Karen Groppe, the Senior Director of Strategic Communication at HIMSS, joins the show this week for a great episode of Meeting Minds! Can you imagine planning an event for the President of the United States? And, even crazier, you imagine cancelling it? This week, Karen tells us what it felt like to coordinate an event the President planned to attend!

We sit down to discuss this topic, as well as the value of integrated teamwork and communication when planning a large-scale event. Make sure you listen to this episode!

For those listeners, I know you’ve told me a couple of times, bring them up to speed on who you are, and how you got to be the Senior Director of Strategic Communication at HIMSS. 

So I’m Karen Groppe, I am based in right outside of Washington, DC, born and raised in the area, had been with HIMSS for I believe, seven years, started my time with him as a contractor and now a full-time employee.HIMSS is an organization that’s known throughout the industry, and the world, basically, primarily with our event, which is our global conference, which is exciting. But I like to tell people our global conference, it’s just the punctuation to what we do year round. What HIMSS is, is that we are an organization of about 110,000 members globally, that supports the transformation of health through Information and Technology. What that really means we work with CIOs in hospital systems, emerging technologies in the health sphere. So we are a group that deals with t health technology.  

What what’s your first thoughts on helping our audience in their daily roles of communication with teams?

Well the pandemic taught us a lot of things, the pandemic forced a lot of issues to the front that we all had to deal with. And I think on the hinge side of things, one of the things that we were forced to come to terms with at the onset of the pandemic, when we cancelled our conference, was that we all need to work together. So our sales team, our exhibit team, our meetings team, and myself, and the marketing team, came together very closely very quickly to talk about messaging. And we did a lot of listening to what their challenges were. 

How did your team have to shift some of your perspectives and maybe communication processes?

Yeah, well, like you last January and February in 2020. We were all it was all hunky dory over with us at HIMSS. We were getting ready to set record set attendance in Orlando.We also had the sitting president coming to speak at our conference, which was a first and it was something – take the politics out of it. The fact that a sitting president wanted to come speak live at your conference is a big deal for any conference program. It’s just a big deal. So we’re excited about that. And then on February 14, of 2020, we posted our first news item of we are monitoring the COVID-19 situation that was February 14 2020. And we’re like, oh, it’s not gonna be a big deal. You know, we’ll handle it. No handshaking. That was the other one. And then it just as we all know, it gates just opened. We were the first conference to cancel we canceled a week before the pandemic was declared. So we really had to look to one another to get ourselves through it. And hard times, the best way to get through a hard time is communicate. We over communicated with each other. So we had daily meetings that we’re talking about, we went through each issue, it was it was a real coming time together for all of us. 

Yeah, definitely. Because you’re not only communicating internally, but I think of it as all the different audiences you’re communicating with. Because you mentioned you mentioned that the sitting president was coming. So you not only have to communicate with the media and the White House, but you had to communicate with your attendees. And then sponsors are a different group. And then you have all the don’t you typically have like 14,000 or 1400 on your exhibit floor.

So it was a lot of different audiences. And we had to figure out very quickly who we needed to communicate with first, and what we needed to say to them, you know, and the other audience too. And I think from an industry wide meeting side, in the city of Orlando that we needed to have conversations with too, because we were now telling their city and their residents. The pandemic is here, it’s coming. And this is going to impact your livelihood, you know, Orlando, that’s a hospitality town. So we took a lot of time with that as well. It was multiple audiences. But that one single source of truth helped us get through all of the audiences pretty well. 

What was the hardest piece or or the biggest piece you had to pinpoint in those communications as something that you had to hit?

We had to keep it very factual. We have taken an action to end HIMSS 2020. We know how to protect everyone from a legal standpoint. But we had to stick to the truth of what we knew at that time. And that’s all we were communicating, you’re not going to do any, you know, we hope, or it’s here the facts. This is what we know, we will be back to you in two weeks or a week with more information as we know it, so that we kept it to just the facts. And it was hard, because you people were nervous and angry. And, you know, it was just, it was just a general chaotic period. 

Well, it’s so interesting that we’re having to redo this podcast together. And the first recording was a couple weeks ago. And this this date this Friday was what I vividly remember being like, the last of everything, the last, the last of like, yeah, we used to know as normal. And I would say that when we recorded this podcast together a couple of weeks ago, there wasn’t much certainty around the rest of 2021, and what people were going to be doing for events. And now just what look a couple weeks later, I mean, there’s so much more, I don’t know about you, but I feel positivity, new ideas.

 Yeah. Yeah, I feel hopeful. You know, at HIMSS, like the rest of the world, we pivoted very, we pivoted very quickly into digital into the virtual space. Because we have so much content, you know, we’re convener, we’re collaborators, so we have close to 800 educational sessions that we do during our global conference. So we had all this content. And that was, we had to repackage that and get that up and get that out. And also, what was relevant. And that was a quick turn for us. You know, the other thing that we discovered, or we always knew, was the passion that people felt with our conference. And that we took away you know, I said recently to someone I said, couldn’t figure out why people were so angry. I mean, I had some ideas, but we’ve ruined their marketing plan. We were in people’s marketing plans. We we ended their, you know, grand finale of their marketing campaign. We came to realize it was just a chaotic time,we came to realize that HIMSS is just such a brand that people equate with the health, a health care conference, we have a lot of information. And people the passion behind it was it is added to the camp, because you’re now dealing with people’s emotions. 

What types of content did you feel like the audience or key pieces of communication you kept going throughout 2020 that set you up for success in 2021? 

HIMSS organization is lucky. So we deal in health Technology, Health Information Technology. And we were spotlight in a pandemic. So all of the content we had around telehealth was very relevant content that we had about surveys that we’re doing around what what works in a pandemic, what technology is working, what technology is needed. We had a lot of insights. We had a lot of experts who could help that you know, the big guy the you know, the the CIO, who’s today in a multi location, hospital system could share insights with a smaller rural hospital onwhat kind of technology is working for them.

Yeah, and all of that playing a role into events reopening, the more right technology that came out of those discoveries and conversations, the more events can open and put the technology to use. 

Yeah, and the thing for us that was kind of exciting for us kind of silver lining is, we forced people to think of us as a thought leader, we always were a thought leader, not an event company, not an event production.When we switch to digital, we’ve moved it away from we have a lot of smart things to say, versus we can put together a really pretty exhibit floor. So it was that the perception of HIMSS as an organization changed, good and bad. So it was it was an interesting time to see us mature into a thought leader versus just an event production company. And it was it’s a hard process to make that shift. So we had plenty of time during the lockdown to to make that shift. You know, late third quarter of 21 we hope to be in person, and we know that the content has got to be on fire. I mean, it’s got to be spot on. Phenomenal, strong content. Because now that’s what people can expect for us.The show has to be flawless as well. And when I say flawless, it needs to be flow. So the health and safety side, the wellness factor. Now that’s a word now dealing with a whole different set of conversations of how are we keeping everybody safe? How are we keeping everyone Well? Because in a large scale event, we all now know, what can get transmitted amongst us very quickly. 

Now the conversation seems to be shifting. And it’s just interesting, because you’re with a healthcare organization that these questions are popping into my mind around? How do you articulate and frame up copy and communication for attendees to make sure that they want to come but that they know there’s not going to be too many people in the room, but enough people to network with and also like the laundry list of things goes on and on in my head.

So it’s funny, you bring that up, because we did open registration this week for like I said, For conference and we had a big debate around it. And that’s, you know, you don’t want to say you know, we can’t wait to see you, we’ll all be there. I don’t want to go into a big crowd. I don’t know many people who do at this time, but I do want to get out there. Right now where I think it’s like 10% of the United States population is vaccinated right now. I think that’s the number. Well now you don’t want to say it’s going to be the best event ever with the biggest crowds ever know what do you know No one has an appetite for that. It’s we’re looking at our safety protocols we hope to be in Las Vegas, we have a safety and wellness committee working with us. We’re working with the city of Las Vegas on safety and capacity issues. 

Yeah, very interesting, because I imagined to there could be like a tiered opening system or a tiered system of getting back to opening registration. Because if Las Vegas is able to have more people and the vaccination rate continues, and x y&z maybe you could have more people, more people would be comfortable. So there’s a lot of interesting conversations around that.