How to Attend a Mega Meeting

May 18th, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a humongous medical meeting:  DDW 2011.  Digestive Diseases Week is the major yearly international gastroenterology meeting.  Organized by four GI societies ( AGA, AASLD, ASGE, and the SSAT) it brings approximately 15,000 doctors, nurses, PA’s, students, trainees, PsyD, PhD’s, pharmaceutics, devices, software, journals, etc etc etc together for a week in May.

As in the world at large, economics has impacted our scientific love fest.  There are fewer pharma support dollars, people are less inclined to take an entire “week” off work, and so our formerly 5-6 day meeting is now 4 days.

At the same time our session slims down on time, medical knowledge increases exponentially.  Massive amounts of new data are stuffed into these action-packed days.  Processing that amount of information in a short period of time is unwieldly for the average conference attendee.

The DDW session/abstract book is >1000 pages long.  Let’s say that, like me, you are a budding assistant professor who will see many patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).  You show up, eager-faced, ready  to tackle ALL the IBD-related sessions at this year’s DDW.  What will you encounter?

  • 61 sessions, presentations, or lunches on IBD
  • 91% with overlapping time slots
  • 591 posters/abstracts (reading @ 2 min/abstract = 19.7 hours)
  • (748 by my co-fellow’s  count = 25 hours)
  • numerous  “un-official” off-site CME events, usually pharma-sponsored

(BTW, it took me about 2 hours to figure this out.  It took an additional 3 hours to plan my time.  No Joke.)

Unless you know something I don’t, you can’t be in multiple places at once.   How will you deal with this?  Even further, what if you are simply a general practitioner who wants to stay current with the GI times?   All this “overchoice” may lead you to cry “forget it!” and head up to the Mag Mile for some shopping.

Therefore, having an attack strategy to manage one’s time is absolutely imperative to surviving a Mega Meeting.

I didn’t do so hot this year.  Despite having a strategy for myself, I failed to employ it in a timely manner.  I give my self a C+.  This is because I missed out on seeing my fellow friends who were presenting, and I didn’t even get close to the poster sessions.  I fell short because I seriously underestimated how long it would take me to prepare.

So, next year I’ll do better by sticking to my strategy and planning this BEFORE I board the plane.

To help all you Mega-Meeting attendees out there, here’s my strategy, developed over ~ 6 years of Mega Meeting attendance.  I’m a trainee, so this is specifically for early career professionals and students.


Get some cards with your contact information.  You’ll meet people or see old friends, and this is a quick way to pass along your info.  Pack your registration information and your abstract book if you have it.


This is really personal.  I’m a travelling carpet bag, so I take more than I need.  I wear flats, slacks, and a long-sleeved shirt with a sweater because I freeze during these things.  I bought a very special leather rolling briefcase to take my stuff.  I always bring my computer so I can take notes.  Obviously, I carry more than the average attendee.  If you take notes in your abstract book, you’ll be toting a huge book around, but you could get away with a shoulder bag.  I wanted room for pens, camera, phone/charger, computer, notebook, snacks, toiletries, umbrella, and a water bottle.  I.E., I was in it to win it.  I did pretty well with this.  I LOVE my new professional conference bag–ladies this is a McKlein Glen Ellyn rolling briefcase in red leather.  Gentlemen can certainly enjoy it too, but the majority of your gender appeared to be in the “black leather” shoulder bag category.

McKlein Glen Ellyn Wheeled Briefcase


Read all presentation titles for all the sessions for all four days, and bookmark the individual presentations and/or sessions you want to attending.  Skim this and do not linger.  IGNORE conflicting times.

This took me the 2 hours on the plane.  Luckily I could do it because there was wifi on the plane.

Next examine the  overlapping sessions and make a choice.  Topics are commonly repeated, and you might catch a similar session on another day.   Prioritize in the following way:

1) Career building

2) Knowledge building

3) Friend/colleague building


Make a list of all the people you need to meet while you are there.  Go to the index and look them up.  Bookmark their posters and sessions.  Add them to your session list and re-examine your overlapping time slots.

MAKING PROFESSIONAL CONTACTS AT SCIENTIFIC SESSIONS IS CRUCIAL TO CAREER ADVANCEMENT.  If you are building a career, you MUST NETWORK.  Say hello to old mentors and friends.  Build in time to meet people in your field, introduce yourself, and promote your interests.  You have no idea where this may lead, but this is the time to build those future collaborative networks.


Add your non-scientific meetings/cocktail times/meet-ups/study section meetings to your calendar.  Usually these do not overlap with the scientific sessions.  Often at night & off-site, these will require transportation.  If you don’t have any cocktail meetings planned, you should track some down for your career’s sake.


  • AGA Diversity Reception
  • AGA Women’s luncheon
  • University Alumni receptions
  • Other professional society receptions
  • AGA PAC Policy Roundtable
  • Study Section business meetings


Look up your trainee friends who may be giving sessions/posters.  Hey, you fly out to this once a year.  Have fun, talk about the kids, etc.   Often other trainees have posters, and they are stuck hanging out by them in the middle of the day.  Give them a lovely surprise and go visit them so they don’t pace the two steps in front of the poster for 2 hours.


This one is tough.  This is where I bombed it this year.  I usually do key-word searches on the abstracts using the abstract disc.  I tag the posters I need to check out.  I didn’t do this, and I missed a lot of posters.

This year was particularly tough because I will be a new faculty this year, responsible for  two new fields-IBD & Nutrition.  Do you have any idea how much stuff is out there on IBD (see above)?  It’s impossible to cover!  So, a second strategy is to tag the main poster categories and stroll down the aisles, stopping at interesting titles.


This is mostly for people who can’t afford the DDW hotels.  Use your traveling skills and remember that the time saved by using non-conference transportation (the lines are KILLER at the shuttle) may be worth the $2 train/bus ride.  Also think about time wasted on the busses:  if you are invited to networking meetings that overlap, and it would take you 30 min on the bus, suck it up and pay the $10-$15 bucks for a cab.

Step 7: FOOD

I get my coffee and breakfast before I get down to the meeting.  I go to the 7-11 before I board the train and I get my coffee and several non-junky snacks to carry in my ‘mobile office’.   The markup at the conference can be stiff, and the time to wade through the lines can decrease your poster-browsing time.


This may not be important enough to you each year, but if you REALLY feel you missed some great stuff, then you can usually buy the videos of the sessions.  It’s pricey, so weigh how much you really need it.  I decided that I needed it to prepare for my upcoming boards and to learn all the nutrition information I missed.  I paid $600 onsite (the attendance discount) for a disc of all the educational sessions. OOUUUCCCHHH but I hope worth it.

Everyone approaches these meeting differently, so plan it based on what you need to get out of it.  If you need a broad overview of medical management, you may skip all the poster/session searching and attend the post-graduate courses.  If you are later in your career, this will be “old hat”,  and you probably spend more time social networking and moderating sessions as opposed to attending them.

One last note on the rising use of social networking at Mega Meetings: this year I “tweeted” during the entire session.  It was a lot of fun, and I “met” several new people.  It kept me awake and forced me to process the information quickly and correctly (no one wants to tweet something incorrectly).   If you use twitter (or even if you don’t) you can follow the hashtag of your meeting (ours was #ddw11) to see the tweets from various attendees.  You’ll also see vendor announcements and spammers, but the humanity of all the Mega Minds attending the Mega Meeting may surprise you.

Finally, if you got through all my OCD’ish Type A Super Gunner suggestions,  you might question whether anyone enjoys this stuff.   Having fun is what life’s about–if you don’t enjoy your profession, then you shouldn’t be in it.  I had a great time at DDW.  At the end of the day, relax, have a drink, and ponder for a bit the amazing work that your colleagues are doing.

One Response to “How to Attend a Mega Meeting”

  1. Lena Palmer on October 6, 2011 10:35 PM

    Wow, a real comment! I am SO SORRY it took me this long to see it! I roll through about 400 spam comments at a time, and I essentially never have real ones. Thank you so much for taking the time to post this. Boards are approaching fast, thank you for the best wishes. I don’t know if I’ll be headed to San Diego, but if I do, I’m sure I’ll see you tweeting there! Take care in Ireland–I briefly visited after college and it was beautiful; wish I had spent more time there.

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    About Me

    Professional Gastroenterology Fellow

    Amateur Martha Stewart/Bob Villa/Julia Child/Collette Peters