For startup CEO Jeff Fallon, the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society's annual health information and technology conference isn't just another trade show. It's "our Super Bowl," he said.
The event, which was canceled last week in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, typically brings together more than 40,000 attendees from the healthcare and technology industries. That's made it a popular arena for companies to launch new products, providing a central space to pitch their capabilities to thousands of possible customers and compete for their attention side-by-side their biggest competitors.
So for Fallon, HIMSS20's cancellation represented not only a financial hit from the cost of exhibiting, shipping its booth to Florida and booking hotel rooms, but also a lost opportunity to pitch products from eVideon, a patient and visitor engagement software developer, to thousands of potential customers directly and in-person.
"It's our opportunity to get in a room with tens of thousands of potential prospects" to showcase what eVideon can do, Fallon said of HIMSS conference. He said the company's development team had been "really burning both ends of the candle" for months to prepare for HIMSS and showing the new functionality to hospitals and health systems.
HIMSS has said it's planning a virtual edition of this year's conference, which will include a scaled down selection of educational sessions. But for vendors, that won't be able to replace the benefit of being able to meet attendees one-on-one, nor does it provide an alternative for the more than 1,300 companies that were slated to exhibit at the event.
That's led companies that had intended to release products at the event to re-evaluate their promotion plans, and in some cases even their release schedule.
"Probably all of us in the industry are trying to figure out what's the appropriate next step," said Abhinav Shashank, CEO of Innovaccer, a developer of data tools for population health management. Innovaccer had three announcements planned for HIMSS20, including an expanded relationship with Microsoft Corp. Those may now be spread over a few weeks.
"There have been a couple of sleepless nights to figure out what's the next step," Shashank said. "We're still working through some of that."
Another startup, Illuminate Health, had launched a new smartphone app for medication management Tuesday, ahead of HIMSS20 and before the cancellation had been announced.
"We had a lot of activities lined up with this date in mind: HIMSS being on the 9th," said Varun Goyal, the digital health assistant startup's CEO.
Launching new capabilities at an event like HIMSS20 helps to "generate buzz," as well as provide a "concentrated place where we can have many meetings all at once," said Dan Cidon, chief technology officer at NextGate, a vendor of patient-matching solutions such as an enterprise master patient index.
But companies aren't reacting only to HIMSS20's cancellation. HIMSS is one of a growing number of healthcare associations that have canceled upcoming conferences as information continues to emerge about the coronavirus, and many companies have said they're cracking down on employee travel, both internationally and domestically, as a precaution.
"Even beyond HIMSS, we've had the need to curtail some of our travel," Cidon said. He noted that NextGate had been planning to use HIMSS20 as a touch point to recruit customers to beta test a project the company has been working on to help manage identities of providers with digital credentials, but will now do that virtually.
NextGate is one of many companies taking their efforts to cyberspace, hosting webinars to replace booth demonstrations and video conferences to in lieu of in-person meetings.
EHR developer Meditech is hosting its own three-day virtual event, where it plans to offer demonstrations of new EHR capabilities that were planned for its booth. Meditech had already decided not to go to HIMSS20 because of COVID-19, despite the fact the company had started planning for the conference about a year in advance, said Melissa Swanfeldt, Meditech's associate vice president of marketing.
"We just have to shift our gears and think of different ways to make sure that we are continuing to promote to the masses what we have out there," Swanfeldt said.
Fallon said eVideon plans to triple its webinar plans for the coming months in an attempt to help "fill the visibility void" from HIMSS20's cancellation. But webinars have their own set of challenges to overcome.
Part of the reason eVideon's team was excited to pitch healthcare executives at HIMSS20 is because the company's tools—which include digital whiteboards and door signs—work in concert with one another throughout a patient room, which is difficult to show in an online presentation, Fallon said.
He said eVideon is building a mock patient room in its Michigan headquarters so that the company can broadcast demonstrations to potential customers from afar.
In the coming weeks, the company will be working on building up a new promotion strategy—one that "doesn't rely on people getting on airplanes and traveling to conferences," Fallon said. "The reality is until COVID-19 goes away, folks are not going to be going to conferences."