January 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Attracting a Crowd January 1998 Current Issue
January 1998
Attracting a Crowd

Managed care has made it more difficult than ever to build healthy attendance at medical meetings


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 director."

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," he says.

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 relaxation.

"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 destination."

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 customers."

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 barriers."

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," says Breeling.

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 Partner
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 well-attended.

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 attend."

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 out."

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 Competition
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 your audience."

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 site."

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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