TWO DAYS AFTER the election, a conversation I had with a planner at a large medical association brought home forcefully the potential effect of President Bush's reelection on healthcare meetings. The planner, who asked not to be identified, said that when she went abroad earlier this year to promote her convention, some physicians told her that as long as Bush was President they would not come to the United States. These were not idle statements: International attendance at her fall conference fell short of expectations by more than 1,000 people. Some of the overseas attendees who did come were offended by the new photographing and fingerprinting procedures required of U.S. visitors.
The next day, I spoke with another planner, Sue Potton, MediTech Media Conferencing, who said that one of her clients had just decided to move a meeting from the United States to Canada, in part because of the difficult entry requirements. The client felt she could make the international attendees feel more welcome in Canada.
The experience of these two planners is a heads-up for the medical education community. Since many healthcare associations draw upwards of 50 percent of their delegates from overseas, anti-Bush sentiment could have a detrimental effect on attendance during the next four years. In fact, a new poll conducted by GMI Inc. shows that one-third to one-half of the people in some countries are less likely to visit the Unites States because of its foreign policies.
There are steps planners can take to overcome this obstacle. Potton, who has lived and worked in Europe and planned meetings all over the world, puts the situation in perspective. “There are times when people haven't wanted to travel to other destinations for various political reasons, but the thing that makes people still travel is a high-quality program.” Here are her suggestions:
First, face the new challenges. Don't ignore the elephant in the room (no double-entendre intended).
Emphasize the value of your meeting. Consider investing more in your keynote speaker or other presenters to make the meeting a “must go to” event.
If you do get resistance from potential delegates, let them know the United States isn't about one individual; it's a tapestry of cultures, experiences, and opinions.
I suggest that you also consider exporting your education. For instance, when doctors from China anticipated difficulty getting visas to attend the American College of Cardiology meeting in the United States this past April, the ACC partnered with a Chinese medical education company to telecast conference highlights. No, this didn't help the ACC's attendance — but it allowed physicians in China to access education they would not otherwise have received.
In past issues of MM, we've reported on partnerships between U.S organizations and their sister societies in Mexico, India, Italy, and France. Despite the challenges ahead, and regardless of your own reactions to anti-American sentiments, I hope that you will do everything in your power to continue to create alliances with your colleagues overseas, so that the free flow of scientific education and knowledge is strengthened — not diminished — in the coming years.