The American Chemical Society aims to hold the best chemists' conference series in 2001. Its formula for reaching the top? Follow a for-profit business model.

On the surface, the American Chemical Society's three-day conference last April on combinatorial chemistry may have seemed like a relatively modest venture, drawing 225 attendees to the Sheraton El Conquistador Resort and Country Club in Tucson, Ariz. But the first product of the association's ProSpectives conference series is pointing the way to a different process nonprofits can consider when developing new programs.

The much-touted conference was the culmination of years of planning by the association, involving membership surveys, business plans, and marketing strategies. In their quest to produce one of the year's top scientific conferences, ACS executives used a structured business model approach that was more reminiscent of a high-tech start-up company's plan than a traditional association meeting agenda.

"It's really about finding what the market needs and finding ways to meet those needs," says Matthew Borkowski, an account executive with Kircher, the Washington, D.C. - based marketing communications firm that worked on the project. "This kind of forethought is vital if you want to survive in the meetings jungle."

ACS's John C. Katz, program director of the ProSpectives conference series, said the association decided to turn to a strategic planning process because producing meetings "is essentially a business. While you may consider yourself a nonprofit, most businesses wouldn't dream of launching a program like this without the strategic planning process."

Out with Old Formulas This type of approach, of course, is far different than the typical association meeting. Too often meeting planners follow a formula in which they schedule seminars in a wide variety of interests to members, often trying to address as many subjects as possible. The ACS, for example, holds two annual weeklong meetings at which thousands of papers are presented in 30 or more chemistry disciplines.

Beginning in the early 1990s, however, ACS surveys began indicating that these annual meetings were failing to meet the needs of a large segment of the society's approximately 160,000 members. Many members, particularly those employed in industry, want focused, applied information in greater depth, in a smaller group setting, and in a more compressed period of time - content and format that the large national meetings cannot offer, according to Katz. In other words, chemists are hankering for the same kind of interactive, practical, and relevant education at meetings that physicians and other health care practitioners are demanding from their professional societies.

To aggressively build on its 125-year reputation as a provider of cutting-edge information on chemistry, the society decided to look into the feasibility of creating a new line of meetings in addition to ongoing annual and regional conferences.

It took the unusual step of assembling a cross-functional strategic team composed of marketing and business experts, as well as ACS staff from the meetings, industry relations, publications, finance, divisional activities, and information technology departments. The team's goal: Take a hard look at both the ACS and the marketplace to determine how the association could best position its future conferences.

The strategic team identified two major competitors: Gordon Research Conferences, a highly respected nonprofit organization, which runs more than 150 four- to five-day meetings every year on specific topics; and for-profit organizations that run shorter, primarily industry-oriented seminars.

Building a Better Hybrid Drawing on marketing surveys, the strategic team determined that there was a substantial demand for short and highly credible conferences that focused on industrial applications of new breakthroughs in chemistry.

"We sought to incorporate the best that we could from Gordon and the best we could from the for-profits, to create a product that is a hybrid - but a better hybrid - leveraging the strengths of the ACS," Katz explains.

In addition, the strategic team made the decision to hire a full-time conference staff for the ProSpectives series. The staff's role would be to handle all the logistical details of a conference, including such expenses as speakers' airfares. This would allow the chemists organizing the conference to focus exclusively on the scientific content.

The ACS message to conference organizers was, "You worry about the content; we'll worry about everything else," Katz says.

The team elected to begin the ProSpectives series with three to five conferences annually. To select conference topics, it turned to an advisory team of more than a dozen chemists, who submitted about 10 topic suggestions. The team then conducted competitive research and looked at market demand to determine the best topics.

Working with the advisory board, it decided to launch the ProSpectives series with a conference last April on combinatorial chemistry - a subject of great interest to industry chemists because new techniques allow them to identify and test drugs by analyzing numerous chemical compounds very rapidly.

The team marketed the event by providing information on a Web site, running ads in highly specialized journals, and launching a direct-mail campaign. The conference nearly sold out.

Test Result - Positive Initial reaction was highly positive. Registrants praised the conference in glowing terms, with surveys showing that most were pleased with the content and nearly all approved of the length.

"We had a pretty good sense that, in terms of the format, we had nailed it," Katz says.

Moreover, the surveys showed that most of the registrants were 45 years old or younger, with more than 80 percent working in industry settings. Many attendees flew in from other countries to attend the ACS conference.

"We think we may have a real opportunity here with overseas people," Katz says.

Future Formula The ACS has scheduled three conferences in 2001, to be held at the Claremont Resort & Spa in Berkeley, Calif.; the Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, Va.; and the Dolder Grand Hotel in Zurich, Switzerland. The strategic team will continue to review the planning process, to determine which chemistry topics to focus on and how many conferences to provide each year.

"We're going to revisit what we're trying to accomplish to see if market opportunities are shifting," Katz says. He added that the goal for each ACS ProSpectives conference is to "be the best conference in its field," in the year it is given.

Although Katz and Borkowski both tout this type of business-oriented approach, they also warn meeting planners to be cautious before launching a new conference series. The ProSpectives approach "is not a cookie cutter that's going to work for everyone," Borkowski says.

Katz says that meeting planners thinking of inaugurating new types of conferences should make sure to first go through a strategic planning process. "Following a business-model approach forces you to look at what you do well, what you don't do well, and what your competitors do and don't do well. And ultimately, it reveals what market opportunities could best be met by your organization," he says. "My eyes have really been opened. I wouldn't dream of launching a new program without a strategic plan."