A health care association conference is something that physicians and other health care providers should look forward to every year, because it affords them the opportunity to network with industry colleagues and discuss the latest trends and procedures, listen to advice and tips from key decision leaders and meet with experts in the field.
Unfortunately, busy health care professionals have precious little free time these days, so the decision to attend their association’s conference or convention is dependent upon how compelling a case meeting planners can make.
Jim S. Goodman, CMP, vice president, division of conferences and continuing education with the American Dental Association, notes that a convention today must provide a strong value proposition or people aren’t going to attend.
“That means more than offering CME/CE credits that meet state re-licensure requirements,” he states. “Those credits can be attained at home by most medical professionals. Their time out of the office, which equates to lost patient visits and revenue, must be outweighed by the benefits of attending.”
He believes the key is to offer unique experiences and learning that is customized for each attendee segment.
“If you can make that happen, they will come back and bring their colleagues,” he says. “This makes for a stronger meeting and satisfies exhibitors and sponsors.”
Jeanne Torbett, CMP, CMMM, president of Superior Media, Meetings & Management Inc., Jacksonville, Florida, plans conferences for the Florida Medical Association and four state medical societies — two in Florida, one in Maryland and one in Texas.
“The first step is to work with the board and get a list of topics, and then my company will take over and do the rest,” she says. “We plan everything from start to finish.”
That includes a long list of responsibilities, such as obtaining corporate support through grants and contributions, securing faculty and moderators, staffing of committees, promoting the event, obtaining entertainment as well as necessary information to meet CME/CEU requirements, posting meeting reports and follow-up, and producing an agenda and minutes from all meetings held throughout the conference.
“The biggest challenge is getting the speakers to provide you with the information you need in a timely manner,” Torbett says. “It takes a lot of organization. It’s like a 10-month process. If you forget something now, it’s going to bite you six months down the line. You have to be so organized that everything gets done in a timely fashion or it will hurt the meeting. You can’t lose any details.”
Katie Koziol, CMP, HMCC, director, client services for Ashfield Meetings & Events, part of the Ashfield Division of UDG Healthcare PLC, notes that busy health care professionals are more selective than ever on what conventions they attend.
“Making attendance as easy as possible is therefore vital,” she says. “They want ROI, ease of access for content online and access to key opinion leaders (KOLs). Taking into account their perspectives and preferences in the format, agenda and activities surrounding the convention is key to ensure success and ROI in the health care professional’s mind.”
This past May, Alisha Cleland, CMP, meeting and event manager for Experient, Twinsburg, Ohio, organized an event for Vision Source, a group of approximately 3,000 optometrists who met in Nashville, Tennessee’s Gaylord Opryland.
“The space allowed for corporate business to utilize the outlets within the hotel for their annual hosting of new prospective members, which is an important part of any association conference,” she says.
Matt Burruss, event director, event services for SmithBucklin, represents five different health care associations planning their annual conferences.
“The biggest buzz I have seen is a huge growth in the live demonstrations and hands-on learning opportunities,” he says. “We’ve been asked to simulcast live surgeries and procedures into sessions recently. One of the interesting things about hands-on learning and simulations is we’ve seen people are very excited to do these and learn about them, whether or not they relate to the field of practice.”
By way of example, Burruss relates that when a recent conference offered a skin-grafting demonstration, many health care professionals outside that area of practice attended.
Another key for successful association conferences today, he notes, is focusing on providing opportunities for people to connect and dive deep.
“More physicians are looking for highly impactful, specific workshops on specific topics,” he says. “This creates a lot of good will from people who attend.”
The biggest trend Cleland is seeing centers on big data, as health care associations are striving to find ways to analyze and apply findings from the vast amount of information they amass from their events.
And, integrating cutting-edge technologies into the attendee experience is a must-have. “The internet of things is something that is being discussed frequently as well as AI and robotic technology,” Cleland notes. “Technology needs and wants increase both from the client and from the attendees, but budgets tend to stay the same. It gets more difficult each year to try to provide the convention with what they need to do business, but also stay on the cusp of what is up and coming to stay relevant.”
Overall, Koziol has seen a shift in mindset with engagement and technology. “Digitally native health care professionals are evolving the way we all look at meetings and conventions, and it’s nice to see associations at the forefront,” she says. “One example is the addition of Alexa stations throughout the convention center. Attendees can use them for instant answers to any of their questions.”
She also has seen an increase in second-screen technology for attendees to view session slides in real time from their personal devices. “Some congresses are offering a PosterCast app to listen to short audio presentations recorded by the authors themselves with their own overview of the poster,” she reports. “It’s a nice personal touch and educational approach. We’ve also seen an increase in livestreaming of key presentations during congresses — all great engagement tactics to enhance the experience and also broaden the audience base.”
Goodman is all for incorporating various technologies at a meeting if they improve the attendee experience and increase engagement.
Bonnie Grant, executive director of PHL Life Sciences, a division of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau that connects the tristate’s (Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware) life sciences leaders representing medical, biotech, pharmaceutical, higher ed, research, venture capital and the health care industries, says engaging physician attendees is a top priority at these conventions.
“I understand that an annual meeting is often the main source of revenue for an association, so successful attendance and number of exhibitors is key,” she says. “It is important to communicate early and connect with the destination early to discover potential partnerships and maximize benefits from the destination’s medical, corporate and government assets.”
Furthermore, to keep meetings unique and interesting, she notes that it’s important to engage with a destination and leverage local resources and experiences.
Mary C. Wolski, CMP, director, conference and event services for Chicago, Illinois-based Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, ran the academy’s centennial conference in Chicago this past October. “Our biggest buzz is what is hot in the field of nutrition. What is the latest and greatest new idea? How can we help people eat healthier? This is a huge challenge as we are the leader in this field and people look to a dietitian as the expert,” she says. “The challenge is most of the dietitians are paying their own way to our meeting and the average cost (depending on the city) is about $1,200 per person, which is steep for some of our members.”
Creating a valuable experience that one wants to attend, she says, takes a fantastic education and conference team who communicates and learns what worked and didn’t work in the conference surveys; and makes sure changes are made when needed.
“Lastly, work well with all of your vendors,” Wolski says. “They are an extension of your team, and they help create the magic of your convention.”
Burruss notes a successful conference focuses on comprehensive attendee engagement. “Getting them involved in discussions is important; and having message boards with permeating topics that can be continued onsite at the meetings,” he says. “And you should make sure people are making lasting connections. You do this with follow-up webinars or online learning after the convention.”
Cleland believes that communication from all parties involved is the No. 1 aspect to running a successful association conference, as encouraging communication will help the organization focus efforts on what their attendees expect, while planners try to align both expectations with the organization’s goals.
“The planner needs to know the goals of the organization to be able to communicate necessities to suppliers and facilities,” she shares. “The attendees need to be able to communicate what they are hoping to learn, experience or see at the upcoming convention to be sure they get the best value for their investment of time and money — and the attendee also should be able to communicate back what they enjoyed about the conference as well as what they would have liked to experience, or what they wish they would have gotten a chance to experience.”
When it comes to regulations, Goodman notes organizers need to stay informed within their respective vertical within the health care sector. That includes staying up-to-date on legislative changes and requirements, new clinical research, equipment, material and drug advancements, and new treatment protocols. “They then need to be flexible to incorporate these into their programming, even if it’s at the very last minute to remain ‘cutting edge’ to their participants,” he says. “I think there is a lot of uncertainty in the health care field with regulation challenges, changes to benefits, etc. Uncertainty could lead to reluctance in participation by self-funded medical professionals and/or reassessment by employers who fund participants.”
Grant says that evolving compliance codes and regulations around medical meetings makes it necessary to invest in certification and professional development that advances knowledge in that area.
Koziol notes having a strong knowledge and understanding of EFPIA (European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations) and Open Payments for global conventions is critical to ensure compliance with accommodations, meeting space, F&B and travel. “With global attendees regularly participating in conventions outside their country, these regulations have significantly impacted the convention landscape over the last several years and are critical.”
While Cleland doesn’t have much experience working around regulations at shows, she has seen associations pay extra mind to how they promote sponsoring and exhibiting companies, because there are rules in place as to who can and can’t be involved. She has rules she must follow, as well. “Competitors cannot be within so many booth spaces of one another, and whatever dedicated time certain levels of sponsorship have to present privately to attendees is juggled around how many sponsors of the same level need that same face time,” she says. “It is a balancing act, for sure.”
Another regulation that convention planners must be mindful of concerns what’s going on with the continuing medical education (CME or CE) credits. Torbett says there are certain things you can’t do, such as having exhibits in the classrooms or having those obtaining the credits walk past the exhibit hall to get to the classroom.
Burruss adds that regulations impact how the planners work — especially on the research side of the health care conferences. “One of the things we have been watching closely is the uncertainty of the Affordable Care Act and what will happen to regulations like the Sunshine Act,” he says. “How we interact with them will be impacted and the types of funding sources we are able to go after for our conference.”
No matter how much effort goes into conference organizing, thing still can go wrong, and a savvy meeting planner will need to adapt quickly. “Few times does everything run smoothly; however, I think to have the best chance at most everything going smoothly all comes back to communication,” Cleland says. “The meeting planner, the facility and supplier contacts, all the way down to service staff, are a team. Expectations should be set clearly and early on in the planning process so everyone is on the same page.”
In the event there is a bump in the road during the program, she adds, it’s important to be flexible and be open to suggestions from other team members.
The biggest challenges associations face continue to revolve around funding costs and budget costs, and this must all be weighed when planning an event.
“There’s a somewhat uncertain political environment with health care, and we are seeing more anxiety even though we haven’t seen the cuts yet,” Burruss says. “People are being very conservative with sending people to conferences because of what could be coming down the road. You must make sure there is great value there for people to attend.”
These conferences are important, but Koziol feels evaluating the length of conventions should be reviewed in the future: “With limited availability to be away from their practice and less sponsorship opportunities from pharma, health care professionals are more selective (about) attending as many conventions as they previously have. Virtual elements of a congress are a nice complement to live attendance so further exploration of that is an interesting and important topic to discuss and review moving forward.”
In the future, Burruss foresees the research side progressing and association conferences becoming more technical in terms of device and surgical procedures, and the new equipment being used.
“Things will become more groundbreaking,” he says. “We need to be conscious of this. The shift will slowly evolve into these technical conferences. We need to find the right spaces and facilities and target the right speakers because that’s where we will provide value for the attendees.” AC&F