A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the ASH Annual Meeting

Every December, tens of thousands of researchers, clinicians, and health-care stakeholders gather for the American Society of Hematology’s (ASH) annual meeting. More than a year’s worth of effort ensures that the meeting goes off without a hitch, and there’s a legion of dedicated ASH staff and volunteers working behind the scenes who make it look easy.

ASH Clinical News spoke with William Reed, senior director of meetings and community engagement at ASH, for a look at the backstage work that happens before the annual meeting.

When does planning begin for the annual meeting?

A common misperception is that the ASH meetings team works on one annual meeting per year. The reality is that we work on multiple years simultaneously, and planning each annual meeting is a continuum. For instance, my task list today includes items for the 2017 annual meeting, the 2018 annual meeting, and even a couple regarding the 2023 annual meeting.

An event of this size, magnitude, and importance requires serious advance planning, starting with choosing the location. The ASH annual meeting brings more than 25,000 people to its host city, which means the city must have an entire convention center available and enough hotels to house all of us. Basically, we need to buy out the whole town. If portions of that city are unavailable – if another organization has booked a meeting at the same time, for example – it’s not feasible for us to meet there.

“Maybe I’m an adrenaline junkie, but it’s exciting for me to watch the numbers of registrants climb.”

—William Reed

Can you give readers an idea of an individual annual meeting cycle?

Each cycle of an annual meeting is dictated by a timeline contained in a thousand-page document outlining a couple thousand milestones and a million details. The trick is to tackle the tasks that can be crossed off the list early in the cycle to avoid everything stacking up in November.

It all happens in a disciplined, orderly fashion; there are certain intervals of organized chaos, but that’s what makes it fun.

How many people are working on the annual meeting at any given time?

The ASH meetings department comprises five people, but we hire consultants (as many as 300) who work under our direction. Outsourcing portions of the workload lets us expand and contract our labor force as needed throughout the year.

ASH staff closely manages the quality of the annual meeting to ensure that what is being arranged is going to work for our audience of hematologists.

Annual meeting

What is the most exciting part of planning the annual meeting?

By far, it’s the opening day of registration and housing. It’s great to see the enthusiasm in attendees of our meeting. I have spoken with hematologists who arrange their schedules so they are at their computer at exactly 11:00 a.m. (Eastern time) on the day in July when registration opens to register and book a hotel as close to the convention center as possible.

We want it to be a smooth, positive experience for everyone, so opening day is an ‘all hands on deck’ scenario. People are on the front lines handling phone calls and our IT, communications, and meetings teams are glued to their computer screens to monitor the registration process in real time.

We want to know how many people are coming to the site, where they are in their progress, and the time they are spending at each step of the process, so that we can ask ourselves, Is that an acceptable amount of time? Are people bogged down at a certain step? Can we tweak something to improve the performance of the site?

Some people stress out in that situation. Maybe I’m an adrenaline junkie, but it’s exciting for me to watch the numbers of registrants climb.

What do you wish people knew about planning the annual meeting?

I wish our attendees could see everything that goes on behind the curtain at the annual meeting, particularly in the general session room, where the plenary sessions are held. There is a fascinating, miniature city of technicians, lighting specialists, and audio engineers back there. The amount of equipment and effort that goes into just that one session room is pretty impressive.

ASH staff arrive at the meeting long before attendees, in time to watch the convention center go from a cement-floor warehouse to a decorated convention and exhibition space. The loading dock alone is a logistical masterpiece: 150 semi-trucks deliver 1.25 million pounds of freight, audio-visual equipment, furniture, and more, on a precisely orchestrated schedule.

During your tenure in the ASH meetings department, have there been any narrowly avoided, logistical disasters?

It is our duty to protect the safety and wellness of 25,000 people over a five-day period, so we have a complete emergency-preparedness and crisis-management plan that we review and update every year according to the meeting location. We continuously do scenario planning so that, if a crisis occurs, we already know what to do.

Our job is to fix anything that comes up before it affects the experience of an attendee. Usually that means dealing with unexpected travel changes. We can have a great meeting planned, but if people can’t get there – either because of flight delays getting into the city or transportation problems around the convention center – we’re in trouble.

Planning for that requires some investigative work by the meetings team. We check for local events occurring during our meeting weekend that we weren’t notified of during the site-selection phase. There may be a sporting event, a marathon, or – because our meeting is in December – a Christmas parade that will shut down the streets our shuttle buses are taking. That’s a problem.

The last time the meeting took place in New Orleans, we were prepared for one parade and traffic congestion around a Saints football game. Then we discovered a second, surprise parade scheduled for the same day. Suddenly, we had to scramble to find a different route on the fly.

We also need to make sure our speakers arrive so that people have something to watch! The ASH meetings team has the speaker roster and their travel itineraries. On the first days of the meeting, we are double-checking everything: Did they arrive in the city? Did they check into their hotels? Did they upload their presentations to the system? Then, in each session room, a staff member is assigned to find everyone who’s scheduled to speak and make sure they are where they need to be.

One year, when weather caused flight delays and cancellations, one of our keynote speakers went missing. About 15 minutes before he was supposed to go on stage, we still didn’t know if he was in the city! We put out an all-points-bulletin for anyone who could spot this person in a crowd and, luckily, we found him just in time. I cannot confirm or deny this statement, but I may have had to straighten his tie as I pushed him out on the stage.

There’s always down-to-the-wire fun and excitement, and we just try to be prepared to handle it.

In those situations, I always think about my mother: Her purse seemingly held everything you would ever need. If a rattlesnake bit you, she would have a remedy for it. During the annual meeting, I end up playing that same role. My suit pockets are packed with all of this “in-case-of-emergency” stuff. I start the meeting with a big supply of ASH lapel pins in my pockets to give to any of our ASH officers, but the pins always seem to disappear by the end of the meeting. I guess they make good souvenirs!

“[Everything] happens in a disciplined, orderly fashion; there are certain intervals of organized chaos, but that’s what makes it fun.”

—William Reed

How is the annual meeting program developed?

Pulling off an event as large as the ASH annual meeting takes a village. ASH has an incredible group of volunteer leaders that work throughout the year to put together the program. The president proposes topics, speakers, and themes; our Scientific and Educational Affairs Committees propose sessions; and our abstract reviewers score more than 6,000 abstracts. (For an in-depth look at this process, see “A Rehash of the ASH Dash”). All of this is reviewed and recommended by the Program Committee, then approved by the Executive Committee.

In September, the abstract notification process generates another wave of registration, as more than 4,000 people are informed that they are going to present in a poster or oral session. It’s almost like another opening day.

Everyone works at a quicker pace once those invitations go out because the finish line is in sight. People assume that our busiest time is October and November – right before the annual meeting – but, at that point, the game plan is already implemented and we’re just locking down last-minute details. We’re even starting to change gears and look at the big details of next year’s meeting.

How do you decide which session appears in which room?

For most attendees, this may seem easier than it really is. With so much great science to present, the reality is that everyone will need to make some tough decisions on which sessions to attend.

Volunteers guide staff regarding which topics will be popular, and we try to minimize occurrences when an attendee will want to be in two or three session rooms at the same time. We look at historical attendance to predict which session should go in which room based upon the room’s capacity. Again, we make an educated guess at the size requirements. But in the end, people make decisions in the moment about which session they want to attend. We could control session attendance with precision and efficiency if we forced everyone to make their selections in advance and issue tickets, but our members like the freedom to change course. Webcasts are very popular for those who want to watch sessions they could not attend.

The safety of our attendees is our priority, so we follow the defined capacity of each room according to the local fire marshal, who is on site to monitor crowd sizes. ASH has adjacent overflow rooms available if necessary. At the beginning of each session, staff members are closely watching the occupancy levels, and, when we reach 60 percent, everyone is poised to open the overflow room. This triggers changes to the location on digital signs, the mobile app, etc.

Can you give us a sneak peek at anything new for this year’s meeting?

This year, we’re rolling out something new to help attendees on site: Amazon Alexa technology. Devices will be located around the convention center, each preloaded with our own searchable, annual meeting–specific database. If someone needs to search for an abstract or the location of a session room, all they have to do is ask Alexa. The system will also alert us if it doesn’t have an answer to someone’s question and we can update the database accordingly.

This is helpful for attendees and our meetings team, because, rather than hearing about an issue after the meeting, we can find a solution in real-time.

What session are you most looking forward to at this year’s meeting?

My favorite – and this is true of every annual meeting – is the Best of ASH Session, which is created by the meeting co-chairs during the meeting. For me, the appeal is two-fold: I love to hear the key takeaways from the meeting and it’s usually the first time I can sit down and listen to the content; on a personal level, it is the first sign that the end of the meeting is winding down. Seeing that session come together is exhilarating, but it’s also a time for reflection.

What happens when the annual meeting ends?

After one meeting ends, we look ahead to the next, and that includes seeing what we can do better. We push ourselves to improve every year. There is no such thing as a perfect meeting at this scale, but we want to come as close to perfect as we can. We do a series of debriefs to figure out what went well and where we can improve.

That’s emblematic of how ASH operates with everything, but, because the ASH meeting is on such a large scale, one improvement could have an immediate impact on tens of thousands of people.

Every year, our team goes through a little emotional comedown on Tuesday afternoon when the annual meeting is complete. We put our heart and soul into something for an entire year, and take personal pride in making it happen. At the end of the day, though, all the work is about ASH’s mission to help hematologists conquer blood diseases worldwide.

What do you love about the annual meeting?

The foundation of our annual meeting is providing our audience the best science in the world. It takes extremely careful planning to bring it to our audience, yet we also like to surprise and delight attendees with more social or whimsical touches so that people go back home inspired. We can’t lose sight of the fact that, amongst a gazillion details, the annual meeting is all about advancing the science, improving the lives of patients, and helping hematologists go back to their clinics or labs re-energized.

A Rehash of the ASH Dash

On the day of the ASH Annual Meeting abstract submission deadline, thousands of authors sit down at their laptops to submit their abstracts for inclusion in the annual meeting. That process involves (but is not limited to) finding misplaced log-in info; tracking down errant statistician reports; editing and re-editing introductions and conclusions to fit within the 3,800-character limit; and filling out the appropriate author names, affiliations, and disclosures – all before the clock strikes midnight (Pacific time, of course).

If everything goes smoothly, authors can expect an automatically generated confirmation message from the abstract management system and can breathe a sigh of relief.

That’s where the “ASH dash” for authors ends, but, for ASH meetings staff, the race has just begun. In eight weeks, ASH staff and hundreds of volunteer reviewers sift through more than 6,000 submissions to create the final abstract line-up.

How exactly does this happen? Communication, time tracking, and dedication, according to Joanna Robertson, senior manager of annual meeting publications at ASH. Ms. Robertson spoke with ASH Clinical News to give readers a glimpse into how abstracts are selected, who reviews them, and why procrastination doesn’t pay.

What one thing would you like readers to know about the abstract submission process?

Most people wait until the last minute to start their submission. I don’t think they know that they can start their submission at any time and update it throughout the submission period. Entering a lengthy author list takes time – especially on the last day when the system is busy – so why not start early, even if the authorship isn’t finalized? The only hard-and-fast rule is that it must be completed by 11:59 p.m. Pacific time on the closing date.

We try to help anybody who contacted us about technical difficulties on the night the submission window closes, but we cannot accept abstracts that are emailed to us after the site closes. People call us days after the deadline, asking for an extension, sometimes crying because they might get fired because they didn’t submit in time. Our hearts bleed for them but, unfortunately, we cannot make exceptions for people who did not contact us before the deadline.

If I could tell authors having last-minute trouble one thing, it would be, “Please talk to us!”

We know what the abstract submission process looks like from the author perspective, but how does it look from the staff perspective? 

The day that the site opens is a drop in the bucket. In any given year, we might receive one completed abstract submission during the first week of the submission window, and maybe a couple dozen more by the end of the third week. Our busiest, all hands-on-deck time is the last three days before the submission site closes. That’s when we’re getting 1,000 to 3,000 abstract submissions started each day.

On those three days, we’re fielding hundreds of emails and phone calls from people working through the submission process. My colleague and I monitor the “abstracts inbox” until midnight (Eastern time) of the closing date, in alternating, four-hour shifts to make sure we’re staying on top of queries.

Our tech support team also is available to answer log-in questions, and our membership team is working to check authors’ membership status and to process payments of back dues for people who need to reactivate their membership. It keeps us on our toes.

How are reviewers chosen?

With 61 categories to review (and a few categories so large that they are divided between two review teams), we need 65 six-person review teams, for a total of 390 reviewers. Reviewers are nominated by reviewers from previous years or by self-nomination. We update our review team rosters every year. We only require that the lead reviewer of each team served in the previous year so we have an experienced leader.

We average 1,500 nominees every year. After researching nominees’ recent publications, affiliation, location, career level, and other factors, we present the ASH Secretary, Robert Brodsky, MD, with the complete list of nominees. He will then review the list and assemble 65 balanced, ideal “dream teams.”

How do you pull everything off?

It works because of Excel spreadsheets, down-to-the-minute time tracking, and our VIPs – the reviewers who volunteer their time, knowledge, and expertise to help make our meeting great.

Can you walk us through what happens after the abstract submission site closes?

Once the abstract submission site closes, we get down to business. The selection process is composed of a carefully plotted series of events that is outlined in an eight-page spreadsheet, and each step is allotted a certain amount of time.

  • Days 1-2: We clean up the abstract management system, running several in-depth reports to identify any incomplete abstracts, duplicate submissions, or abstracts without payment, and contact the authors to give them an opportunity to resolve the issue.
  • Days 2-12: Our volunteer review teams score their assigned abstracts. Reviewers are blinded to the authors’ names and institutions. They can enter comments or recuse themselves because of conflicts of interest, and all of that is considered when the scores are aggregated. During this period, our staff monitor their inboxes 24/7 to make sure the process is running smoothly.
  • Days 13-19: Over a series of 65 conference calls, each team, along with 48 ASH staff trained to monitor the calls, decides how to fill the presentation slots awarded to their categories. Because we strive for geographic diversity on our review teams, that can mean random call times. I’ve had staff wake up for calls at 4:00 a.m.; I just did one at 11:00 p.m. for this year’s meeting.On these calls, the review teams consider each abstract’s average score and decide which will be oral, poster, or online-only presentations.
  • Days 20-35: After another round of clean-up, we deliver the results to the ASH Secretary, who has 10 days to review approximately 400 abstracts that require his attention to ensure all ASH policies are being followed.
  • Days 36-44: Once we enter the Secretary’s decisions into the system and identify replacement abstracts where necessary, the ASH Program Committee begins their work. In the week prior to their mid-September meeting (held at ASH headquarters in Washington, DC), the committee members review the proposed sessions to ensure they are balanced. At the meeting, the program committee selects the plenary abstracts and discusses any concerns before finally approving the abstracts program. Their recommendations then go to the Executive Committee for final approval.
  • Days 45-59: Once the Program Committee and the Executive Committee approve the annual meeting program, we start notifying authors, beginning with the plenary abstracts. We spend the next two weeks preparing the accepted abstracts; this includes processing abstract withdrawals, checking for time conflicts for the presenters, working around schedules of anyone who can’t work on certain days due to a religious conflict, running multiple conflict reports, assigning abstracts their final numbers, and a thousand other contingencies. We check and recheck our decisions, rescheduling them as we need to, and then lock the program down. Then, and only then, can we send notifications.

Interested in reviewing abstracts for the next ASH Annual Meeting? Email abstractreviewers@hematology.org at any time during the year. ASH staff will follow up when the nomination window is open.