I’ve seen the future of health conferences. And I’m happy to report it includes puppies.

Dedicated to bringing together the entire health ecosystem, HLTH has developed a reputation for breathing new life into a format that needed refreshing. There’s not much a conference organizer can do about trade-show breath — the pulmonary condition caused by breathing recirculated indoor air for hours on end, or for the sore feet resulting from standing and walking from appointment to appointment all day. But it turns out there’s a lot an organizer can do to ease the pain of back-to-back meetings and of being away from home. And HLTH 2021, held last month, has done a lot. Attendance (around 6,000) felt light, but that was more a function of the cavernous convention space in Boston’s Seaport District.

Witness the endless buffets of a very good lunch HLTH put out for participants. Cod at a trade show? Yes, if it’s in Boston. Want to blow off some steam? Head to the center of the main floor for a spirited game of air hockey or work on your free throws at the Pop-A-Shot pod.

Or play with a puppy. HLTH partnered with a local animal adoption agency to create a play park where conference goers could romp with puppies. You have no idea how much petting a cute dog and feeding him treats can do for busting stress. This should be a new requirement for all conference organizers. 

Another requirement: podcasting infrastructure. HLTH erected a cathedral to the art form on the show’s main floor. The HLTH2021 podcast center contained four multi-microphoned sound booths, complete with mixing and recording boards and technicians to help capture the wisdom and the ideas flowing around the conference. MM+M recorded several podcasts, many of them focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, using the facility; you can listen to them at mmm-online.com. 

It’s a brave new world for conference goers; we were required to upload proof of both vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test to get into the convention center. Masks were mandatory and hand sanitizer ubiquitous as the new trade show giveaway. My favorite new addition: wristbands that tell others your degree of comfort with contact — green for hugs, yellow for fist-bumps and red for stay over there. (I’m a yellow kind of guy.)

Maybe the best innovation at HLTH2021 wasn’t an innovation at all, but something that has been missing from our lives for almost two years: time together. Business pitches, interviews, happy hours. It was all very welcome. 

But not as good as the puppies.