CME funding is decreasing; revenue from exhibits is decreasing even more. General, unrestricted support of an organization no longer exists for most medical societies, and there is more competition for sponsorship dollars from state organizations, chapters, and other closely related associations. What's needed is some new ways to bring in revenues.

And there are some that are working well, said Greg Thomas, MPH PA, senior vice president of education, membership, and resource development with the American Academy of Physician Assistants, in a session on industry funding at the Professional Convention Management Association's annual meeting, held January 10–13 in Dallas. One is the concept of "product theaters," short presentations designed primarily for promotion—not continuing medical education, and no CME credit is offered—that can cover any clinical or practice-management topic. Sometimes these are held in a special area on the exhibition floor, sometimes during the luncheon, and sometimes elsewhere in the conference venue. One audience member said he had noticed a "growing comfort zone around product theaters," and mentioned another type of format, the "hub and spoke," where the hub is a demonstration area for product theater presentations, with related exhibition space forming spokes moving out from the hub.

One medical association professional in the audience noted that he has had good luck in selling satellite symposia along with product "innovation theaters" held in the hallways between sessions to grab people during downtimes. While holding theaters during a luncheon can be good in terms of getting an audience, Thomas noted that some states require all gifts to physicians, including meals, be tracked and disclosed, which could make it too complicated to be feasible.

A key point, he added, was to "make it crystal clear that this is not CME." It is a promotional venue, just like an exhibition booth. This means that you pursue potential product theater sponsors the same way you would potential booth purchasers: through the marketing department.

Grow the Sponsor Pool
Another nontraditional way to grow revenue is to sell sponsorships to non-endemic industries that might be interested in reaching your group's demographics. This could mean selling booth space to a company that offers products not related to the medical profession but of interest to those in the medical profession. If you go this route, you would need to think about your show floor rules, however. If pharma and device exhibitors were barred from handing out tchotchkes at their booths, would that standard also be applied to those who fall outside the PhRMA and Advamed Codes? It depends, said co-presenter Diane Knoepke, vice president, IEG Advisory Services, which provides consulting, valuation, measurement, research, and training to the global sponsorship industry. Some organizations apply the exhibit hall rules all who buy a booth to avoid alienating their traditional exhibitors; others do allow non-traditional exhibitors more leniency.

This outreach could go beyond the booth; it could be anything that uses your organization's name to market to your members, said Knoepke. The sponsoring company would make members a special offer on its products that includes an incentive from both the company and your association.

This route is not without risks, warned one audience member, who cited the American Medical Association's experience of having to settle a breach-of-contract suit with the Sunbeam Corporation to the tune of $9.9 million back in 1998. Sunbeam sued the AMA after it announced it wouldn't stand by an exclusive five-year royalty agreement under which the AMA logo would have been placed on Sunbeam's "Health at Home" products. According to news reports, the AMA backed out after being accused of compromising its integrity in the deal.

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