Code Changes Can Confuse Attendees

How have PhRMA code changes really affected medical conventions? Marketech, which provides staff training, strategic planning and consulting services to exhibitors, published a white paper on that topic last June, based on analysis of events in the first half of 2009. The Westboro, Mass.-based company found that code changes only minimally affected exhibit visitation. Eighty-five percent of the 550 participants interviewed said the PhRMA code changes did not affect their visits to exhibits at medical conventions.

Since publishing that report, Marketech has conducted follow-up research among medical convention attendees. The number of respondents who indicated the code changes haven't affect exhibit visitation remained relatively high -- although that number has dipped a bit, to 69 percent.

Perhaps more significantly, a large contingent of attendees remain in the dark about code changes. "We found while interviewing at specialty conventions -- the American Diabetes Association, ENDO [The Endocrine Society Meeting & Expo] and American Association of Diabetes Educators -- the number of health-care providers who were not aware of PhRMA was much higher than those interviewed at more general med/pharma events," says Marketech founder and partner Marc Goldberg. More than 26 percent of respondents at specialty events didn't know about the PhRMA code; 22 percent of respondents overall among all med/pharma meeting attendees polled were in the dark concerning the code.

When speaking to convention attendees, Marketech staff found that many were surprised by the changes, and some were disappointed. "The fun atmosphere is gone; it's rather dry," was one representative response from that contingent, according to Goldberg. Among those who didn't know about the PhRMA code, many didn't understand that it was established by a self-regulating trade group, rather than by the government. Disappointed attendees weren't sure whom to blame.

For show organizers, these findings represent a real opportunity to improve the attendee experience. "You still have some health-care professionals who get on the floor and maybe even get irate," points out Eric Allen, executive vice president of the Healthcare Convention & Exhibitors Association in Atlanta. "They're saying, 'What's up? Where are all the giveaways?' without any understanding that the exhibitors are trying to comply with a code. So I've heard a lot of the societies talk about and debate their role in trying to educate and prepare their attendees. Some have even taken steps to try and rebrand their exhibit hall -- calling it something like an 'innovation zone' or an 'education hall.' They're communicating in some way that there has been a change."

This is an approach to which show organizers should be giving more thought if they haven't already, adds Allen. "Do they want to provide more information to their attendees to make the transition smoother? We might be a little late now, but if they sense there is any confusion among their attendees about this, it might still have merit. In general, attendee confusion continues to exist."

The HCEA has long recommended that associations and societies maintain an exhibitors advisory council -- usually five to six representatives from among a society's exhibitors, ideally representative of a broad spectrum of exhibitors in terms of size and experience. Such a council could be a huge benefit in developing a plan to keep attendees well informed, says Allen. "Exhibitors can tell the association what they're seeing when attendees come to their booths," he explains. "The society can take that feedback and craft a communication plan accordingly."

Exhibitors advisory councils are particularly crucial in today's environment, adds Allen. "There are more pressures on this marketing medium now, arguably, than there ever have been. But exhibitors and associations are very much still on the same team. Their goal, in terms of the focus on the attendee, is still the same. They want to provide a health-care professional with an efficient and effective educational experience, and that surrounds the whole convention, including the exhibit floor. So communicating with each other about ways to do that more effectively is more important now than ever."