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An Industry Leader Widens Her Planning Perspective

After a year as board chair for the Professional Convention Management Association, Kirsten Olean is applying lessons from that experience to the 2022 meetings she’s heading up at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

“Always be learning.” That’s what career experts say is the most important thing someone can do to remain stimulated by their work and keep their career moving forward.

Even for those who are far up the professional ladder, that advice resonates. For example, Kirsten Olean, CAE, director of meetings for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, took on the role of board chair for the Professional Convention Management Association in 2021, a time when the meetings and events industry was more unsettled than ever before. In that position, she was able to see how planners in different industries adapted their meetings to the Covid pandemic, and also figure out which adaptations will likely remain part of the meetings function long after the pandemic ends.

MeetingsNet caught up to Olean shortly after her tenure at PCMA ended to hear about the lessons she learned from that volunteer experience, plus what she learned from the senior position she held at another medical association before joining CFF in 2019. Those lessons will affect how she and her team execute CFF’s 2022 events.

MeetingsNet: What’s the range of meetings you oversee each year at CFF, and which is the largest?
Kirsten Olean: Our largest is the North American Cystic Fibrosis Conference, which attracts more than 5,000 clinicians and researchers in the field plus others who make up the cystic fibrosis team: nurses, dieticians, nutritionists, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, and social workers. They represent the gamut of care.

My team also supports many other in-person and virtual meetings—in fact, we hold large events for people living with cystic fibrosis that have always been conducted virtually due to the unique health risks of gathering people with CF in one physical space.

MeetingsNet: In January you finished a one-year stint as PCMA’s chair, a role that exposed you to the entire meetings and events industry. What did you see going on outside the healthcare-event segment that you think your fellow planners can adopt to strengthen their healthcare conferences?
Olean: One of the greatest lessons I learned, especially in the Covid environment, is that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges we have faced and continue to face. As a result, event professionals have come to lean on each other and learn from each other in the most open and transparent way I’ve seen in my career.

Now, we planners are constantly asking questions of our colleagues to understand where they’ve been successful so that we can adapt those successes to our own meetings. But we have to see all of it through this lens: Regardless of the industry a planner works in, the most important thing is to understand the needs of our specific audiences and design event experiences that cater to those needs.

MeetingsNet: Before coming to CFF in 2019, you were the director of meetings for the American Society of Microbiology for five years. What one or two things did you learn at ASM that help you in your present role at CFF?
Olean: At ASM I led a team that managed site selection and contracting, programming, logistics, exhibits, registration, and housing. I also had the unique experience of merging two long-standing annual meetings into one conference. The most important things I learned were about collaboration, taking risks, building consensus, and the critical need for clear and frequent communication when making big changes.

Another takeaway from my ASM experience was how much conference participants desire to connect with one another—with people in their program track and across tracks as well. This is so true at CFF, given the number of people who are part of each cystic fibrosis patient’s care team. As a result, I am incorporating many of the ways that we created those connection experiences at ASM into NACFC [the annual meeting].

MeetingsNet: What are you hearing from your practitioners and research-oriented members about their willingness to attend events in person sometime soon? And what is CFF’s plan for holding in-person meetings for HCPs in 2022? 
Olean: Our clinicians and researchers are anxious to be back together again in person, and we truly believe that it is most beneficial to the science when those in-person interactions happen. But like most organizations right now, our approach to in-person meetings is constantly evolving; everything is considered through the lens of health and safety, and we listen to the science.

While we are currently allowing outdoor fundraising events, we are not holding any in-person meetings for most of the first quarter. We expect to see in-person meetings start to come back in Q2 and are currently planning for an in-person NACFC in early November.

MeetingsNet: Will your 2022 in-person events still have a strong virtual component because you want a backup option in case the Covid situation changes quickly again—or perhaps because it allows you to reach a much larger audience than you could ever get in person?
Olean: Whether or not a meeting has a virtual component will be a decision specific to that event. With NACFC, we are fortunate to capture most of our desired attendees at that meeting—we did not significantly expand our audience when we went virtual because we have a relatively finite community [of researchers and practitioners].

We do not expect to have as robust a virtual component this November, but we are also rethinking what virtual means for us. I think most organizations defaulted to real-time virtual experiences because participants were not able or not ready to travel. However, our attendee data shows that while many did participate live in the virtual experience, many others chose to access the content on their own schedule. So as we consider future events, I think the key question for each one will be the role and importance of the live experience versus [holding content for] on-demand access later.

MeetingsNet: If you must stay with a virtual-heavy approach for much of this year, what would you do differently to make the virtual experience the best it can be for attendees’ needs, compared to what you did virtually over the past two years?
Olean: We’ve hosted NACFC as a virtual experience for two consecutive years, so we had the opportunity to learn from year one and create a better experience in year two. While the focus in 2020 was on content delivery, for 2021 we put much greater emphasis on attendee connection. We added several session formats, including discussion groups and “fireside chats,” that gave our participants an opportunity to connect with each other less formally in smaller groups. These sessions were well attended and well received; in fact, we’re going to incorporate these session types into the face-to-face experience this November.

MeetingsNet: If you were not an event director, what would you have done for a career?
Olean: My superpower is gift-giving. I think that a gift is a unique opportunity to show a friend or family member that you truly see them for who they are. When you find the right gift, the reaction will almost always be, “Wow, you really get me.” There is such joy in that moment for both the giver and the receiver. I would love to use my superpower to help others find the perfect gifts for the people they care about.

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