Between the tumbling economy and the ban on physician giveaways under the new Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America's Code on Interactions with Healthcare Professionals, medical association meeting managers are bracing for revenue losses in 2009. They are quickly figuring out ways to boost attendance, create sponsorships that are compliant under the updated code, and slash costs.

“I think 2009 is going to be a tough year for all of us,” says Chris Brown, CEM, CMP, senior meetings, exhibits, and trade shows manager, Association Headquarters, a Mount Laurel, N.J.-based association management company that handles more than a dozen medical associations. “We have to constantly think outside the box because we can't run a medical meeting the way it was run before.”

The good news is that during past economic downturns, medical conventions have drawn better than meetings in other sectors, says Eric Allen, executive vice president, Healthcare Convention and Exhibitors Association. Doctors are fairly affluent, so they can better withstand an economic slump, and association meetings are places where they can get their required CME credits in bulk. Nonetheless, associations can't count on past performance for future results. “You have such a tidal wave of things happening right now that it's hard to know if [previous trends] will hold up,” says Allen.

Mixed Bag

When we talked with planners in October, they reported a mixed bag in terms of attendance expectations for their annual meetings planned for the fourth quarter of 2008. Attendance fell a few percentage points at the American Society of Anesthesiologists' meeting in Orlando, down from its record-setting 2007 meeting. The American College of Chest Physicians, Northbrook, Ill., anticipated an attendance drop of about 5 percent at its October meeting in Philadelphia, while the Oncology Nursing Society's Institutes of Learning forecast a decline of about 4 percent for its November meeting in Seattle.

On the other hand, the American Heart Association and the American College of Rheumatology anticipated attendance would go up or hold steady at their meetings in New Orleans and San Francisco, respectively; while the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases expected an 8 percent increase for its meeting in San Francisco.

The San Francisco-based American Academy of Ophthalmology anticipated about 23,000 attendees at its November meeting in Atlanta. That figure is slightly ahead of last year's meeting in New Orleans, but considerably less than 2003 to 2006 meetings, which drew from 24,000 to 29,000 participants.

Boosting Attendance

Recognizing that travel costs and hassles could hurt attendance next year, the Oncology Nursing Society is hoping to boost regional participation at its 2009 meeting in San Antonio. “We'll do some extensive target marketing in and around the city,” says Karen Hochberg, director of marketing and public relations at the Pittsburgh-based society. Also, ONS will reach out for the first time to non-oncology nurses. They represent a growing market, says Hochberg, as more non-oncology nurses are now treating cancer patients due to the nursing shortage and the increasing numbers of cancer survivors. In addition, ONS is trying to make the meeting more family-friendly to entice more nurses to attend.

The American College of Chest Physicians is also doing extra promotions for its meeting next year in San Diego. It is offering international attendees the opportunity to register for the 2009 meeting at the 2008 meeting — at 2008 prices — and it is creating Web pages in a variety of languages to market the meeting internationally.

This year, AAO partnered with a European society and international attendance is showing an 8 percent increase. One advantage of a weak U.S. dollar is that the country is more financially attractive as a meetings destination to Europeans, says Debra Rosencrance, CMP, CEM, AAO vice president, meetings and exhibits.

No More Buses?

Planners not only may have to contend with revenue losses, they're also facing alarming increases in overall meeting costs as prices for everything from transportation to food and beverage have risen sharply.

“I can't believe the cost of shuttle buses,” says Pam Ballinger, CMP, vice president of meetings, exhibits, and trade shows at Association Headquarters. For one of her larger medical meetings this year, she budgeted her usual $40,000 for meeting transportation. In reality, costs were more than double that, thanks to skyrocketing fuel costs. “We may just not use the shuttles next year,” says Ballinger. “That's something we never thought we would have to do.”

She'll also look at scaling back cocktail parties and meals. Traditionally, food and beverage costs gave gone up about 5 percent annually, but this past year, the increase was considerably higher, she says. Green initiatives, such as e-marketing and paperless meetings, are also good ways to reduce costs.

Education is the primary driver of attendance, so she won't skimp on the content, but everything else is fair game. “It's going to be back to basics, bare bones,” she says. The alternative is raising registration fees, which is the last resort, she says. John Thorner, executive vice president at Chicago-based American Society of Anesthesiologists, says that while his society has a longtime policy of not charging registration fees to members, it may have to consider reversing that policy if economic trends continue. (In another reaction to the economy, ASA will have sales people on the ground at the 2008 meeting to book booths for the 2009 meeting — a first for the association.)

Other alternatives associations are considering include reducing the number of meetings overall, replacing some meetings with virtual meetings, holding more regional events, and convening joint meetings with other associations.

Sponsorship Squeeze

Attendance may be holding strong at this year's American Academy of Ophthalmology annual conference, but exhibit sales have dropped about 5 percent. The decrease stems not from a drop in the number of booths, but in their size. “We had 24,000 net square feet of downsizing,” says Rosencrance.

This year, AAO was able to make up the lost revenue through marketing opportunities, but Rosencrance is concerned about next year. With the new PhRMA code going into effect on January 1, 2009, AAO expects to lose about $100,000, or 10 percent, of sponsorship revenue, since they will no longer be able to sell promotional packages that include giveaways, such as notebooks, pens, and lanyards. “We're scaling back on marketing opportunities at the same time that exhibitors are looking at their budgets,” says Rosencrance. AAO hopes to make up some of the loss through offering advertising options, such as banners in the lobby, but probably won't be able to recoup all of it, she says.

In preparation for the changes coming in 2009, the American College of Chest Physicians tried something a little different with its 2008 meeting, held October 25-30 in Philadelphia. Instead of traditional booths, two of ACCP's largest exhibitors hosted “clinical resource centers,” explains Alvin Lever, FCCP, executive vice president and chief executive officer. The resource centers were staffed by scientists, not salespeople, who answered physicians' questions. The centers had a casual and relaxed atmosphere with couches and sitting areas where doctors didn't have to worry about getting a sales pitch.

Not only does the concept enable exhibitors to reach physicians in a more professional manner, but it is also less expensive. Take away all the handouts and tchotchkes, fancy décor, and bells and whistles that go with a traditional booth, and you save money, says Lever. “We might really see a different kind of exhibit hall in the future.”

Another new twist for ACCP is selling unopposed time at the meeting to pharmaceutical companies to conduct marketing presentations of their products and services. “It's a different model,” says Lever. “We are all going to be looking at what the business models of the future will be for medical societies.”

Sidebar: Poll Results Show Big Concerns

In an online survey conducted by Medical Meetings in late October and early November, medical association planners revealed their worries about their 2009 annual meetings.


Cost saving choices planners are considering:

41 %





Examples: reducing organization-sponsored meals, social events, free pre-conferences, and staffing

More survey results are on the following pages.