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It's been two months since the annual HIMSS Global Health Conference & Exhibition was canceled, but attendees and exhibitors are still expressing frustration over how the cancellation was handled.
HIMSS called off the event for the first time in 58 years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That decision created a quick-fire controversy, as the nonprofit announced the news four days before the conference was to kick off and three days after President Donald Trump was announced as an event speaker.
But how HIMSS, an organization with 80,000 members that is closely linked with the health IT community, managed and communicated the cancellation cleanup has had more staying power. Attendees and exhibitors said they received few details from the organization and had to press HIMSS to provide clarity into how refunds would be handled. Along with poor communication, HIMSS did not provide exhibitors or attendees with the option for refunds.
"You have to pursue them and when you do, it's an iron wall of legal policies," said Ryan Plasch, vice president of growth and strategy at AI voice assistant company Saykara in Seattle. "For health tech companies like ours and other innovators, there was no reprieve. We asked for a refund, they cited their legal policy in the contract." Saykara was scheduled to attend the event as an exhibitor.
When asked about the lack of communication and the lack of refund options, a HIMSS spokesperson said the organization had no comment at this time.
Lack of communication
Initially, HIMSS planned to offer no financial recourse, providing exhibitors with no contingency plan and providing attendees with an option of rolling over the cost of the HIMSS20 ticket to next year's event. Eventually on April 8, HIMSS said it would give a partial credit to exhibitors dividing between HIMSS21 and HIMSS22.
Plasch said he was "extremely disappointed" in the poor communication from HIMSS on refund opportunities. He's not alone: On Tuesday, 21 health IT companies that planned to exhibit at HIMSS20, including Saykara, sent HIMSS CEO Harold Wolf a letter expressing anger at how it handled the situation and requested a 100% refund of exhibitor fees.
"The decision to cancel due to COVID-19 was the right one to keep attendees and in particular our healthcare professionals safe in these unprecedented times," the letter stated. "However, we take issue with the conduct of the HIMSS organization in the subsequent management of the finances related to this situation. Because of this, we decided to reach out to other similarly affected organizations, many of who have complained directly to you, but who have not felt listened to and we have joined together with them to send you this letter."
Ryan PlaschVice president of growth and strategy, Saykara
In its FAQ, HIMSS said that, when it comes to exhibitor booth and sponsorship refunds, it "must follow and honor the terms of exhibitor contracts, which include a force majeure clause. As a not-for-profit, and because of its obligations to other parties, HIMSS will honor its partners' rights but, unfortunately, is not in a position to issue cash refunds beyond those provided in our contracts."
HIMSS outlined the force majeure clause for exhibitors in the event's terms and conditions stating, "In the event that the performance by HIMSS or the venue or any part of the exhibit area thereof is unavailable ... HIMSS shall not be liable to refund, indemnify, or reimburse the Exhibitor in respect of any fees paid, damage or loss, direct or indirect, arising as a result thereof."
In its letter, the 21 exhibitors rejected the explanation, stating, "All of us were shocked and angry that HIMSS took the decision to retain 100% of the money paid for exhibition space rental citing Force Majeure and the fact you are a Not for Profit; however, we fail to see why being a Not for Profit should exempt HIMSS from acting fairly, honourably and professionally."
A media contact for HIMSS said she had not seen the letter and could not comment.
John Moore, founder and managing partner of Chilmark Research, a health IT consultancy in Boston, said he received minimal communication from HIMSS regarding refund opportunities. Moore has attended several HIMSS conferences.
"I had to hunt them down and, even then, they were very difficult to reach," Moore said. "You couldn't get ahold of anyone for a couple of months."
Maree Beare, founder of symptom checker startup Wanngi in Australia, found communication from HIMSS regarding refunds to be lacking. Beare, who was attending HIMSS for the first time, said she expected a full refund for the cost of her ticket and had to reach out to HIMSS organizers directly to learn that wasn't the case.
"I think people were not communicated to correctly at all," she said.
Lack of refund options
It wasn't until one month after the event was canceled that exhibitors received a consolation. HIMSS offered to split 25% of exhibitors' "total spend from HIMSS20" between the next two years, with 15% applied to HIMSS21 and 10% applied to HIMSS22. Startups and "university row" exhibitors were given the opportunity to split 100% of their total spend evenly between HIMSS21 and HIMSS22.
Saykara's Plasch said he felt "empty handed and almost brushed aside" by HIMSS. Plasch said HIMSS' response was a stark contrast to another event the vendor was scheduled to attend just a couple of weeks later, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) annual meeting, which draws roughly 30,000 attendees or 15,000 fewer than HIMSS.
Within a week of canceling, Plasch said AAOS conference organizers provided Saykara with three refund options.
"You could get a 100% refund, you could apply credits to next year with some incentives, or you could elect to do some online virtual things with free advertisement," Plasch said. "Without even asking, we got that."
From HIMSS, Plasch said he's received "curt" responses to inquiries and said his company is feeling "disenfranchised as a result of the experience."
As an attendee, Chilmark's Moore said the consultancy's tickets to HIMSS20 weren't eligible for a refund but were automatically made applicable to next year's event. However, tickets aren't transferable to other employees right now, meaning Moore could lose the value of that ticket if an employee that planned to attend HIMSS20 leaves the company before the HIMSS21 event.
Roughly 10 Chilmark employees were planning to attend HIMSS20, and at about $1,500 each, Moore hoped HIMSS would've offered more options to those affected by the cancellation.
"HIMSS was pretty amateurish to say the least," Moore said. "The HIMSS conference brings in, I don't know how many millions into HIMSS ... and this is the best they can do? It's a bit of a joke."