Northstar Meetings Group presents a new editorial series focusing on some of the hottest and most important meetings industry segments. Our in-depth coverage pinpoints trends, provides critical insights and offers expert advice for buyers and sellers in key sectors. Read more in our series here
In the not-too-distant past, enticing busy health-care professionals (HCPs) to attend meetings was, for the most part, a simple endeavor that involved sending out a few pieces of printed collateral with bare-bones descriptions of program content. However, the times, to quote an old Bob Dylan song, are "a-changin.'" Thanks to a variety of catalysts, convincing busy physicians and others in the health-care/life-sciences space that meetings are worth attending now requires using multiple communications channels to market each event. It also means incorporating innovative programming that goes beyond the traditional lecture format. Following this approach is especially important when physicians comprise the target audience, because they receive twice as many invitations to meetings as they accept, according to Sarah Best Port, MBA, HMCC, director of operations, BCE Meetings and Events.
Less Money, Less Time
Industry activity attendant to consolidation and acquisition ranks among factors sparking the need to step up health-care meeting marketing and programming efforts. "Increasingly, physician groups are merging with or absorbing other practices, or are being bought by hospitals," says Steve Folstein, M.Ed, director of operations at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI), which held its 2017 Annual Meeting in Atlanta. "As a result, more and more physicians are becoming employees who don't have the same control over their time as they once did and cannot easily justify traveling to multiple meetings."
Port agrees, adding that the advent of managed care means physicians are working longer hours and have less time for themselves and their families — let alone significant time to attend meetings.
Fueling the fire as well is the increased online access to continuing medical education courses, which are mandatory in order for HCPs to meet certification requirements year after year. "HCPs can get their continuing education while sitting on their couch," states Gregg Lapin, CMP, director of meeting services for the American Association of Diabetes Educators. "Many ask themselves why they should travel to a meeting to earn CME credit, when they can do it for free from a computer whenever and wherever they want to."
Lapin also points to the rising cost of transportation, lodging and meals. Some non-physician HCPs cannot comfortably cover these expenditures multiple times per year, he explains.
Part of the key to pushing back against these challenges lies in leveraging multiple forms of communication to persuade HCPs to seriously consider attending meetings. The American College of Cardiology (ACC) has expanded its meeting marketing efforts from print mail alone to encompass email, web-based advertisements and cross-promotion at other industry meetings as well as during ACC events other than the one currently being held (for instance, publicizing the Annual Scientific Session & Expo at smaller workshops). Next year's Annual Scientific Session & Expo will be known as ACC.20/WCC and will be held in conjunction with the World Heart Federation World Congress.
"On our main website, we also use video vignettes featuring [members of] our Annual Scientific Session Program Committee talking to physicians about why they should attend," states Sue Sears Hamilton, team leader of ACC.20/WCC and of the ACC's Annual Meetings and Programs Department. Together, these initiatives pack a more powerful persuasive punch than traditional printed materials, Hamilton observes.
Much the same rings true for the AAAAI and the American College of Radiology (ACR). AAAAI member physicians receive email blasts about specific programs, as well as routine email communications that, along with coverage about developments within the college and the field of allergy and immunology, spotlight upcoming meetings. Information about meetings also is included in print newsletters mailed to members three to four times each year, and postcards urging them to "save the date" of or register for particular meetings are sent out when needed.
"All of this helps us cover our bases better than we would with just mailers, because our members are so busy that they might miss one communication but not another," Folstein says. "We do have a Twitter account, too, and we use it, but our membership skews a bit older, so we don't see other social media being a part of our marketing strategy."
For its part, the ACR harnesses targeted email blasts, social media and direct mail pieces. Such a diverse marketing strategy, coupled with a strong events marketing presence on the Society's website, allows it to communicate with its members based on their preferred method of communication, which is extremely important in the medical meetings market, says Pamela Plater, director, meeting services.
But no matter how meetings are marketed to HCPs, all collateral should convey the different ways in which these events will deliver value. "HCPs aren't interested in seeing, for example, a big play-up of the keynote speaker, because nobody registers for a keynote," Lapin asserts. "They want to hear about the guts — specifically, what they're going to learn and how, and what opportunities are going to be provided to them."
Folstein concurs. The perception of value — or of its absence — has a major impact on "whether an HCP chooses to go to a particular meeting or not, or picks one meeting over another if it's impossible to do both," he says. It also helps HCPs who need authorization from others to attend a meeting make a strong case with their superiors for doing so.
Delivering on demands for programming that extends far beyond what Plater calls "didactic lectures" goes hand-in-hand with smart marketing in bringing HCPs to the medical/life sciences meetings table. Ample networking options fall into this category.
"[HCPs] are looking for opportunities to gather information that will benefit their practice and their patients, as well as to network with both peers and experts in their field," Port notes. She adds that statistics from a survey of physicians conducted by American Express Meetings & Events underscore the importance of supporting networking at health-care-oriented meetings: Sixty-eight percent of physicians queried for the survey cited networking with peers as a key benefit of attending industry meetings.
Port and other sources point out that HCPs appreciate and favor different and creative networking opportunities. An approach undertaken by the AAAAI at its 2017 meeting comprises an example. There, the AAAAI Foundation held its Fifth Annual "Light Up the Night" 5K Run/Walk, promoted as a chance for attendees to raise money for asthma, allergy and immunology research while simultaneously enjoying "fun networking opportunities" with their peers.
The course incorporated a variety of downtown Atlanta landmarks, among them State Farm Arena, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Castleberry Hill neighborhood, Atlanta City Hall and Georgia State Capitol. Also based in Atlanta, Hinman Dental Society, which holds its Thomas P. Hinman Dental Meeting in the city each year, facilitated better networking at its 2019 event through limited access to the exhibit hall. For two hours on one day and one hour on another day, only dentists — and no other dental professionals in attendance, such as dental hygienists — were permitted to enter the hall. The exclusive hours were intended to allow dedicated professionals to connect with each other and with vendors in an atmosphere that would be most conducive to free exchange of ideas, according to a Society spokesperson.
Meanwhile, in keeping with a harder push by the ACC to promote networking, ACC.20/WCC will feature a "Lounge & Learn Pavilion." Verbiage used in a description of the pavilion on the ACC's website describes it as the "central hub of the event," where attendees can meet up with their colleagues, live-stream sessions from breakout rooms and/or participate in informal sessions in various community lounges.
Toward the same end, the ACR's annual meeting offers "mentoring luncheons" where junior radiologists can connect with both senior radiologists and their junior radiologist peers. A feature on the Annual Meeting app permits attendees to connect with each other to set up appointments to meet.
HCPs also favor meetings that spotlight interactive, unique learning opportunities, including, but by far not limited to, programs that "give them something — a skill, etc. — to bring home to the office and use with patients on Monday morning," Folstein states. At its past several annual meetings, the AAAAI has set up "learning stations" dedicated to specific skills and topics. Two or three different stations are open every day, and attendees can frequent them whenever it is convenient. At smaller AAAAI events, such as educational symposiums and courses, a few hours in a hotel ballroom are followed by two rounds of breakout sessions that incorporate hands-on training; a recent event offered training on how to administer a food allergy challenge to patients in an effort to determine which allergens trigger their attacks.
"Physicians are looking for less of the didactic lectures," Plater asserts. "Content is king for medical meetings, and delivery of the content carries equal weight."
A few ways in which the ACR delivers content in radiology meetings that the Society believes to allow for engagement and interactivity include early morning roundtables, with each table dedicated to a "hot topic" and an expert present to address questions; "TED Talk"-style sessions with a more informal setting; expert panel sessions with question-and-answer time at the end. Additionally, Annual Meeting programming encompasses workshops where attendees have a chance to get hands-on practice with new techniques and obtain immediate feedback to correct and reinforce newly acquired skills. Audience response systems (ARS) are used during didactic lectures to incorporate interactivity into more traditional learning formats, Plater reports.
The ACC takes a similar tack, Hamilton notes. "We offer hands-on skill and procedural training, informal presentations on a 'Heart-to-Heart Stage,' sessions built around gaming [for example, "FIT Jeopardy"], expo theaters, non-CME presentations and partnered industry-based presentations in addition to programs in the traditional classroom setting," she concludes. "Everyone has different learning styles, so offering a variety of ways to access information is the key."
The Booming Health IT & Bioscience Industry of Atlanta
The home of the largest combined convention, sports and entertainment campus in North America is also the birthplace of the largest Health IT conference in the country—the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society — and boasts the reputation as the nation’s epicenter of Health IT.
At the forefront of consumer digital health, Atlanta ranks third in research facility space among all US bioscience clusters and is the No. 5 North American metro area for competitiveness in the life sciences industry.
With a network of senior healthcare leaders and executives, entrepreneurs, developers and engineers, the city has an abundance of talent and event speakers. Many leading national and global health organizations are Atlanta-headquartered, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Cancer Society, Arthritis Foundation, The Carter Center, the Task Force for Global Health and more.
Contact Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau for more information or start your RFP today.