Today's exhibit managers have to be a lot more versatile than ever before. Many HCEA members now plan meetings-- everything from sales training to satellite symposia. Here's what they learned at this year's annual meeting.

"Last year, the word 'meetings' was added to my title," says Geri Shaffer, manager, conventions and meetings, Aesculap, Inc., San Francisco. "We are seeing a significant jump in the meetings [we offer]."

Shaffer is not just planning internal sales meetings. Aesculap offered CE sessions at this year's Association of Operating Room Nurses convention. Next, her company aims to add CME programs for surgeons to its roster. That means Shaffer, who until recently considered exhibit management her primary role, not only handles conference planning logistics, but must also learn the ins and outs of working with accredited providers.

Her need for that new expertise is one of the reasons she attended the Healthcare Convention & Exhibitors Association annual meeting in June. She was not alone. Many of the 641 attendees at the New Orleans event face similar career challenges. The trend is not new--according to a survey HCEA conducted several years ago, two-thirds of members plan meetings--but it appears to be accelerating. HCEA will conduct a follow-up survey this year, but based on members' comments, "there is little doubt that the number [of members planning meetings] has grown," says Eric Allen, HCEA executive director. He attributes the trend to corporate downsizing. "Fifteen or 20 years ago, sales meetings, symposia, and exhibits were handled by three different people. Today, you find [those responsibilities] all resident in one person or one department. The traditional exhibit manager is now called on to do more and more meeting planning."

In response, HCEA has over the past few years included sessions on CME and meeting management at the annual meeting. Here's a roundup of trends and tips from the meeting-related sessions at this year's Big Easy convention.

CME--On the Rise First the good news: "I'm seeing a renewed interest in CME [from corporate supporters]," said industry veteran Robert F. Orsetti, vice president, Medical Education Collaborative, Freehold, N.J., who led a session on The Role of CME in the Marketing Mix. The trend, he says, is spurred by the FDA's issuance, at long last, of its Guidance for Industry (the definitive version, not the draft), which regulates industry's involvement with CME. It is now simpler and safer for corporations to participate in accredited programs.

While corporate representatives attended his session to understand their role as supporters of CME, some also came to learn about the accreditation process. More and more for-profit companies are seeking accreditation, a change that concerns some nonprofit providers, but is nevertheless clearly a growing trend. Representatives from Photosound Communications, Alaris Medical Systems, and Primary Medicine Today attended Orsetti's session; all were there because their organizations are considering becoming accredited CME providers.

One issue that both commercial supporters and CME providers contend with is return on investment. Orsetti had no magic answers. "How do you prove ROI [from CME]? I don't know," he said. "I once paid an outside company $300,000 to measure the ROI from CME. They came up with nothing."

But Orsetti staunchly defends CME's value, despite the difficulty of pinning down results. "Particularly during a product launch, CME gives companies the opportunity to underwrite the kind of in-depth education that you can't do in a journal ad or in a 10-minute sales call," Orsetti told HCEA's corporate members. "[CME] validates your promotion. If you have the right product, creating dialogue will work to your advantage."

According to surveys, physicians obtain 50 percent of their CME credits at live events, he said. (For instance, in our most recent Physician Preferences in CME Survey, January/February 1999 issue, respondents said they obtained 54 percent of their CME at meetings.)

"[CME] is in the mix of how physicians learn," Orsetti said. It obviously has value."

Pharmaceutical and device companies are well aware of its value, he noted. Providers' concerns that direct-to-consumer advertising would drain CME budgets have not come to fruition. "[Companies] have poured tons of money into DTC, but they still budget for CME," Orsetti observed in an interview following his session.

Rx for Declining Attendance That's a relief, but now, here's the bad news: Companies will only continue to support CME if you draw lots of doctors to meetings, and at the association representatives' roundtable, participants reported that registration at annual conventions was either "flat or sinking," said session moderator R. Russ Ruston, meeting and convention coordinator, American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians, Arlington Heights, Ill. At the same time, participants reported that more exhibitors are vying for booth space.

"That tells me there is a problem, and we need to take it seriously," Ruston said. "We ought to focus on marketing to [potential] attendees."

HCEA offered a session on just that topic, led by Alf Nucifora, chairman, Nucifora Consulting Group, Atlanta; and chair of the Atlanta CVB. Nucifora was confident about the future of association meetings and trade shows, but exhorted association show managers to change their tack.

"The trade show business will be around until the end of time, but attracting attendees is harder and harder--not because you are doing something wrong, but because the environment has changed," Nucifora told attendees.

A time crunch is one of the biggest issues facing delegates. Organizers have to make shows "more time sensitive," he said. HCEA planners made that shift with this year's meeting, making it one day shorter than last year's. The change was in response to members' comments, says Riki Metzger, HCEA president, and national convention manager, U.S. Human Health, Merck & Co., Inc. By cutting the conference length, "we were able to make the meeting more attractive to attendees' bosses," she says. Judging by this year's turnout, 641, as compared to last year's 599, the tactic worked.

Nucifora encouraged planners to think strategically--to do more than rely on evaluations from the most recent meeting when considering ways to increase attendance. He suggested going back three years and asking no-shows why they haven't come back. He also recommended focus groups. Surveys give you raw numbers but not diagnostic information, he said, while a well-run focus group will uncover much more about attendees' opinions and ideas.

It's also important to concentrate on designing attractive, user-friendly materials. The biggest mistake associations make in their mailings is that pre-show materials contain reams of data, a lot of announcements, and not enough about the benefits of attending.

"Associations confuse complexity with quality," Nucifora said. "The converse is true." Instead, he advised, make brochures easy to use.

Wait 'til Next Year There are some snags, however, that no brochure can fix. Even though exhibit hours were unopposed, traffic in the exhibit hall was slow at HCEA this year. HCEA President Metzger speculates that one reason was that the convention center was a bus ride away from the headquarters hotel. Attendees probably used exhibit hours to go back to their rooms and catch up on business, she says. That won't be a problem at next year's meeting in Savannah, where the headquarters hotel, the Westin Savannah Harbor Resort, is attached to the new Savannah International Trade & Convention Center, so attendees can easily move between the two.

Despite that glitch, she is pleased with this year's meeting. "The New Orleans host committee created an incredible amount of energy. We made sure educational sessions had meaty content, and we had a slew of new speakers to bring in fresh ideas."

HCEA directors will carefully read the evaluations, Metzger says, before determining next year's program. But meeting planning and CME sessions will definitely be on the agenda, she says. "They are now part of our curriculum."

Meeting Planning--Beyond Logistics Related Links * Site Inspection Checklist Whether they are planning accredited programs or post-symposia parties, HCEA members need to know meeting planning basics. In her seminar, 14 Steps to Planning High-Impact Meetings, Jennifer W. Brown, CMP, partner, Meeting Sites Resource, Newport Beach, Calif., covered everything from needs assessment to virtual site inspections to contract negotiation.

For HCEA attendee Geri Shaffer, manager, conventions and meetings, Aesculap, Inc., the most eye-opening part of the workshop was learning more about the hotel's perspective on meetings, and what information hoteliers need to determine if a particular conference will be a good fit. Those specifications--number of sleeping rooms, estimated food and beverage, meeting space requirements--are the kind of details planners should incorporate into a Request for Proposal.

But most session attendees said they do not use RFPs; instead, they talk to hoteliers on the phone. This is a mistake, said Brown. Hoteliers need accurate figures, so they can determine if your needs match theirs. And putting those requirements in writing minimizes the chance of miscommunication.

Planners also need data in writing. Brown encouraged attendees to use a comprehensive site inspection checklist. The one she suggests runs nine pages; planners take notes on a wide range of details, from the staff's appearance to whether there are temperature controls in the meeting rooms. By summarizing each property's pluses and minuses on a separate form, you can see which venue stands out, Brown said, and make a final decision based on your meeting's needs, not your emotions.

But Brown, who brings 15 years experience as a meeting planner with Price Waterhouse LLP to her programs, also encouraged attendees to go beyond meeting managing 101. "Planners need to get away from being order-takers," she said. She urges planners to demonstrate to higher-ups that their expertise goes beyond logistics, and that they have valuable input into a meeting's goals. Along those lines, Brown stressed the importance of in-depth needs assessments. "One of the biggest mistakes planners make," said Brown, "is they don't dig deep enough to uncover the purpose of the meeting."