Health Care Conventions: Giving Attendance a Shot in the ArmDecember 1, 2014

Build Healthier Numbers in the Face of New Challenges By
December 1, 2014

Health Care Conventions: Giving Attendance a Shot in the Arm

Build Healthier Numbers in the Face of New Challenges
An interactive exhibit at the 2014 American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry Annual Session in Boston. The Session attracted a record 6,800 attendees. Credit: Michael Kardas Photography

An interactive exhibit at the 2014 American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry Annual Session in Boston. The Session attracted a record 6,800 attendees. Credit: Michael Kardas Photography

The vitality of a trade typically bolsters attendance at conventions held by the trade association: More professionals entering the field translates to more members and more attendees, and progress in the field translates to more professionals wishing to congregate to learn about and discuss those developments. Recent examples of this principle in action come from the health care field.

Cancer research has seen much activity as of late with new drugs, research and clinical trials, and it’s likely not a coincidence that the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based American Association for Cancer Research has seen strong increases in attendance at its Annual Meeting. “We’ve had a record-breaking year in 2014 with almost 19,000 attendees in San Diego, and the year before it was well over 17,000. So attendance has been continuously growing, and in line with that, our exhibits have increased in number,” reports Pamela Ballinger, CMP, senior director, meetings and exhibits, citing 22 new exhibitors.

The field of pediatric dentistry also has been quite active in recent times, with “a growing number of pediatric dentists available each year as more programs have been added to the schools,” notes Tonya Almond, CMP, vice president, meetings and continuing education, at Chicago, Illinois-based American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. In addition, “there is a new focus in the last couple of years on evidence-based dentistry, and it’s very important in the organization to provide the best scientific evidence in the Annual Session.” These trends in the profession, Almond feels, have contributed to a recent upswing in attendance, with nearly 6,800 total attendees in Boston this year, representing about “a third of our active membership.” “I’ve been here five to six years, and each year we beat our attendance. It’s a good streak we’ve been on.”

ROI and the Burden of Proof

However, some health care associations have seen reserved participation by exhibiting companies, due to diverse factors. Carrie Abernathy, CMP, CEM, CSEP, director of education, training and events at Reston, Virginia-based Practice Greenhealth, notes an increase in delegates but a drop in exhibitors at this year’s CleanMed, held at the new Cleveland Convention Center and Global Center for Health Innovation. “I believe that attendee budgets for continuing education and conferences are finally being ‘unfrozen’ or increased, but exhibiting companies are tightening their belts on which shows they choose to exhibit and cutting their budgets,” she says. “We don’t live in a world where companies exhibit at all trade shows in their subject area just to be present anymore. Exhibitors need to see ROI and demonstrate ROI to upper management for each show. This means that, more than ever, conference managers need to work hard to provide exhibitors with post-show feedback and statistics as soon as possible in order to bring exhibitors back the next year.” 

“I believe that attendee budgets for continuing education and conferences are finally being ‘unfrozen’ or increased, but exhibiting companies are tightening their belts on which shows they choose to exhibit and cutting their budgets.” — Carrie Abernathy, CMP, CEM, CSEP

Alternatively, a reduction in the number of exhibitors can reflect mergers that have taken place. “Many of the pharmaceutical companies have merged, so where you used to have 50 exhibitors now you may have 30 companies,” notes Cathy L. Nash, CMP, director, meetings and conventions department, with Arlington, Virginia-based American Psychiatric Association. Nash observed a drop from 2,891 registered exhibitors in 2008 to 1,555 at this year’s Annual Meeting in New York, “quite a drastic drop in just six years.”

The American Psychiatric Association also has had to contend with an overall decline in attendance since 2009, prior to which attendance had been in the 18,000 to 20,000 range, highlighted by a record 27,000 attendees in New York in 2004. This year’s meeting in New York, a city with traditionally high attendance for the organization, drew just 16,517, and next year’s meeting in Toronto is expected to draw around 12,000, Nash says.

Yet the challenge of declining registrants has led the association to take some instructive measures. For one, supplier partners for future meetings are kept apprised of the attrition trend, especially because the meetings are booked so far out. “We’re constantly having to renegotiate contracts because we signed them so far in advance, and what we do each year after the meeting has taken place is send the future cities our room pickup history and our revenue history, so that the cities are aware of changing patterns in our meeting,” Nash explains. “We send that information to the CVBs and the key hotels that we’ve signed. And as we get closer and closer, we’re signing fewer and fewer overflow hotels and doing a smaller overall peak night package than we used to do.”

International groups who use their own travel agents are also contributing to the attrition problem. “They’ll sometimes book at two or three hotels with different travel agencies, and then right before the deadline, they might cancel 50–60 rooms in the block, and it creates a big problem for us,” she relates. “So in 2015 we’re going to institute a charge if they don’t stay within the block. We’re going to see how that works for those groups, and then possibly broaden it to all registrants in the future.”

Adapting to New Regulations

According to Nash, one development that has adversely impacted attendance at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting is the PhRMA regulations instituted in the last few years. “Prior to 2009 we had much more participation from the pharma industry. Companies were allowed to support bringing in international attendees; they were allowed to pay for travel and registration for doctors. Sometimes they would bring in large groups of 300 to 400 physicians. And now our largest group of physicians might be 30–40,” she notes. “So we’ve seen our largest decline in international attendance since those guidelines have changed.”

The latest regulatory development, the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, requires manufacturers of drugs, medical devices and biologicals to report all transfers of value exceeding $10 they make to physicians. Reports of 2013 data were made available to the public in September. While the Act does not directly affect health care associations, these organizations can both help exhibiting companies in the data collection effort, and make delegates aware of the Act and the kind of information that will be reported.

“What the Sunshine Act is going to mean down the road is not that clear to anyone, but we’ve started collecting NPI (national provider identifier) numbers from physicians. The exhibitors may at some point need that data,” says Nash. “If they have a product theater, for instance, and a box lunch is given away, we actually put up signage at those events and state what the Sunshine Act is and that the food product (value transfer) may be reported, so it’s clear for all attendees. We also publicize how the Act affects them in the program book as well. We feel that’s our responsibility with a new regulation. And we have (knowledgeable) staff on hand answering questions about the Act.”

Over the last three to four years, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry also has been collecting attendees’ NPI numbers during registration, “so any of the exhibiting companies can download that themselves and have access to it for their reporting,” Almond explains. While the Annual Session does not see many pharma companies exhibiting, the Sunshine Act also applies to medical device manufacturers, and some of these kinds of companies do exhibit (even the toothbrush is defined as a medical instrument, Almond adds).

Preceding the regulation on financial transparency, the PhRMA guidelines dissuaded any gift-giving by exhibitors in the first place, and that can make it more difficult to draw attendees into the exhibit hall. “In the old days they would go in to get the giveaways, and those don’t exist anymore,” says Ballinger. “So we have a spotlight theater in the hall, food stations and our huge AACR Central membership booth. We work very hard to come up with things that are going to drive attendance in the hall, and then it’s up to the exhibitors to, obviously. Most of them work very hard to make what they do in the booth to be of educational import.”

Maximizing Valuable Time

Health care associations also need to work hard to drive attendance to the annual convention itself, either to preserve an uptick in attendance or recover from declining numbers. This multifaceted effort often includes tweaking the schedule and programming to facilitate participation. “Our attendees are busy health care professionals that have very little time for conferences and continuing education,” Abernathy says. Part of making CleanMed a draw is thus to maximize the value for attendees who take time away from the office to attend. “We co-locate other meetings, and we provide several continuing education credits in one location. We also hold a large awards gala to award top hospitals and professionals at the same time as the conference, so that they can take time off for the conference and gala at the same time.”

In a similar vein, the American Psy­chiatric Association compressed its convention from six days into five a few years ago, moving more programming into the weekend that starts the event. “On Saturday and Sunday we used to only have our courses, which are six- to eight-hour ticketed events. So members were registering for the meeting and unless they were attending those courses there really wasn’t much else for them to do on those days,” Nash explains. “Now, the full program starts on Saturday with symposia, workshops and so on. So members who can’t be away from their practice on weekdays can come just for the weekend for the 8 a.m.–5 p.m. programming.” In addition, the organization offers the opportunity for members to meet all their CME requirements for the year by attending the full five days.

Innovative Technology

Education at the more scientifically oriented health care conventions often carries robust AV requirements, and the American Association for Cancer Research’s Annual Meeting offers just one example. “AV is one of our hot buttons. It’s probably the thing we spend the most money on because every room has AV, and with any scientific meeting if the AV isn’t stellar, your whole meeting is a failure,” Ballinger stresses.

An innovative use of AV technology can be seen in the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry’s latest Annual Session, where the poster competition “went virtual.” “We’ve gotten rid of the old poster boards, and we’re doing an e-poster gallery and poster app (using the vendor CadmiumCD). The students love it because they’re not spending the dollars to create the posters that most of them don’t have the software to do, and they don’t have to stand for three hours just to be judged face-to-face. Now we’re just asking our residents to give a half-hour presentation,” Almond says. The presentation technology includes 55-inch monitors and an iPad on a stand, used to zoom in and out. Also, there are on-demand stations in a rotunda where further discussion about the posters can be pursued.

“We’ve actually had some program directors say they had stopped telling students they needed to do posters, but now because it’s electronic, they’re having them take up the project again. We had 100 more poster submissions from 2013–14,” she notes. While some attendees have indicated that they miss the social aspect of the traditional poster hall, “you’re never going to make everybody happy all the time,” Almond says.

These days, much socializing and networking at conventions take place virtually, or face-to-face facilitated by social media tools. And health care conventions are certainly part of the trend. “Our conference utilizes the SpotMe mobile app to connect our attendees,” says Abernathy. Gamification also furthered networking at CleanMed 2014. “We handed our Wi-Fi-activated iPod touches to attendees and engaged them throughout the conference with games that pushed them to interact with peers and exhibitors. For example, the attendee that used their iPod to scan the most attendee badges during networking events won a prize. We also used a ‘treasure map’ on the app to direct attendees to certain exhibitors on the expo floor.”

The American Psychiatric Association also uses a virtual tool that supports exhibitor promotion. Attendees receive a link to a Virtual Registration Bag that includes links to exhibitor materials. “We found many registrants would throw away the physical bag,” Nash says. “We charge exhibitors a fee to put a document in the bag, and our internal staff can put in pieces advertising the sessions.”

Planners cannot control all the factors that affect convention attendance, including trends in the health care field and economic conditions. They also depend on committees, presenters and exhibitors to create a conference with engaging, topical content that will draw members. Yet planners can seek to ensure that the site choice, conference scheduling, presentation technology and networking tools all support a convenient, effective experience for delegates, the kind of experience that ultimately supports healthy attendance figures. AC&F

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