I WAS RECENTLY reminded of how to make a great first impression. This past August, I attended the Drug Discovery Technology conference in Boston. The discussions and demonstrations at the conference shape the ideas that will transform the treatment of diabetes, cancer, and even longevity in the future.

From a marketer's standpoint, this was an intriguing conference. The audience at this particular medical meeting was not physicians, specialists, or even registered nurses. The core audience was the bench chemist, the re-searcher, the university professor, or the in-house pharmacist at one of the major pharmaceutical companies. To me, it was fascinating to see the striking difference in the look and feel of this show versus a typical annual meeting or trade show for a core medical field. The difference was remarkable from the first impression. The typical registration desk at an annual meeting or even a major conference in medicine involves filling out paper forms, waiting in line to speak with a person and hand in one's registration, and then waiting in another line for a badge and a bag of information. This was fast and efficient — and all about technology.

Look, Ma — No Line!

The moment I walked into the registration hall, I was struck by the lack of a line. There were 8,000 people at this show and only five people ahead of me waiting to register. Many people had received their badges in advance. Those of us who registered on-site did so on a sleek new laptop computer — one of a dozen at a cyber-cafe — like registration bank. The inviting computer display requested my name and company, and I was done.

By the time I walked to the main desk, my badge was printed and I was off. I was also handed a small plastic card with a microchip in it that included all my data, making business cards superfluous. I could simply hand this card to a new business contact, who would swipe it through a scanner, and I would be on my way. Amazing!

Another striking difference was the message board area. Gone were the corkboards and tacks of the past. They were replaced by flat-screen displays with an ongoing stream of text, much like movie credits. Each message was neatly organized; one simply waited for the appropriate letter of the alphabet to roll by to see if a message was waiting for you at the information desk.

High-Tech Exhibitors

Meeting planners are always challenged with setting the right tone for a conference, and the demands of a biotech conference differ from that of a pharmaceutical congress. While flashy technology and flat-screen TVs enhance the prestige and fast-paced nature of a biotech meeting, technology does not come cheap! You will have to take into account higher costs for laptop computers, flat-screen televisions, and badge-scanning technology. This overhead increase can sometimes be offset because you might need a smaller staff — if the technology creates efficiencies in registration, for example.

Another idea to help defray the high cost of high-technology meetings is to reach out to a new kind of commercial supporter and exhibitor. At this conference, Apple had a prominent exhibit booth. Why not approach high-tech companies such as Sony, Apple, or IBM, and request a quid pro quo arrangement? They can provide the technology to support your meeting in exchange for free booth space or special promotional opportunities.

Medical meeting planners should take note. When you design your meeting flow, when you think through each step of the experience your doctor attendee will have during your next conference, try to be a step ahead of other meetings. Be the cutting edge, and they will most certainly remember you.

Jennifer Goodwin is president of The Goodwin Group, a global medical communications consulting agency in Arlington, Mass. You can contact her at goodwin105@hotmail.com.