A new world started on the day COVID occurred. There is really no new way of planning. These are the conclusions we came up after several reviews of what we do at the European Academy of Neurology.
What happened is that, early 2020, we all were confronted with our biggest threat. The many things we had taken for granted so far and that we were so reliant on and sure of were not possible anymore: travelling, meeting, going to the office, education, social activities, sports, and especially the organization of events and congresses, which are for many associations the major sources of income.
All our weaknesses were uncovered. And we had no control over what was happening whatsoever.
However, we realized at the same time – and this was perhaps even more important and motivating – that we were strong. We embraced the challenges and rose up to create new plans fast and effectively.
Although we of course did not know what would happen, our organization was actually lucky: we had always been strategically planning ahead for a long time. Just in case a crisis, no matter its magnitude, would happen…
More than fifteen years ago, we implemented a quality management system, with clear procedures and instructions for our daily work. This included project management tools and regular SWOT analysis. Having these tools turned out to be more important than we had ever believed. Due to a diligent risk-management system, we knew that we had resources to try out new things and make mistakes.
We also realized procedures and instructions are nothing without the people who implement and operate it. This is, in fact, another, even more important, strength an association should have.
But this cannot be developed overnight when a crisis hits. This needs many years to infuse. Investing in good relations and clear and transparent communication with your volunteers, members, employees, customers and vendors, is paramount.
Start a plan
With all these resources in place, the planning can start – even in a post-COVID world. And remember: plans are only intentions and can be changed every step of the way!
The first thing to do is look at your vision. Then, to define the goals you want to reach and the actions you have taken already. You might need to make changes and adjustments or even skip some.
EAN’s vision is to reduce the burden of neurological diseases and our goal is to serve our members, to provide them with education and research, as well as networking opportunities. At the same time, we are also an organization with staff members, volunteers, vendors, customers, partner societies, and they all rely on us.
Our annual congress is the main platform for us to fulfil our mission. Reviewing the vision and goals of EAN, the Executive Board together with the staff members, made a contingency plan in the early days of the pandemic, and it was decided to organize the congress online. All stakeholders were informed and after many meetings, questions and doubts, we created something completely new and unique.
Instead of an onsite event with more than 7,000 participants, we were able to organize the biggest neurology event – free of charge – with more than 43,000 registrations, within eight weeks.
This was a great success, but things were – and still are – changing fast, and we immediately started to think about the next steps. People learned to use all the online tools we left at their disposal and appreciated working and learning from home and virtually. Today, high-quality content can be accessed online all the time, from everywhere – those who can’t travel for economic or social reasons for instance are catered for just like those who can. But at the same time, the networking opportunities and the serendipitous encounters are impossible to replicate in a virtual environment. Exhibitors and sponsors had the same feedback: they appreciated the high participation in the virtual sessions of the congress, but missed the interaction with the participants during the breaks.(1)
To create a platform that caters to various audiences, we have gone the hybrid way. The costs – and the stakes – are high since you actually have to organize two meetings in parallel. There is a lot of uncertainty and many open questions regarding the new behaviour of participants, which we are not sure how to answer.
Not afraid to fail
But since we cannot look into the future, it is an investment we have to make. We have to try new things, evaluate, and try again if we fail.
At the same time, we need to make sure that the resources to do so are available. Ultimately, we will also need to develop new and different business models to be more flexible and less vulnerable.
In German, the word “plan” also means “map”. So, why not look at the planning as a road trip or a hike?
On a map you first look at your goal, define your favourite road, but you also check for some side roads that you might need to take. Then, you put all your resources into a bag and the journey begins.
Go together with people, who you can rely on and who can rely on you. Going together, being open-minded, flexible, and transparent and having a common goal, is the best plan.
1 (onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ene.14702 – Stamelou M. et al: Evaluation of the 2020 European Academy of Neurology virtual congress: transition from a face-to-face to a virtual meeting)