HIMSS CEO Wolf says exhibitor sign-ups for 2021 conference 'exceeding' expectations

HIMSS21 conference organizers shared more details Friday about moving the major health IT event to August 2021, including feedback from exhibitors.

The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society confirmed that it pushed back its five-day annual conference to Aug. 9-13 in Las Vegas next year.

HIMSS said the date change was made in consideration of the health and safety of attendees, exhibitors, employees and local residents in Las Vegas amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

HIMSS CEO Hal Wolf cited top infectious disease experts such Anthony Fauci, M.D., who have expressed guarded optimism about a COVID-19 vaccine being approved late this fall or early next year.

"We're hopeful, talking to epidemiologists that we have a good chance. We believe this will be a tremendous celebration and joyous reunion," he said of the 2021 conference.

HIMSS20 paid registrations will be transferred to HIMSS21, and all registrants will receive further details and instructions regarding the registration process later this summer, HIMSS officials said.

Registration and hotel reservations will open this fall. The call for reviewers will open Sept.14, and the call for proposals will open Oct. 5.

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"The date change alone has been extremely positive [with key exhibitors]," Wolf told reporters during a press conference Friday. "They have told us 'this is a timeline that makes sense for us.'"

Wold said HIMSS began reaching out to exhibitors about the date change a month ago. "The response has been fantastic. We're getting people signing up dramatically. It's meeting and exceeding expectations."

HIMSS canceled its 2020 global health conference in March just days before it was slated to start due to concerns about COVID-19.

At the time, HIMSS originally announced no refunds, which drew a lot of ire from exhibitors and registrants. Attendees and exhibitors complained about a lack of communication from HIMSS organizers and a lack of available refund options.

HIMSS then adjusted its policy and announced April 8 that it would provide partial credits for the HIMSS21 and HIMSS22 events. Exhibitors were given a 25% credit with 15% to be applied to HIMSS21 and 10% to HIMSS22.

Startups and universities were given a 100% credit with 50% toward each future conference.

The organization shifted some of the in-person conference content to a digital conference and made sessions available online.

In May, 21 health IT companies that planned to exhibit at HIMSS20 sent Wolf a letter expressing anger at how the society handled the situation and requested a 100% refund of exhibitor fees.

In speaking with reporters, Wolf said HIMSS committed $7 million to compensate exhibitors and attendees by issuing credits for HIMSS21 and HIMSS22.

"Frankly, we dipped into our pockets for what we could afford," he said. "When the cancellation took place, our contractual agreement limited us from how we could respond. We turned around and put 25% back out even though we are not contractually obligated to do so."

HIMSS absorbed "tremendous cost" in facility fees and logistics.  

RELATED: HIMSS20 organizers step up on-site preparedness for coronavirus as major exhibitors back out

Wolf said HIMSS continues to negotiate an insurance claim for the HIMSS20 conference. Once that settlement is resolved, the organization plans to provide "additional remedies" to exhibitors from the canceled conference.

The 2021 conference will look different from previous HIMSS events, he said, as it will include virtual programming through the HIMSS 365 platform in conjunction with the in-person conference and expo.

Wolf said HIMSS would Set up safety and health protocols for the HIMSS21 conference based on where things stand with the COVID-19 health crisis. 

"If we are still in a masked environment, then we will do that," he said.

He also addressed concerns about hot temperatures in Las Vegas in August.  Facilities are being redesigned to include an air-conditioned bridge to connect conference spaces, he said.