Meetings & Conventions: Attracting a Crowd January
Attracting a Crowd
Managed care has made it more difficult than ever to build
healthy attendance at medical meetings
BY MARIA LENHART
Not long ago, before managed care reconfigured
the medical world, it was relatively easy for doctors to choose
which meetings to attend. As a self-employed free agent, a
physician could simply peruse the brochures and write out a check
to register for the association meeting or continuing medical
education (CME) program of his choice.
Now, however, that same physician is just as likely to be
employed by or affiliated with a large medical organization as he
is to be in private practice. As a result, he may have less time
and discretionary income to spend on meetings. And he may also have
less say-so over which events are worth his while.
"A lot of physicians now find themselves in the same role as
someone who works for ABC Corp. manufacturing widgets," says James
Breeling, a marketing consultant and president of JLB, Inc., a
medical communications company in Northbrook, Ill. "They may be
already committed to certain meetings within the organization. At
the same time, someone else may be determining how much time they
have off." Shrinking budgets, particularly at university medical
facilities, are imposing further limitations, he observes.
Not surprisingly, these trends in the health care profession are
making the job tougher for those who plan and market medical
meetings. Among those feeling the impact is James Ogle, director of
membership and information services for the American Academy of
Orthopaedic Surgeons in Evanston, Ill. "The biggest challenge
facing medical associations is not competition from other CME
programs, but the rise of managed care," he says. "This is what
dilutes our ability to attract participants."
What's the treatment for this gloomy diagnosis? Experts
prescribe a generous dose of smart marketing. Building healthy
attendance these days requires following a set of strategies geared
for the demands of an increasingly competitive marketplace.
Get the word out
Where to begin? First, realize that no one-size-fits-all marketing
plan will work, says David Shore, Coopers & Lybrand director of
continuing professional education at the Harvard School of Public
Health in Cambridge, Mass. He adds that it's a mistake to assume
just one target audience needs to be reached. "An estimated 46
percent of all physicians now have employers, so smart marketing
means reaching not just the attendees, but their bosses and other
possible decision-makers," he says. "It might be just as important
to also send a brochure to the human resources or training
Furthermore, consider the different types of health care
professionals who may be interested in the meeting. Many CME
programs are growing less homogeneous, designed to serve a wide
range of people in the medical field -- not all of them doctors --
notes Shore. It may be necessary to create several different
marketing pieces aimed at various groups of potential attendees.
"Marketing materials should take into consideration things like
gender, geographic origin, job type. People won't come if they
think the program is too broad and not designed specifically for
them. They want to know how it will meet their particular needs,"
Chore or choice?
Shore divides medical meetings into two basic categories: "chore"
and "choice." Chore meetings are those that people must attend
either because they need the education credits or their employers
demand it. Choice meetings are those that aren't essential, but
offer opportunities for professional growth along with some fun and
"The two types of programs require very different marketing, so
it's important to identify which kind you're promoting," says
Shore. "For the chore meeting, you'd emphasize price and
convenience. People want these meetings to be as painless as
possible, they want something close by and cheap. If it's a choice
meeting, people are willing to travel farther and spend more. So
you'd want to emphasize the quality of the experience and the
And, of course, the program has to be appealing. "You've got to
look at your target audience as customers, and that means giving
them what they actually want, not what you think they need," says
Shore. "There's a paternalistic attitude in continuing education
about giving people what we think is good for them and that we know
best. But you should never assume that you know more than your
Breeling suggests doing some one-on-one research on what people
liked and didn't like about the meetings they've already attended.
In the case of an association, he recommends enlisting the help of
board members, the planning committee, officers and others who can
"get out on the meeting floor and talk to the attendees,
physician-to-physician, about what issues concern them and what
they want out of the next meeting." After the meeting, Breeling
recommends asking the same people to call members who did not
attend and find out why.
Such a personalized strategy is far more effective than a
written survey, he says. "The trouble with surveys is that people
won't give you the information you really need. People are much
more likely to open up and be candid with a colleague. They'll
answer the 'why' questions."
Equally important is that such research be conducted every year,
he adds. "It's important to keep current on what people are going
through, and that sort of information shifts all the time," he
says. "This is what enables you to design a program that will be
relevant and attractive to members." Agrees Shore: "You've got to
be aware of the issues that are keeping people up at night. If they
think the meeting will address these concerns, they'll come."
For Dobby Wall, director of meetings services for the American
Dietetic Association in Alexandria, Va., frequently updated
feedback from members is the key factor that determines both the
meeting's focus and how it's marketed. Recent data has caused the
association to shift its marketing focus toward a heavier emphasis
on the serious side of meetings.
"Our members have told us that they have very little time --
that they want to get the credits they need and then get back to
their offices and families," she says. "So we promote the
scientific content of the program, not the city and its
attractions. We also emphasize the networking opportunities
available. We don't promote events as purely social, but as chances
to make new and valuable connections."
Snag them on the Web
For a growing number of medical associations and other CME
providers, the Internet is fast-emerging as an important new
marketing tool. Among the associations with extensive online
services is the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. The
organization makes meetings information a large part of its Web
site, which receives an average of 2,000 hits per day. AAOS decided
to beef up its Web-based communications after a survey revealed
that a majority of members had Internet access, says James Ogle.
The AAOS site enables participants to register online, both for the
annual meeting and for CME programs held throughout the year. The
site also details the content of each upcoming program and includes
a Make Your Own Schedule feature, which lets users sign up for
their courses online.
While the site is popular with the membership in general,
international members have shown the greatest response. "We attract
about 6,000 overseas surgeons to our annual meeting, about
one-third of our total," says Ogle. "The Internet has proved
indispensable for them, enabling them to get information and
register without worrying about time zones and language
Also gearing up its online communications is the American
Diabetes Association in Alexandria, Va. Through active server page
technology, a user answers questions online and is then presented
with a customized Web page. The personalized page includes links to
upcoming ADA meetings and CME programs, allowing users to register
online and view information on content and presenters. The site,
which gets an estimated 700,000 hits per month, also lets users add
their names to ADA's electronic mailing list in order to receive
meeting information and updates via e-mail.
While the information is primarily an electronic version of what
the association sends out in the mail, it offers the advantage of
being easily updated, according to ADA webmaster Kathy Lowe.
"There's an icon for updated information so users can be kept
abreast of any changes in the program."
But it's not enough to have a great Web site if members don't
know about it. "We've registered ours with all the major search
engines, and the address is prominently featured on all of our
letterheads, newsletters and other printed material," says Ogle.
"We also do presentations about the Web site at our meetings and
include an information booth about it at our trade shows."
Give fair warning
Get registration materials out early, ideally at least six months
ahead of the meeting date. "You don't want people to have already
signed up for something else during the dates of your meeting,"
Shore recommends giving people an incentive to register early.
"Getting early registrants will give you a handle on who's coming,
how to run the program and who else to target," he says.
Many offer a discount for early registration. But Shore prefers
to offer a bonus event, available only to the early birds. For a
recent meeting, early registrants were invited to a special
breakfast where they met with experts to discuss issues of their
choice. "People like to get a sense of extra value and to feel that
they're helping direct their own learning," he says.
Noting the upcoming meeting on any type of printed material
remains a simple but effective way to build attendance, adds
Breeling. "Plug the meeting and its dates any way you can -- put in
on the stationary, in the association journal, newsletters. It
becomes like a subliminal message."
Market from within
While getting the word out is key, it's also critical to
communicate well internally. At large medical associations, where
various departments are handling different aspects of the same
meeting, working in sync becomes a challenge.
"Often you've got meeting departments and marketing departments
working in different spheres, and so the meeting ends up getting
marketed as something other than what it really is," says Breeling.
"The two departments have to work closely together and, most
important, have to agree who the market is and what the meeting is
about." *Choose Your
If marketing funds or
manpower are tight, remember you don't have to go it alone. Other
parties have a vested interest in making sure your meeting is
A major source of assistance, particularly if the meeting
is large enough to require a convention center and multiple hotels,
are convention and visitor bureaus. In the case of an annual
convention, some CVBs will jump-start promotional efforts by
sending representatives to the convention held the year before the
group is scheduled to come to their city. Representatives may give
an audiovisual presentation about their city during an opening
session or reception, or set up a booth in the trade show or lobby
area and share information with attendees.
Many CVBs also provide brochures and other collateral.
Some send promotional videos to regional association chapters and
other groups that may be interested in the event.
"Almost anything can be worked out if the business
warrants it," says Stephen Stickford, senior vice president of
marketing for the Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Some
bureaus will assist with telemarketing campaigns in which people
call up potential attendees and encourage them to
In a growing number of cities, CVBs are forming alliances
with local health care professionals with the goal of attracting
more medical meetings to their cities. Such groups include the
Houston Healthcare Congress Leadership Council, Philadelphia
Healthcare Congress, Boston Medical Alliance and Nashville Health
Care Council. Some of these groups have their own speakers' bureaus
and can provide marketing support, information on local service
providers and access to special medical venues.
Pharmaceutical companies, which may have already
collected a wealth of market research on the preferences of your
target audience, can also be valuable partners. "If a
pharmaceutical company is involved in your next meeting, they may
have some useful information to share with you," says James
Breeling, a marketing consultant and president of JLB, Inc., a
medical communications company in Northbrook, Ill.
The Annenberg Center for Health Sciences, a medical
organization in Rancho Mirage, Calif., that sponsors CME programs
and international meetings on health care issues, routinely works
with pharmaceutical companies that have supplied educational grants
for upcoming meetings.
"Often the companies have useful databases and have also
established good relationships with people we would like to attend
our meetings," says Mickey Luckman, business development manager
for the Annenberg Center. "In those cases, we ask the companies to
personally invite those people to attend the meeting. We also share
our promotional materials with them so they can help get the word
But while Luckman and Breeling recommend working with
drug companies, they say you must make it clear that the
partnership is not an opportunity to control meeting content. "It's
a bit like inviting a cat to come over and sniff a bowl of cream --
proceed with caution," says Breeling. * M.L.Watch the
A meeting should be
planned without consideration to the events of similar associations
or CME providers. Well before picking a date, learn when and where
their upcoming meetings are scheduled. "It's awful to find out that
a rival association has planned a meeting at the same time as
yours," says James Breeling, a marketing consultant and president
of JLB, Inc., a medical communications company in Northbrook, Ill.
"You might be sharing some of the same members, and it will dilute
In terms of content and pricing, too, "You have to
position yourself relative to the competition," says David Shore,
Coopers & Lybrand director of continuing professional education
at the Harvard School of Public Health in Cambridge, Mass. "A lot
of information is easily available. You can call up an association
and ask about the upcoming meeting or check out their Web
If possible, attend a competitor's meeting. "It gives you
a chance to see what they're doing right," says Breeling. "It's
perfectly legitimate to steal ideas in this business. If you don't
you may be left out in the cold."
Shore says he actively tracks the meetings and marketing
operations of 13 organizations, only four of which are CME-related.
"It's important to learn to think outside the box, and sometimes
you can get great ideas from what's going on in other industries,"
he says. "The more you research what others are doing, the more
likely you will get out of your rut." * M.L.
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