Al Lever and the American College of Chest Physicians offer exhibitors clinical resource centers as alternatives to traditional booths.
When he walked into a medical convention exhibit hall a few years ago and saw the backside of a life-sized model of a rhinoceros, Stan Hull senior vice president at GlaxoSmithKline, Research Triangle Park, N.C., had an “Aha!” moment. What does a rhinoceros — in this case it was a product promotion — have to do with healthcare? he wondered. The glitz, glamour, and gimmicks create a poor impression with regulators and the media who are closely scrutinizing.
“We want to find a better way to have an interaction that protects the reputation of the company and the physician,” he said, speaking during a session entitled “The Changing Face of Your Medical Exhibition,” at the 2009 Professional Convention Management Association's annual meeting held in January in New Orleans.
One of the associations that is leading the way in providing exhibiting companies like GSK with a new model is the American College of Chest Physicians, Northbrook, Ill. It should come as no surprise that Alvin Lever, ACCP's executive vice president and chief executive officer — who has degrees in architecture and designed medical facilities before joining ACCP — is spearheading a redesign of the exhibit hall. Lever shared his vision during the PCMA session and in a follow-up interview.
Beyond the Tchotchke Rule
A confluence of factors is pushing GSK and other companies to shift their strategies at trade shows, most recently the updated Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America's Code on Interactions with Healthcare Professionals, which went into effect January 1, 2009, banning the promotional giveaways typically offered at booths. Medical device companies will face similar restrictions beginning in July 2009 under the Advanced Medical Technology Association's new code.
But the need to rethink medical conventions goes beyond what some are calling the “tchotchke rule.” It's an opportunity to transform the exhibit hall into an education center, said Lever.
Input from exhibitors like Hull and members of ACCP's Industry Advisory Council have been the foundation of major changes to the annual meeting. For CHEST 2008, ACCP's annual convention held last October in Philadelphia, Lever and his team offered several companies, including GSK, a new alternative to traditional booths: clinical resource centers. Staffed by scientists, not salespeople, these centers were set up like lounges, with sitting areas along with product information and educational resources. While some companies have set up medical information desks in exhibit halls — separate from, but in addition to their promotional booths — this concept is different, as the clinical resource centers replace thebooth.
“We needed to find a way to get the medical scientific liaisons in an environment that allows real peer-to-peer exchange,” said David H. Eubanks, EdD, RRT, senior vice president, ACCP. In this environment, MSLs can directly respond to attendees' questions. (See sidebar.)
And attendees don't have to worry about getting a sales pitch, which is one of the biggest turnoffs at exhibitions, according to a panel of physicians who spoke at the Healthcare Convention & Exhibitors Association Marketing Summit held in January in Boston.
While exhibitors pay ACCP the same fee for the 20-by-30-foot clinical resource centers, as they would for a traditional 20-by-30 booth, they save on costs for shipping, setup, and take-down of promotional displays; plus, they are not taking salespeople out of the field — all critical considerations given the economic environment, said Lever. “We are giving companies a better environment to discuss the scientific and clinical aspects of products at a lower cost,” he said.
From their experience at the 2008 show, Lever and his team learned that the centers need to be better integrated into the hall rather than being isolated among a sea of traditional booths, and they are now making plans to improve and expand the concept for CHEST 2009, which will be held October 31-November 5 in San Diego.
Mouse in a Maze
In February, ACCP leaders and planners flew out to San Diego to meet withcontractor Freeman to discuss ways to reconfigure the exhibit hall. The basic plan is to arrange the centers in clusters organized by a theme, such as disease state, or technology. ACCP has tried this concept in the past with a cluster focused on electronic medical records and one showcasing the pulmonary office of the future.
They are considering arranging the clinical resource centers around a stage and seating area, where speakers will give presentations on the area of interest in that cluster. The presentations might also complement the topics covered in the certified CME sessions taking place in the meeting rooms, said Lever. ACCP may develop guidelines to ensure the presentations are educational, not promotional. Details on content selection and presentation design are still being worked out.
Segmenting the large open space of the hall into clusters will make it easier for attendees to navigate, said Lever. This concept could ameliorate one of the biggest complaints doctors have about exhibit halls, according to physicians at the HCEA summit. They said they go to exhibitions with a purpose, not to browse the aisles, but they find it difficult to locate what they are looking for because of the way the floor is organized. One doctor said he felt “like a mouse in a maze” at most trade shows.
For 2009, ACCP plans to test one or two of these educational clusters. If they work well, organizers may expand the concept at the 2010 convention. Exhibitors are open to the concept, said Lever. “Anything that will encourage people to spend time with them, they are good with,” he said, “They want us to drive traffic.”
The other component of ACCP's education-first strategy is simulation centers, located outside the exhibit hall in an adjacent ballroom, where attendees can try out new equipment and procedures. For three years, ACCP's Simulation Centers for Advanced Clinical Education have been very popular with attendees and exhibitors.
“Exhibits are great, but they pale in comparison to a learning theater or workshop or demonstration,” said Ted Nielsen, director,Continue on Page 2 learning at SonoSite, a Bothell, Wash.-based ultrasound manufacturer, who also spoke at the medical exhibits session at PCMA. Like GSK, SonoSite has shifted its strategic focus in recent years, scaling back its participation in shows where the only option is a traditional booth and instead exhibiting at conventions where they can run demonstrations, which provide them with a much higher return on investment.
At CHEST 2008, SonoSite demonstrated its ultrasound machine at a simulation center and the approach was “wildly successful,” said Nielsen. So many attendees signed up in advance that there was a waiting list; some waited in line several hours to use the equipment, said Nielsen. Physicians are starting to perform ultrasounds themselves in intensive care units, rather than sending patients to technicians, making the ultrasound simulations particularly worthwhile, said Lever.
Other simulation centers at the convention featured sophisticated mannequins that healthcare professionals used to simulate a practice or procedure. Overall, more than 900 attendees used the simulation centers. ACCP also runs simulation labs that are certified for CME credit.
Lever believes that it's of paramount importance for meetings to provide as many educational opportunities as possible to attendees. If associations don't try out new trade show and education models, then companies won't exhibit, revenues will dry up, and associations will suffer.
Ultimately, Lever is not concerned about the PhRMA code's ban on giveaways because promotional items are irrelevant for the exhibit hall of the future. Instead, he says, the code has given medical meetings the opportunity to refocus. “We're just scratching the surface of the ideas that we're developing,” said Lever. “It's not gloom and doom. These are going to be exciting times.” n
Tamar Hosansky contributed to this article.
Sidebar 1: Off-label on the Table
Under the Food and Drug Administration's regulations, companies are not allowed to promote off-label or unapproved uses of drugs or devices, but they can, under certain circumstances respond to unsolicited requests for information from healthcare professionals — although there are many gray areas.
And now, under a guidance released in January 2009, manufacturers can distribute reports of medical journal articles or other scientific reference materials that address unapproved uses, within certain parameters. The information must be distributed separately from promotional materials. The guidance states that while reports may be distributed at medical conferences in settings “appropriate for scientific exchange, they should not be distributed in promotional exhibit halls” or during promotional presentations. The guidance is similar to guidances that were in effect since the late 1990s, but expired in 2006.
Companies will probably make these reprints available at medical affairs booths or clinical resource centers on the trade show floor, for medical scientific liaisons to share with attendees, if the situation warrants, says Jane Chin, PhD, president, Medical Science Liaison Institute LLC, Redondo Beach, Calif. She expects that companies will remain conservative regarding MSL-facilitated scientific exchanges at conferences, keeping a firewall on the trade show floor and making a clear distinction between promotional and medical affairs booths.
— Tamar Hosansky
Sidebar 2: Curtain Rises on Product Theaters
The American Pharmacists Association has also introduced new concepts at its show, rolling out five “product theaters” at its March 2008 meeting in San Diego.
Companies bought stage time, giving hour-long product demonstrations to a seated audience of about 100. They were well-attended and a “resounding success,” says Windy Christner, senior director, meetings and expositions at the Washington, D.C.-based association.
The five theaters sold out in two days, netting about $30,000. For its 2009 show, scheduled for April 3-6 in San Antonio, Texas, the association will offer eight product theaters at two price points. An exclusive engagement, where no other product theater will run at the same time, will cost more.