The following interview with John Vogel was published in 2004 in the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions's official journal, Catheterization and Cardiovascular Interventions (Issue 63, p.399–400).
The Snowmass Conference: A Conversation With Founder John Vogel
Now in its 36th year, the Annual Cardiovascular Conference at Snowmass in Colorado has not only become a tradition but has also set the standard for other continuing education programs. Sponsored by the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions (SCAI) and cosponsored by the American College of Cardiology (ACC), this year’s event will take place Jan. 17–21 and feature world-class education and skiing. CCI talked with John H.K. Vogel, MD, FSCAI, MACC, who founded the conference in 1968 and has directed it ever since.
Q: What was continuing education like pre-Snowmass?
A: By and large, the meetings were pretty hard-core. And they didn’t involve families. That was one of the things that concerned me—that we were so busy. When I started the Snowmass meeting, I was an associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and director of the catheterization lab. My time was consumed by developing new ideas, doing research, writing papers, teaching, and going to research-type meetings. That takes a lot of time, with not much left over for family.
Q: How did you come up with the Snowmass idea?
A: I was on the site-selection committee for the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association meetings. I said I had some ideas about smaller meetings that would have the best faculty, cutting-edge sessions, and a place the whole family could enjoy, with time set aside so they could enjoy it together. There was no question in my mind that it would work. The problem was that some people were concerned that people wouldn’t come to the sessions, especially afternoons. Before then, there had been meetings in nice places now and then, and frequently people didn’t show up. I was convinced that if I had the country’s leading speakers talking about cutting-edge stuff, they’d be there. I was right. Of course, now everyone is copying this format. There are lots of extramural programs with this set-up, but as far as I know, Snowmass was the first. And while I don’t have any data, I suspect the Snowmass conference has saved a lot of marriages!
Q: Why Snowmass?
A: Snowmass, which is a few miles from Aspen, was just being built. I went there to look it over and loved it, because once you get there you’re set. You don’t have to drive anywhere. Another neat thing was they were developing ski areas for all levels, from beginners to superexperts. If you just want to cruise along, you can do that. If you want to jump off cliffs, you can do that, too. Perhaps the best thing is they have what I’m convinced is the world’s best ski school. My kids learned to ski there. And I used to sit around the fire with John Denver, before he was very well known, and chat with him.
Q: So the conference and Snowmass have grown up together.
A: Yes. Ours was the first program at Snowmass, and it’s been the largest one ever since. Because of its success, Snowmass built a conference center in 1985. Our attendance varies from 400 to 600, but counting family members it’s not uncommon to have 2,500 people. We take over the whole village. They love me! They even named a ski slope after me to celebrate the conference’s 30th anniversary. It’s an intermediate slope—a “bump run”—called the Jack of Hearts and one of only three runs with someone’s name attached.
Q: How has the program itself evolved over the years?
A: It started out as a three-day program. Then I took it to five. In the very beginning, it was more focused. The very first one focused on hypoxia, high altitude, and the heart, because I was doing research on that topic. Another year it was devoted entirely to heart surgery. But about five years down the road, it evolved into a general meeting. Now it’s a “cover the waterfront” survey. A lot of people come to this meeting rather than the big national meetings because they feel they get what they need to stay on top.
Q: What’s the conference’s goal?
A: It’s not a review session. It presents cutting-edge cardiology—the most recent advances, where we’re going, and how to get there. We want to be out in front so that participants will hear what’s happening, what’s going to happen, and some of the controversies.
Q: What’s a typical day like?
A: Most days we start at 7:30 and stop at 9:30, then restart at 3:30 and go until 6:30. Participants have from 9:30 to 3:30 to get out, hit the slopes, and spend time with their families.
Q: Are you excited to have SCAI as the conference’s new sponsor?
A: I’m very happy. I love the Society’s enthusiasm and excitement. And I really love the new conference brochure, which is available on SCAI’s Web site, www. scai.org.
Q: Does the shift in sponsorship from ACC to SCAI signal a shift in focus?
A: No. The meeting has always had a good focus on interventional cardiology. I’m an interventional cardiologist, so I’ve always made sure we got into that. Of course, there will, as always, be something for everyone— clinical cardiologists, echocardiographers, nuclear cardiologists, electrophysiologists, …. This will be a thorough and comprehensive program.
Q: Do you organize the conference alone?
A: I have two co-directors this year, Spencer B. King, III, MD, FSCAI, MACC, and Robert M. Bersin, MD, FSCAI, FACC. They’ve been very helpful in suggesting specific topics and speakers and helping to raise funding. My wife, who has her own travel agency, takes care of logistics. Cynthia always manages to get the best possible rates for lodging, lift tickets, and equipment rentals. And she works very hard at getting good air rates. We try to keep it affordable.
Q: Snowmass isn’t the only conference you organize, is it?
A: Right. I have another meeting called the Annual Cardiovascular Conference in Hawaii I started 20 years ago. It’s the same concept as Snowmass. I started that one because not everyone likes to ski. I also put on the ACC’s first interventional meeting and did that in Santa Barbara from 1985 to 1995. More recently, I decided that we should be getting into alternative and complementary medicine since it’s sweeping the country. I convinced the ACC to let me put on the College’s first meeting integrating complementary medicine into cardiology. We did the first one in Santa Barbara three years ago. I did the second one in Hawaii last year.
Q: Sounds like a lot of work.
A: There’s an awful lot involved just in getting the faculty together, interacting with them, handling reimbursements afterwards. It goes on all year long. You haven’t even finished one year when you’re well into the next. And I still practice full-time and work in the laboratory when requested, although I don’t do night call anymore and hope to retire soon. I’ve worked in the lab now for 45 years. There aren’t many people who can compete with that! I started in 1959, when I was chief medical resident at Vanderbilt University, and haven’t missed a beat since.
Q: What’s your secret?
A: I guess I’ve always loved the creative side of things—making new things happen and promoting them. And education is so fantastically important. There are so many great things happening. It’s exciting to get them out there.