When I previously wrote about HIMSS’s decision to go from no refunds for HIMSS20 to a partial credit towards HIMSS21/HIMSS22, I didn’t think we would be talking about it again until next spring. Turns out I was wrong. There is a lot more ire coming from exhibitors and registrants over the cancellation and the lack of refunds than I realized. Over the past few weeks, many companies and individuals have reached out to share how they feel about this whole situation and how it is affecting their decision for HIMSS21.
Full Disclosure: Healthcare IT Today was a confirmed HIMSS20 exhibitor. We have gone through the same exhibitor experience as others. Granted, we only had a small 10×10 booth, but we aren’t an unbiased party here. On the other hand, I live in Las Vegas, so the HIMSS21 decision is an easy one for me since I won’t have to travel.
The companies I spoke with include anchor sponsors, startup companies and companies in between. Most were concerned about voicing their opinions too loudly, because of how it might impact their future work with HIMSS. In fact, many were working to create coalitions of companies so they could bring a united front to HIMSS. They wanted to ensure it was understood that this wasn’t just one company that was upset at the HIMSS20 cancellation. Quite a few of those I spoke with had 20+ partner companies that exhibited at HIMSS and they were working with their partners to create a more unified message.
One HIMSS20 exhibitor called the cancellation a Double Whammy. HIMSS only gave exhibitors a partial credit (25%) of what they paid for HIMSS20 and that credit must be spent on HIMSS21 and HIMSS22. That means vendors have lost that part of their 2020 budget completely and the only thing to show for it is a partial credit towards a HIMSS21 event which no one is fully confident is going to happen. Even if the show does occur, it would likely be smaller than usual. Yes, there was Digital HIMSS, but the companies I spoke with didn’t see value from it.
A double whammy is a good description, but as I talked to more companies (aka exhibitors), I realized there is so much more that is causing angst. Here’s a quick summary of what these companies told me:
- HIMSS20 has provided little to no value (One vendor shared they got 3 leads off Digital HIMSS and HIMSS told me they can’t share how many leads Digital HIMSS generated)
- Credit for HIMSS21 that may or may not happen and it is uncertain on how many healthcare organizations will be able to attend
- Freeman only refunded services that “were not performed” which was very little since the cancellation happened so close to the event. Plus, they used a very broad definition of “services performed” that burned many vendors including things like delivering garbage cans to booths
- Orange County Convention Center took a similar stance to Freeman
- SmartCity which provided the Internet to the exhibitors provided no refunds even though it was never used
- Some hotels refunded room fees without issues, but others were not so lucky ($0)
- The lost $$$ in wages for all the planning and effort that goes into organizing booths, meetings, dinners, and parties
HIMSS isn’t fully responsible for everything on this list, but it helps explain why many companies are still in shock. Plus, many felt like HIMSS could have used more of its weight with some of the suppliers (like the Convention Center and Freeman) to ensure that exhibitors received a better refund. Instead, they felt like HIMSS just washed their hands of the situation and left it to the individual companies to deal with hotels and convention suppliers.
The HIMSS response isn’t horrible when you look at it in isolation. Maybe they didn’t have enough people they could mobilize to deal with the suppliers? Or maybe there were contracts in place that prevented them from overtly helping exhibitors and attendees. However, many of the companies I spoke with told me that the HIMSS response is much different than what they have experienced with other healthcare conferences that have had to cancel their events.
One company shared that 15 of 16 other conferences either canceled and offered a full refund or postponed their event with a full credit. All but one worked with them to negotiate a fair exchange. Another company told me that 13 other conferences gave full refunds. For them, HIMSS was the only one that did not.
Many were also upset as they looked at the Force Majeure clause if HIMSS 2021 gets cancelled. Multiple companies have told me that the clause is worded so that if HIMSS21 cancels, they would only get a 50% credit. One company asked, “How can we sign this if they’re not going to give a full refund if they cancel HIMSS21 given what happened this year?”
Unfortunately, many companies including anchor sponsors had to sign and pay the deposit for HIMSS21 back in February 2020 (pre-pandemic) in order to “reserve their spot.” So they are already on the hook for at least a portion of HIMSS21.
What surprised me most in my conversations is how some felt a kind of personal trauma from the HIMSS20 cancellation and the lack of a refund/full credit towards HIMSS21. One person told me that it felt like they’d been taken advantage of. In an odd way, this demonstrates how much the annual HIMSS conference means to companies (it is the biggest marketing line item for many). This amount of trauma and angst is only caused by something that people care about. I’m not sure why HIMSS didn’t recognize this in their communications, but it’s fair to say that their response made many feel like HIMSS didn’t care about their exhibitors.
A number of companies also described how committed they were to attending HIMSS20 even amidst the coronavirus and associated risks. These companies had invested so much of their budget that they were willing to put aside their personal health and quell their fears in order to go to HIMSS20 in Orlando. I think this added another layer of frustration when the event was cancelled.
It is worth noting that it’s likely that HIMSS and their staff were going through trauma of their own. I saw some of it firsthand and I know how much work the HIMSS staff put in to create a great conference experience. To have all that work go up in smoke was probably very frustrating and might explain their initial response. However, now that time has passed, many exhibitors expect them to do more – especially when so many other organizations are doing whatever they can to help companies make it through this economic slow-down. If nothing is done, those I talked to say they likely won’t return to HIMSS21 as an exhibitor.
I reached out to HIMSS for a comment for this article and they told me “Stay tuned, something is coming” but that “there are many facets which need to align.” One vendor I talked to was told that something was coming from HIMSS as well, but they told me that this delay was just causing more stress and pain. In my opinion, HIMSS will need to step up in a big way if they want to heal the HIMSS20 wounds.
No matter what HIMSS decides to do, I hope they include more details on why they’re making the decisions they make. If they don’t, people will make their own conclusions which will likely be worse than the reality. I had companies telling me that they were sure that insurance covered HIMSS for the cancellation, but not exhibitors. I’m not sure this is true, but that was what they believed and HIMSS never addressed this in their HIMSS20 follow up. Others were asking HIMSS for the non-profit financial information which legally has to be shared publicly in order to find out where the money from HIMSS20 is going. Others are talking to lawyers about options. One person even told me they were looking at what it would take to change the HIMSS bylaws.
It’s not clear to me that any of these have traction, but it illustrates what happens when information isn’t shared. What does seem to be gaining traction is the number of companies that are questioning their HIMSS21 participation. That’s not really a surprise given the lost funds from cancellation and the current environment.
A number of vendors told me it would take a full refund or credit to see them at HIMSS21. Otherwise, the risk of HIMSS21 was just too great.
Obviously, it feels like an eternity between now and HIMSS21 (March next year) and as the pandemic continues to stretch into the summer, next year feels especially far away. But for those in marketing, planning for the next HIMSS conference usually starts in August which is just around the corner.
We’ll keep updating our readers as things progress. A lot can happen in a few months. I think most of us hope that HIMSS will work to make things right and restore confidence with exhibitors. The annual HIMSS conference is an event that many of us in the industry enjoy. It is a time to see old friends, learn from each other, and connect with new people in the healthcare.