, then we could have imagined before. Like I mentioned before, this was something that had to happen. It’s just COVID sort of accelerated, you know, our awareness that another business model is needed. So, I mean, I personally am. I’m excited about the future. As mentioned, it took me a while to get there, I was definitely grieving the loss of the CSF, I was, you know, grieving the loss of my industry as a whole and everyone that was out of work and continues to be out of work. That’s hard. You know, it’s hard to push through professionally, when you’re getting a call every week from a colleague that has lost their job. And they have a mortgage to pay, and they have mouths to feed. You know, and they’re asking you to write a recommendation on LinkedIn for them. So it’s been difficult to focus sort of, you know, it was at the time back then. But we now have a lot more education that’s out there, we have virtual events that have already happened. So we have lessons learned from there, we have hybrid events that are actually currently taking place. Not like America should be a model for us right now. And in regards to face to face, you know, events and the safety around it. But there are a lot of conferences that are gathering in the States, and they’re doing the hybrid model. I was a part of one in Texas, where there was 700 people on site there. And I think there was like 2000 of us online. So it’s happening. And as these events continue to happen, and continue to progress, we are getting stronger with the information that we garner from their failures or their successes. And, you know, I think that’s the future of the the CSF and colleagues as well, is I think we learned…CAGS needs to offer more benefits to their members, just aside from the CSF. CSF has always been rated as the number one member asset to CAGS members. That’s come across in our membership survey, we know that. But is it because that’s the biggest and best thing we offer? Maybe we could offer other things. And I think that’s sort what this pandemic has taught us – we’ve been very blessed that our members have not left us during this pandemic. With the absence of the CSF, our numbers really haven’t dipped that much. So we’ve been lucky. Other associations, maybe not so much. So it’s the wake up call that we all needed, that we can’t just put all our eggs in one basket and have one annual event and have our members be satisfied with that. So I’m personally excited for the future, I know education is going to be a huge arm for CAGS. We’re going to continue to have a wider, broader reach. I honestly envision satellite courses that we’re going to offer across Canada, it could be a hub and spoke model, you know, where one hospital is sort of teaching and you know, we disseminate that information, you know, nationally to satellites, listening. The webinars will continue to roll out. There will probably be higher level education and engagement as well. And I definitely want to see, again, as I mentioned, more access to science to sort of, you know, to better our association and better the surgical community, and Canada as a whole. And one guy that I actually found on Twitter, and I’ll plug him right now. His name is Mike Morrison. And he’s absolutely fantastic. And he posts so much information about how to actually make your scientific posters more impactful. And that’s exactly what people need to know right now with the virtual platforms that we’re using. So he’s got some great tips and some great YouTube videos. And I think that would be great for our members to learn so that information can have a wider reach. So I’m excited. The future is bright.

Ameer Farooq  58:42

You’ve been listening to Cold Steel, the official podcast of the Canadian Journal of Surgery. If you’ve liked what you’ve been listening to, please leave us a review on iTunes. We’d love to hear your comments and feedback. So feel free to email us at podcast.cjs@gmail.com or connect with us on Twitter @CanJSurg. Thanks again.