Foro Internacional Médico opened in March 2004 at the Centro Banamex in Mexico City, attracting nearly 6,000 attendees — the first meeting of its kind and magnitude for general physicians in the Spanish-speaking world. The FIM conference was the result of a partnership between LiveMed, a continuing medical education company that produces symposia and academic seminars in Mexico, and U.S.-based Pri-Med and Harvard Medical School.

Organizers had many obstacles to overcome. Mexico is striving to improve and standardize educational offerings for physicians and disperse these programs nationwide, but CME is at quite a different stage than in the United States. There is no consensus about what CME programs should look like, or who should control the accreditation process. Often, commercial supporters have heavy influence on program content. Many of these programs apply only to specialists, leaving behind general physicians.

Apart from the huge challenge of developing commercial-free content for the conference, there were a number of other challenges. This article, adapted from a cover story in AM's sister publication Medical Meetings, looks at how LiveMed approached pricing the registration for the event — always a challenge when planning non-domestic conferences dependent on local participation — and how they attracted non-traditional exhibitors (non-pharmaceutical companies). For the complete article, see “La Gran Visión,” page 37, September/October Medical Meetings.

Getting the Word Out

The organizers hoped to convince thousands of physicians to spend two days of potentially billable hours at FIM instead of in their practice. The conference was designed for general practitioners, who were not accustomed to being invited to a CME meeting of such high caliber and magnitude. No one was really sure how they would react.

“It was very important to keep admission to the event within reach of Mexican physicians,” says José Luis Arredondo Garcia, MD, head of the Clinical Research Unit of the National Institute of Pediatrics, president of the LiveMed Institute, and a key member of the Mexican National Academy of Medicine. “Doctors in Mexico make five to six times less than doctors in the U.S. If the average specialist in the United States earns $100 per visit, his or her counterpart in Mexico will earn only $25. For general practitioners, it is even worse. Primary care doctors make only $10 to $15 per patient visit. That is less than the co-pay alone for most U.S. visits. So it was critical that we take the economic differences into account.” Organizers set the early-bird registration fee for the two-day conference at only $90.

To help make the conference even more affordable, the LiveMed Institute created a scholarship fund using pooled monies from all commercial supporters — a departure from the U. S. Standards for Commercial Support (for continuing medical education). The fund assisted physicians in covering the cost of attending the meeting.

To entice physicians further, FIM offered a certificate of participation from LiveMed and Harvard Medical School. To qualify, physicians had to participate in at least 85 percent of the program sessions — confirmed through the electronic scanning system put in place at every entrance and exit to the sessions. In a culture where certificates and diplomas from prestigious institutions have heavy impact, this tactic was effective.

The organizers marketed FIM through advertising in print publications, direct mail campaigns, and Internet promotions. Commercial supporters also spread the word. Telemarketing was a very successful marketing tool as well. The Mexican market is not as accustomed to promotional phone calls, and it is therefore still receptive to this approach. In the end, the marketing paid off. Close to 6,000 physicians attended the inaugural event.

As for building exhibitor support, organizers wanted to reach not just the traditional exhibitor base (pharmaceutical companies) but consumer product companies as well. Soliciting these exhibitors was not an afterthought — LiveMed has a dedicated staff person, Mariana Vázquez Hermosillo, director of nonpharma sales.

“We are opening the eyes of companies who had never thought to exhibit at a medical meeting before. Once they try it, they see just how incredible it is!” she says. “We offer companies access to the exact demographic they most desire — busy, successful physicians with disposable income. Just like anyone else, these elusive marketing targets buy cars, go on vacations, and need cellphones.”

Companies such as Ford, Kellogg's, Delta Air Lines, Office Max, and a variety of local mobile phone and travel companies seemed to agree. Not only did they exhibit at the inaugural FIM, many of them renewed their contract for the next meeting on-site during the conference. In total there were 70 exhibiting companies, utilizing 10,500 square feet of exhibit space.

High Marks, High Hopes

According to the evaluations, 98 percent of the attendees found the content at FIM useful and relevant to their daily practice. Nearly 97 percent stated that they felt the program was free from commercial bias, an unusual response to Mexican CME programs. Going home, 99 percent of the attendees stated that they would immediately implement lessons learned at FIM.

Of course, there were some disappointments. Organizers had tried to encourage physicians from outside the country to attend by negotiating special rates with three area hotels and providing local transportation to the Centro Banamex; however, only about 10 percent of the audience hailed from outside of Mexico. For FIM 2005, they want to extend their reach farther. They plan to negotiate hotel and airfare packages to make the meeting more readily accessible to physicians from all over Latin America. Another improvement for 2005: More Latino speakers will be added to the program to provide more focused and local context.

One ironic complication this year was the surprising success of the breakfast and lunchtime pharma-hosted symposia. Apparently, the offer of free, high-class, sit-down meals and well-respected speakers was too good to pass up. In many instances, the tickets were completely gone in a matter of hours. Next year, attendees will have to sign up for the symposia well in advance. If the events sell out as quickly as they did this year, organizers may try to create additional symposia opportunities during coffee breaks, breakfasts, or even evening cocktails.

As for the future, FIM organizers plan to take the show to other countries — currently, they are exploring opportunities in Brazil and Spain.

“It's a constant process of improvement,” says Vázquez.” “A program like FIM is a live animal. It is always a different event, even if you have done something like it a thousand times.”

Jennifer Goodwin, Medical Meeting's marketing columnist, has more than a decade's experience in the international meetings arena. She has planned meetings, executed public relations and marketing strategies, and written articles in three languages and in more than 30 countries for wide variety of companies.

Beth Johnson, with 15 years of experience marketing and planning events, has organized meetings on three continents for audiences ranging in size from 10 to 6,000.

The Very Hungry Doctors

The team responsible for logistics at the Foro Internacional Médico was faced with the daunting task of serving box lunches to 6,000 physicians. They worked with the Centro Banamex to create an indoor, self-service luncheon area in an unused wing of the center. Six long lanes of tables, the length of a warehouse, were lined up side by side covered with box lunches. Attendees would snake their way around the facility to get their box lunches, and then retire to the perimeter where bar-style tables and chairs were set up.

To alleviate the lunch crunch, and to provide commercial supporters with additional opportunities to connect with attendees, FIM allowed them to host private VIP lunches for up to 200 physicians at a time. Up to 15 such lunchtime symposia took care of feeding close to half of the attendees each day.