Amer Zeidan, MD
I still remember my first time attending the annual American Society of Hematology (ASH) meeting in 2008. I remember feeling completely overwhelmed as I stepped into the enormous convention center, and I remember feeling embarrassingly clueless about which sessions to attend and how to find the rooms where the sessions were being held.
My prior meeting experience was limited to small, oneroom conferences with 100 attendants at the most. This left me unprepared and unsuspecting of how to arrange for these larger meetings. The memories of me getting lost in the hallways during that 2008 meeting ran through my mind as I attended my 6th consecutive ASH meeting this past December in New Orleans.
I see “fellow” fellows share similar experiences while attending major conferences such as the ASH or the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meetings, where tens of thousands of participants converge. For this reason, I felt that I should share what I have learned about optimizing your experience and making the best use of your time during these meetings.
Plan accommodations early and with colleagues
Once you have decided to attend a meeting, book your hotel as early as possible. Try to book your hotel as soon as the registration opens, as these hotels fill up very quickly. The longer you wait, the higher the likelihood that you will end up in a hotel that is either more expensive or further from the convention center. The same goes for booking your flight. Remember that tens of thousands of people arrive, stay, and leave from where you are traveling at the same time.
Additionally, ask your colleagues if they are attending the same conference. Sharing a room with a colleague or a friend can be a great way to save money because hotel rooms tend to be very expensive during a major event. The registration websites for the ASH and ASCO conferences tend to have rooms reserved special for conference participants. Booking through these sites can help you receive a more favorable rate; but remember that these rooms go quickly once registration opens.
Think of the sessions you want to attend before arriving at the convention center
Look for a list of the activities, lectures, seminars, and poster-viewing sessions that accompany the registration materials that are mailed to you. A calendar of events should also be listed on a conference website. There are also smartphone apps available to facilitate planning a personal itinerary.
Become familiar with the convention center and locations of presentations
During your first day at the convention center, try to orient yourself to the layout of the building. Convention centers tend to be very large and you can get lost easily. Note that some presentations and lecture sessions are held in the hotels that surround a convention center. I suggest researching the location of the hotel in advance if a session of interest to you is being held there. I have missed several sessions in the past that I really wanted to attend due to not studying the map of the convention center and surrounding hotels beforehand and have gotten lost along the way.
Allow for walking time between sessions
Remember to allow time to walk to the activities that you want to attend. There are several simultaneous sessions and lectures and others that are separated by only a few minutes of time. Some are located very far from each other. I have missed the first 10 or 15 minutes of several sessions that I really wanted to attend in the past because I failed to realize how far the rooms were from my current location.
Take advantage of special conference services, particularly those dedicated to fellows Both ASH and ASCO have conference shuttle buses that frequently travel for free between certain hotels and the conference center. Using these buses can save you the cost of a taxi ride or car rental fee, and can spare you the hassle of parking. It also allows you the chance to socialize with fellow participants while traveling. You should inquire at your hotel, or during registration, about travel routes and shuttle times.
Utilize the special services that both ASH and ASCO offer to fellows and members in training
Both conferences offer special sessions dedicated to fellows that focus on career planning (academic, community, industry, and regulatory settings), discussions of various research pathways (clinical, translational, and basic), explore available funding opportunities and mechanisms, and discuss other subjects of interest to fellows. ASH usually offers a half-day educational session during the first day of the meeting that is dedicated to fellows. This meeting is very useful, but you need to plan to arrive early if attending it.