No, Do hoteliers insist they have no room for your medical meeting? Hot tip: Tell them you're planning a wedding.

Pamela Pate Varnon is not a wedding planner. As corporate travel and meetings manager for Kinetic Concepts Inc., a San Antonio, Texas-based medical device manufacturer, she's an experienced meeting planner; her department organizes about 300 programs a year. But even with that kind of clout and experience, she had to invent new strategies to secure suitable housing for the 175 physician attendees, faculty, employees, trainers, and guests, arriving from all over the world for a two-and-a-half-day informational seminar about a new product this past June.

One Month Till Show Time Right from the start, the event was a challenging one for Varnon and her team. Most of the medical devices KCI designs and markets are big and heavy, such as beds for obese patients or special hospital beds for burn victims - equipment that has a very select market, explains Varnon. She usually sets up training with hospital administrators or nursing groups. But the V.A.C.[R] (Vacuum Assisted Closure[TM]) device, and its compact partner, the MiniV.A.C.[TM], devices for treating wounds (see box, page 42), are used throughout the medical community. Attendees at this seminar were cardiovascular, plastic, orthopedic, and trauma surgeons - a larger number than she usually handles. This conference was a first for KCI, organized in response to physicians' requests for more information about the device.

The device had been given clearance by the Food & Drug Administration in 1995. KCI then received approval for Medicare reimbursement from the Health Care Financing Administration in October 2000. With the Medicare approval pending, Varnon was under the gun. She had less than one month to plan the seminar. Seven staff people - three meeting planners and four travel agents - worked full-time on the project. She had never handled a roll-out, she says, "quite this intense."

Hawaii in Hilton Head While KCI's marketing department and field teams selected attendees, it was up to Varnon's staff to arrange their housing and travel. Due to the tight time frame, she had to book space four weeks out, even though physicians' attendance wasn't confirmed until two weeks out.

The product's inventors selected Hilton Head, S.C., as the meeting site because they'd had good experiences there before. Varnon also felt it had tremendous appeal to attendees, and had used it for many years. "If you close your eyes, you think you're in Hawaii," she says.

Even though the physicians were scheduled for sessions from seven in the morning until 6:30 at night, she says, they could still look at the ocean and feel the tranquil ambience. It was also a central location for her domestic attendees, who hailed mostly from the eastern to central areas of the U.S.

But the island's popularity also has a downside. It was packed, Varnon says, with 15 other medical conferences going on simultaneously. Hotels were "walking" guests to properties up to 65 miles away.

She chose The Westin Resort as the headquarters hotel. "If we could have all been in one hotel, it would have been delightful," Varnon said. But she needed more rooms than the Westin had available. "More people were added at the last minute," Varnon says. "We told them we had no idea where they would be housed."

Site Shock During a previous visit to Hilton Head, a year earlier, Varnon had attended a presentation about a hotel that was doing a major remodeling job. Based on what she heard, she decided that "although it had not been a nice property [in the past], it would be perfectly fine for our people if renovated."

So, when she needed an overflow property, that hotel came to mind. Although she had no time to go down and check out the hotel in person, she did consult other hoteliers in the area, who all told her it was fine. She went ahead and booked it. But when she arrived and saw the property, she was stunned. "There was no way we could put people up there," she says. "People would leave. The money would be wasted."

When she complained to management, she was told that the renovations had not even begun. Now, she had two days to find alternate housing.

Midnight Madness At midnight, Varnon and her staff stood on duty at the front desk at the Hyatt Regency Hilton Head Island, talking on their cell phones to Hyatt national reservations office staff, who - at the bewitching hour - released rooms if they hadn't gotten credit card confirmations from guests. As soon as rooms freed up, Varnon snatched the reservation at the Hyatt front desk. In order to get the rooms, Varnon explains, she had to be right there.

"We stood there for eight hours," she says. Was she annoyed? No - she's grateful to the Hyatt staff who gave her the inside scoop on how to get rooms. But she still needed more rooms.

How About Condos? The scarcity of hotel rooms inspired Varnon to do something she'd never done before - rent condos and summer homes. "With so many physicians coming and so little space [available], we had to get creative," she says. "It was a very interesting meeting for us. We learned how to book real estate."

She and her staff had to book condos individually through the owners - a time-consuming process. And risky. "You don't necessarily know what you are getting ahead of time, and there are no cancellations." Varnon says. "It's a blind business opportunity."

In her case, the strategy was successful. She ended up housing 40 people in condos, which as she points out, is a "pretty good percentage" of the 175 attendees. The locations were convenient, within 15 minutes of the Westin, where the sessions were held. One speaker was bringing his family, including members who were in wheelchairs. She found a handicapped-accessible house for them that had a better set-up than any hotel room she saw, Varnon says. "Every closet, even the TV and VCR, was accessible." For a group of faculty from China who preferred to stay together, and for other groups, condos worked perfectly.

The arrangements did create extra work for the staff, who were determined to provide the physicians with a comfortable experience. "We went out and got snacks, Cokes and ice; we made sure the places were stocked, with bath soap, toilet paper, snacks," Varnon says. The effort was worth it. "We heard fabulous things." In fact, condo housing, Varnon concludes, "turned out be the answer we never [before] looked into."

My Best Friend's Wedding Meanwhile, they still needed 30 more rooms. Varnon and her staff looked at neighboring towns and searched the Internet. They were running out of ideas. Then, over dinner, Varnon suggested that they tell a hotel they were planning a wedding - just as a joke. But it worked. She reserved 20 rooms for a wedding party.

"The sales manager said, `How did you get those rooms?'" Varnon recalls. "I said, `We booked a wedding.'"

Lost Integrity The seminar was a success, says Varnon, and she is now busy organizing approximately 80 different V.A.C.[R] informational programs around the U.S., and in Europe and Canada. Though excited about the device, she finds the housing process a continuing frustration. In today's seller's market, Varnon says, hotels nail you to you to the wall.

"Hey, they deserve it. For years, you could throw a bowling ball through a hotel and not hit anybody. Everybody deserves to make money, but you need to take care of people who come back repeatedly. There's an unfortunate mentality among hoteliers that groups aren't important. There is a real integrity being lost. You need relationships. But important people come and go so fast in that industry. Two years down the line, the person [you work with] is no longer there. You have to be savvy, aggressive, and use every tactic that you have. You have to beat the system."

Developed by Louis Argenta, MD, plastic surgeon, and Michael Morykwas, PhD, of Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, N.C., the V.A.C.[R] (Vacuum Assisted Closure[TM]) therapy system helps heal a wide range of wounds, including diabetic ulcers, bed sores, surgical incisions, and trauma wounds.

The device places a foam dressing on the wound and then the wound is covered with a transparent film, creating an airtight seal. The pumps draws fluid off the wound that would otherwise slow or prevent healing, allowing the body to more effectively nourish the wound site. With their wounds healing faster, patients can leave the hospital sooner. The MiniV.A.C.[TM] uses a battery-operated pump; it can be carried on a patient's shoulder or around the waist, enabling the pursuit of normal activities. For more information, visit www.kci1.com.