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How do you hold a congress
when the speakers
are busy treating COVID-19?



DAY IN THE LIFE: Raffaella Donadio scientific affairs manager at
the European Society of Anaesthesiology and Intensive Care talks to Holly Patrick about carving out her career and the challenges of planning a congress when the speakers and attendees are frontline workers.

What’s your role at ESAIC & how has it developed?

I have been working at the European Society of Anaesthesiology and Intensive Care since 2013. During the first years I worked in different departments and I must say that I didn’t like it at the time, but now I realise how enriching it was – I built an in-depth knowledge of the organisation and some years later I became responsible for the scientific department, leading and coordinating a committee with about 100 anesthesiologists and intensivists whose main task is creating the content we share with our community.

Today, I have full responsibility for the content development, delegates’ learning experience, the scientific programmes, workshops and simulation organisation, abstracts management, faculty communication flow, identification and measurement of KPIs and results evaluation, education innovation and I oversee all the projects related to Patient Safety.

How did you get into content and education planning?
Most of the people who reply to this question would say “by chance” well, this was not the same for me. When I moved to Brussels, I started working as a consultant for a European consultancy specialising in health projects.

During this experience, I helped clients define strategies and campaigns for specific target groups about health-related messages (childhood obesity, nutrition, drugs, alcohol abuse and sexual behaviours) based on an in-depth knowledge of the health challenges and EU policies. One of my main tasks was coordinating the content development for health-related events such as workshops or medical congresses, which I soon realized I liked a lot.

Content is king at any event and I do feel the ultimate goal of my work is creating new educational opportunities and knowledge development that are essential to advance medicine and contribute to economic progress, healthy populations and well-being. That’s why I decided to become a manager in this field. It didn’t just happen, I decided to pursue my career in this field and I jumped on the opportunity to join ESAIC in 2013.

A big congress is like driving a boat, you need to equip it and think of every single detail before sailing

How has COVID-19 affected ESAIC’s events?

The impact was huge, like for many associations, but in our case, it was a real shock. Our community is made up of anesthesiologists and intensivists who are the specialists in the frontline to deal with the pandemic. So, in a couple of weeks, our mailboxes completely shut down, because they were all busy in the hospitals. And we were stuck.

It’s impossible to organise an event without speakers, delegates and committee members. Luckily, because we have the chance to work with a great community, they did miracles replying during the nights or in between shifts and helped us to go ahead. I was impressed by their dedication and passion.

Meanwhile, the budgets were heavily impacted by the pandemic. From this point of view, we were not completely unprepared. In about 10 years, ESAIC passed from a congress-centered model, where the congress was the only source of revenue, to a more balanced model where aother two areas become bigger: the research, with the launch of our Clinical Trials Network, and the examinations, different exam types organised all over the year. This approach lowered the business risk and had a positive impact on the budget balance, helping us to weather the storm.

Don’t do something just because it was done that way – challenge every single step, always

What are the biggest challenges when organising international events, especially in the current pandemic?

A big congress is like driving a boat, you need to equip it and think of every single detail before sailing. If something happens, it’s complicated to change your course, especially because of the number of stakeholders involved. But this is basically what happened with COVID-19.

When the pandemic started, our congress was only two months away, 90 per cent of the work was done and suddenly, we had to rethink it from the scratch. It was unbelievable challenging and we were working, for the very first time, in unprecedented uncertainty. And uncertainty is today, the key element when we plan an event. We used to work on one event at the time, today the challenge is making sure that we are able to adapt and change the event at any moment – basically we work on two or three scenarios together in order to able to switch, if needed.

The aim is not making more profit, the aim is to be able to reinvest in the organisation

What do you wish you had known when you started the role?

I would have loved to have a couple of hints. First of all, when working on a new event, we are flooded by impulsive 'great and innovative ideas' coming from all over the organisation. Having a clear strategy and being able to base the choices on analytics and findings – without killing the energy or the enthusiasm of course – is key.

Secondly, don’t do something just because it was done that way – challenge every single step, always. It’s tiring, sometimes it can create some tensions, but I am deeply convinced that this is the only way to advance and renovate projects.

What is a permanent change you would like to see in the association event planning industry?

I think the pandemic has been an accelerator. It highlighted, in a very short period, the many issues we were already aware of and gave us the possibility to see clearly the evolution of our industry.

For years, associations have been assessing the fact that the model should change and not be based only on the congress as a first, sometimes unique, source of revenue. We were all aware but the pandemic made it clearer and unavoidable.

The real challenge in associations should be creating new services for the community thus new sources of income, in order to lower the risk linked to the congress business and increase the offer for the members.

I would like to see a new entrepreneurial spirit and renovated business models able to balance and secure revenues. The aim is not making more profit, the aim is to be able to reinvest in the organisation and continue serving our members and community by creating and sharing knowledge and opportunities, which is our ultimate goal.


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