Association Pivots Again to Virtual Conference After Hurricane Ian

The Association for the Advancement of Blood and Biotherapies was forced to cancel its in-person event in Florida, but the pandemic has given it plenty of experience with changing plans.

This weekend, the Association for the Advancement of Blood and Biotherapies (AABB) will host a virtual conference it has long had on its schedule. Thanks to a hurricane, though, it will be a much different event than what was originally planned.

In late September, AABB was set to host its first in-person annual meeting since 2019 in Orlando, Florida. A week before the opening date, however, news reports about Hurricane Ian making landfall were looking ominous, and staff and board members were hustling to determine if the show could go on. “Coming off of two pandemic cancellations, no one wanted to cancel this meeting,” said AABB CEO Debra BenAvram, FASAE, CAE. 

Two prior event cancellations didn’t provide much of a guide for cancelling a third one.

With exhibitors and attendees planning to travel starting on Tuesday, conversations with staff and the board happened quickly. The AABB board’s executive committee convened on a call on Saturday, then assembled the full 19-member board on Monday evening, when they eventually made the decision to cancel the in-person event.

Two prior event cancellations didn’t provide much of a guide for cancelling a third one, BenAvram said. “During the pandemic, we had a lot more time to figure it out,” she said. “Because exhibitors were leaving [for the convention center], and I had staff or staff extenders already in Orlando, we really needed to make a decision fast.”

But past experience with virtual events did help AABB pivot. The November virtual conference had already been set up as a “best-of” event that would have featured recordings at the now-cancelled Orlando conference and other events. With the cancellation of the in-person conference, AABB staff coordinated a batch of new speaker recordings, and delicately determined who would or wouldn’t participate. “We worked with speakers to identify who was willing to say, ‘I’ll take a pass,’ because we didn’t have room for all the content,” BenAvram said.

Attendees who had already registered for the Orlando conference had their registrations moved to the virtual event. But BenAvram said she recognizes that for many the shift can be unsatisfying, especially after three years of not meeting in person. “People who are looking to attend in person are looking for a different experience,” she said. “While you can convert people to virtual, it’s not a replacement.”

After the virtual conference wraps up this weekend, AABB will turn its attention to its next annual conference, scheduled for October 2023 in Nashville. But BenAvram said she wants AABB to find ways to create more engagement opportunities before then, such as mini-conferences, gatherings with corporate partners, and leadership-development programs that can involve in-person events. What the association does will depend on staff resources, BenAvram said, but the need to do something is urgent.

“What we’re talking about now is, who are the members who are most at risk by not coming together three years in a row, and how do we engage them, Nashville or no Nashville?” she said. “We cannot wait till October 2023 to provide meaningful engagement opportunities.”

(DrAfter123/iStock/Getty Images)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!