Because they spend a lot of time tracking trends in the various market segments they want to host in their cities, we asked some professionals at destination marketing organizations to give their perspectives on the state of medical meetings. Here’s what they see coming down the pike.

Medical Market Holds Steady During Recession

Medical meetings have been a steady performer for many cities during the economic downturn, CVB executives say. Gary Sain, president and CEO, Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, says that while no segment is entirely recession-proof, “the healthcare industry is about as recession-proof as you can get.”

Mark Tunney, managing director, convention sales, Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau, also says that the medical segment has held up for his city during the recent tough times. “Medical meetings have been the most consistent over the past few years,” he says. “Exhibitor numbers might have been down, but attendance has been either flat or up. We’re definitely seeing a growth in attendance this year, and the early projections are that we’ll be seeing more of it next year.”

In Boston, healthcare and life sciences conferences have been making gains, according to Pat Moscaritolo, president and CEO, Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’re seeing a significant increase in attendance for all the medical meetings held in Boston and Cambridge. Over the past two years, we had 10 medical meetings—both citywides and smaller conference center and university meetings—that set new attendance records.”

Philadelphia also can boast about some healthy attendance numbers for the medical meetings it hosts, says Jack Ferguson, executive vice president/incoming president and CEO, Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau. He cites the example of the American College of Rheumatology, the American Public Health Association, and the Infectious Disease Society of America, all of which set attendance records at their Philadelphia events last October, he says.

Some cities are also seeing growth in the number of international meetings they attract, as well as an increase in the number of non-U.S. attendees coming to meetings here. Moscaritolo says that’s the case in Boston and Cambridge, Mass., and Sain credits Orlando’s proximity to Europe and Latin America as one reason up to 50 percent of those who come to its largest healthcare association meetings are from outside the U.S.

Accessibility is key for domestic meetings as well, say the execs. Tunney says that Chicago’s two airports—O’Hare International and Midway—and central location are a plus. But to ensure that groups make their numbers, his city also provides a separate marketing-services department to help organizers tap into resources in the Midwest area—using everything from database marketing to social media—along with a client services department to help during the meeting.

Future Booking Trends for Medical Meetings

While most CVB executives we spoke with are predicting more growth in the medical meetings sector, there’s still a lot of uncertainty. “One of the unknowns is what healthcare reform will mean long-term for medical meetings,” says Moscaritolo. On one hand, an influx of research dollars could benefit cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and Orlando, which are rife with medical and life sciences research facilities. On the other hand, if physician workloads increase as the demand for primary care goes up, docs will have even less of an inclination to spend time out of their practices at medical congresses.

Ferguson says it’s important to look at how the current industry and economic trends affect life sciences conventions and meetings. “Corporate mergers and acquisitions result in less travel, which impacts attendance,” he says. The various industry voluntary codes and state and federal government regulations also affect how companies market to life sciences audiences. Other factors to consider, according to Ferguson: Exhibitors are recalibrating the size of their booth space; and virtual meetings are becoming more mainstream.

“This has resulted in a ‘new norm’ of cost efficiency all across the meeting, convention, and trade show markets,” he says. “If Philadelphia wants to stay competitive as a city, we must collectively look for cost- effective solutions. That’s what customers care about.” Sain agrees that cost-cutting measures taken in late 2008 and 2009 will continue for the foreseeable future. “Increased competition among destinations and venues will offer greater choice and pricing options to the customer,” he says. “The cost of doing business will increase for the destination or venue and the association will need to emphasize ancillary revenue opportunities to counter the cost-conscious attitude of attendees who want to pay less.”

When it comes to pharma meetings, product pipelines also play a key role, says Chicago’s Tunney. His CVB noted a dip in big pharma meetings a year ago due to a shortage of new products, and a concomitant shortage of product launches. “That started to pick up in the spring,” he says, adding that smaller pharma meetings in particular are starting to book in Chicago now.

While other types of organizations have been reducing their lead times, medical organizations are still booking far out, says Tunney. This is understandable, since their dates—usually in the spring and fall—are prime time and they may have to compete to get what they want. But small groups trying to book now for 2022 won’t have much luck, at least not in Chicago, he says. “It’s not that we don’t want their business, it’s just that we need to put in the biggest citywide we can. We may not be ready to take them for 2020 because we still have prime dates and space available that they can’t maximize.” While he acknowledges that smaller groups take a risk by waiting to book, “my advice is to not take it beyond 2020 right now.” Large groups, especially those that regularly book their citywides into a specific city, will get priority.

“We say every year that the landscape is more competitive, but this year it was especially true,” says Tunney, noting that over the past year some large organizations have come back to a city they’ve already come to terms with and tried to rebid their annual scientific sessions and exhibits. While he doesn’t see that as a lasting trend, the competition is here to stay.

Orlando’s Sain agrees: “Every destination is gunning for medical meetings,” he says. “But competition is good. The customer gets more choice, and it forces everyone to kick it up a notch.”

Sidebar: Medical Meetings Want to Give Back

Gary Sain, president and CEO, Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, says that one big trend he’s seeing is medical associations asking for information about community service projects. “They want to connect with the local community in a meaningful way,” he says. At the Meeting Professionals International World Education Congress held this summer in Vancouver, British Columbia, Orlando, which is hosting next year’s WEC, based its luncheon presentation on corporate social responsibility. Orlando is home to Clean the World, a nonprofit organization that cleans and recycles soap discarded from hotels for distribution to impoverished countries as well as to shelters in the U.S.

“CVBs are going to be asked more and more to provide value beyond dates, rates, and space,” he says. “CSR is one way to do that.”