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Alexandra Zapple of the American Society of Nephrology

A Med-Event Planner Wearing Many Hats—and Acquiring More

Alexandra Zapple of the American Society of Nephrology has mastered hybrid event formats, health protocols, and the exhibit-hall atmosphere. But larger social issues are affecting her planning as well.

When the Professional Convention Management Association Foundation announced the finalists for its 2023 Event Strategist of the Year award, all three were from medical associations.

In April, MeetingsNet featured the work and perspective
of the award’s winner: Kristi Casale CMP, DMCP, vice president for meetings and continuing education, American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Then in May, we chatted with one of the finalists for the award: Lisa A. McGlashen, CMP, CEM, HMCC, director of meetings and exhibits for the American Society of Cataract & Refractive Surgery.

Now, we speak with the third PCMA award finalist: Alexandra Zapple, CAE, CMP, CEM, DES, senior director of meetings for the American Society of Nephrology. In 2022, Alex led her team in creating an accessible, equitable, and safe hybrid annual meeting, the organization’s first after the Covid pandemic. The event also had a few unique complications that Zapple and her team had to contend with to make sure it was a success.

MeetingsNet: Explain the big meetings initiative you took on in 2022 that earned you the award nomination.
Alexandra Zapple: For Kidney Week, we built a hybrid meeting in 2022 that was broadcast in real time and also had full health and safety checks and policies on site, including vaccination and masking requirements. Creating the best experience for our participants and the most sustainable event we could after two years of only doing things virtually was a tall order—made tougher by the need to address and navigate the political and social issues in Florida.

Kidney Week, which had more than 14,000 participants back in 2019, was extremely successful in 2022, with almost 10,000 in-person participants and more than 2,000 online participants.

MeetingsNet: What were the specific difficulties you faced while planning, and how did you overcome them?
Zapple: Besides the health and safety protocols we had to build in, the political and social issues in Florida had us doing new tasks.  ASN selected the site for the meeting and signed contracts long before the pandemic and a decade before legislation was passed in Florida that endangered some of our most vulnerable patients, family members, friends, colleagues, and communities, including the LGBTQ+ community. ASN chose to use the event as an opportunity to show strength and resilience in solidarity with kidney patients and colleagues in Florida and elsewhere whose dignities and freedoms were threatened.

We worked with the city’s convention bureau to get the most accurate information on the current laws and talking points on these issues, as well as connecting ourselves with the onePULSE Foundation, to which we donated $25,000 and had the founder speak during our LGBTQ+ reception.  We also gathered information on LGBTQ+ and other diverse businesses in Orlando so our participants could support them during our time there. We took out a full-page ad in the Orlando Sentinel stating the values of ASN as well as information on kidney health. We added pronouns to registration badges, and we continued our commitment to all our DEI initiatives while in Orlando.

For the planning staff, the most challenging part was juggling these issues while coordinating the most complex meeting we ever had, and in an environment where our members were facing workforce issues like burnout. We overcame this by coming together as a team and having the support of our leadership as we developed a strategy for the meeting and for our [public-facing] decisions. We put out full statements about our hybrid strategy, our health and safety protocols, and our political and social stances. Flexibility and perseverance from everyone on our team is what got us through these tasks.

MeetingsNet: What are one or two challenges about planning events for a medical audience that you feel are unique or tougher than planning events for professionals in other industries?
Zapple: For all our meetings, ASN supports the ethical codes of conduct on interactions with healthcare professionals, and we expect all exhibitors and supporters at our meeting to be compliant as well. This means that certain sponsorships cannot occur while those that can have specific rules as well as reporting [requirements]. So, we must be creative but at the same time very clear and vigilant in our sponsorship and exhibit processes.

This job also involves a huge number of abstracts that translate into oral sessions as well as a ton of posters. Our meeting typically has 3,500 posters spread out over three days. Having to get a certain number of those put up and taken down each day and committing a significant amount of space and interaction time to the posters is so critical to our meetings. They are also a way to create flow into the exhibit hall, so we have some of the posters in there. We also have ePosters that individuals can view on a website. We are constantly working to come up with new solutions in this area, such as moderated posters and ways for participants to get better engagement around the posters.

MeetingsNet: How many events do you plan a year, and what issue do you worry most about for those events in the next couple of years?
Zapple: We plan 10 to 12 meetings per year, with our largest meeting being Kidney Week. The main challenge I foresee is rising costs, not only for our organization but also for our participants’ travel. The issue greatly affects how many people are able to attend our events. I don’t see costs slowing down for travel, and this concerns me.  

Also, since the pandemic started, there have been difficulties for international attendees with entry regulations and visas. Our annual-meeting audience is roughly 45 percent international, with participants from over 120 countries, so the visa wait-time issues are very concerning to us.

I also see challenges with participants’ time constraints. Workforce challenges in the medical industry have us evaluating the lengths of all our meetings to make sure they are a really good use of their time. And we worry about burnout among our members. It’s tough to get new people into the industry, and we need to make sure these individuals are trained well. We have a lot of new people in our field, and I do worry that the industry has become very transactional and less based on relationships. I do hope we can get help get people back to building great relationships and the enjoying the fun aspects of the industry.

MeetingsNet: What elements of your personality or skill set are most helpful to making you a good planner?
Zapple: Adaptability, versatility, and perseverance. Those are what any planner needs to be valuable to her organization. The past three years required all those skills be put to ample use—learning how to do a successful and profitable virtual meeting, and then an effective hybrid meeting, and dealing with constantly changing health and safety guidelines and political and social issues. My team has been extremely flexible and resilient as we take on new skills, new team members, and new partners and vendors.

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