The success of your meeting depends on what your participants are eating. Here's why a meeting travels on its stomach--along with some lessons from the world of food marketing for medical conference organizers.
In the same way that we know that the quality of a patient's experience with the receptionist is a key variable in determining a patient's satisfaction with a visit to the doctor, we also know there is a key variable in the success of continuing medical education meetings that has little to do with education, and everything to do with the quality of the attendee experience.
What is it? The answer can be found in a recent issue of the Physicians' Travel & Meeting Guide, the one with a feature on the Annual Session of the American College of Physicians (in Philadelphia). It is . . . . Food. Glorious Food! You see, despite the fact that Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love, a hotbed of history, the bastion of liberty, the city of our founding fathers . . . it is food that the magazine chose as its focus. After revealing that Philadelphia was ranked the best restaurant city in the nation by readers of Conde Nast Traveler, the editors provided readers with all the mouth-watering details of Philadelphia's great eateries.
Not a word about the CME activities! So you see not only is food at the top of Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs, it is equally high on Shore's Hierarchy of CME Needs. In fact I have this fantasy that one day soon I will see a job description for a CME staff position in four words--Meet, Greet, and Eat. Before you dismiss consideration of food and comfort as trivial, know this: When professionals evaluate their overall experience at meetings, up to 60 percent of the quality of the experience is based on what can be referred to as "seat comfort."
On Pickin' Chicken Attendees make the assumption that the quality of the education provided at your activities will be good. They evaluate meetings, therefore, on all those other variables involved in the enterprise. In the world of CME, what seems to
matter most to attendees is how long they waited in the registration line, whether their names were spelled correctly on their badges, whether the meeting room was too warm, and whether the seats were comfortable. And--eclipsing all other factors as a source of complaints--what matters most is the attendees' food and beverage experience. Stop me if you've heard these:
* "The chicken was too cold"
* "The special meal I ordered never came"
* "The chicken was dry"
* "Too much time was allocated to lunch"
* "Not enough time was allocated to lunch"
* "No fruit at the Continental breakfast"
* "Not enough diet soft drinks at the afternoon break"
I will tell you a little secret: The reason CME professionals have become so infatuated with distance learning is because they don't want to have to deal with the "food thing." They know that it simply doesn't matter how strong theare, or how highly rated their presentations; if the chicken is cold, dry, and there ain't enough of it, it will negatively impact the overall evaluation of your CME activity.
Ed Griffin, CEO of Meeting Professionals International (MPI), notes that while "few meetings are held simply as an excuse for people to get together and eat, the quality of food--along with its service and presentation--can make or break a meeting."
While I would certainly agree with Mr. Griffin that few meetings may be held simply as an excuse for people to get together and eat, those of you who have split-tested CME activities, with and without food, know its impact on attendance and the narrative section of your evaluation instrument. (If you haven't tested this yet, just ask the professional education department or marketing department in any pharmaceutical company).
Financial, Not Oral, Fixation While Freud would have a field day with our apparent oral fixation in CME, let me assure you that I did not arrive lightly at the decision to place food toward the very top of my Hierarchy of CME Needs. No indeed. The data made me do it. Not only evaluation data, but a lot of other empirical data, including financial and programming data. A convention income survey conducted by Deloitte & Touche, for example, found that fully 46 percent of convention expenditures by the sponsoring organization (such as the American College of Physicians) is on food and beverage. Likewise, 24 percent of conference attendee expenditures are on food (12 percent in hotels), second only to sleeping rooms and far in excess of any other line item.
Think for a moment of all the food functions at a medical conference: welcome
receptions, newcomers receptions, Continental breakfasts, morning breaks, networking luncheons, awards luncheons, luncheons in the exhibit hall with exhibitors, afternoon breaks--not to mention hospitality suites and private dinners. Is it so hard to realize that food can easily consume 25 to 35 percent and more of total "contact hours" at a meeting? As those who have served on planning committees for large CME meetings can attest, the amount of time devoted to discussions of food is at least comparable to the organization's expenditure on the food--just about half (46 percent).
Packaging Your Program Let me suggest to you that having established a quality CME program, what will make you far more successful, what will separate you from your competition, what will make you attractive to collaborators, and what will keep your "customers" coming back is to understand fully and capitalize on the potential impact of packaging on your positioning.
You see, Oscar Wilde had it right when he said, "the world was my oyster, but I used the wrong fork." Using the right "fork" means going to your target markets and finding out what they want.
For example--as long as we're on the subject of food--in 1995 M&M Mars decided to add a new color to its mix of M&M's plain candies, its first new hue since 1949. Based on prior research, between 1949 and 1995, manufacturing was keyed to a model combination for each bag--30 percent brown, 20 percent yellow, 20 percent red, 10 percent orange, 10 percent green, and 10 percent tan. To determine the new color, the company did what we in CME need to do more of: It let its customers be their consultants. First, with fo-
cus groups, they narrowed the choice down to three: purple, pink and cobalt blue. Then they put it to a vote. It was no contest: One million votes for pink, 3.2 million for purple, and a whopping 5.4 million for blue.
So, it is not by accident or employee whim that the new hue is cobalt blue any more than it is arbitrary that Domino's has a 30-minute pizza guarantee. Not a 25-minute guarantee, nor a 35-minute guarantee. A 30-minute guarantee. You see, Do- mino's found that people would call up after 30 minutes and ask where their pizza was--30 minutes is the national norm for pizza delivery--it is what people expect. How fully do you know your customers' preferences and expectations for your CME activities? How will you find out what they are? How will you deliver? How carefully do you mine the data on physician CME preferences that appears annually inmagazine?
Blue Positioning You know its not just M&M's that has figured out that cobalt blue can work wonders. The company credited with launching the Cobalt Blue Revolution is a Welsh mineral water brand called Ty Nant. The company sells a 25-ounce bottle of mineral water for $2.95, a full buck more than the equally pretentious San Pellegrino brand from Italy. Ty Nant's marketers understood that if you sell water and I sell water, all we can compete on is price, because our products are indistinguishable. So they found a way to distinguish their water. They sold the sizzle, not the steak.
In a workshop I ran recently, one participant was a former executive chef who recalled when Ty Nant was first test marketed in the U. S. (coincidentally in Philadelphia). When his restaurant's manager saw the cobalt blue bottles, he said "Order it." Patrons would stop by asking for "the stuff in the blue bottle," and then take the empties home with them. In three months the restaurant was selling three times as much Ty Nant as Perrier, at twice the price. Talk about sizzle.
Now store managers are finding that cobalt blue items in their display windows draw customers in and drive sales, and that they can also charge more for items of that color. The problem is that in a competitive environment, innovations are good for only about three months, unless they are sustainable. So, lo and behold, what did I get when I ordered mineral water at the Computer Museum in Boston recently? Something called Blu Bottle. While made in Rochester, NY, it's spelled Blu with the umlaut for that international flair. Do you have any doubt that packaging can make all the difference in the world?
Putting the Prize in the Package And, then there is Cracker Jack. When Cracker Jack was introduced just over 100 years ago at the Chicago World's Fair (along with the Ferris Wheel), it was one of many caramel popcorn products available and as such had a small percentage of the market--until the day they hit upon putting a prize in each box. With that small differentiating strategy, Cracker Jack today owns the marketplace for caramel corn. For us in CME, there are many lessons to be learned from this story about competing successfully. For one thing, Cracker Jack separated itself in a crowded marketplace, and in so doing, created a competitive advantage by ceasing to be perceived as a commodity. In the CME business, one of the challenges we must overcome is deja vu--many CME programs are indistinguishable, one from the other. Cracker Jack created a unique selling proposition.
Moreover, Cracker Jack marketers understand who their customers are and why they buy the product. That is why you have never, ever, opened a box of Cracker Jack and not found a prize inside. That's because each box of the caramel and peanuts passes through three magnetic eyes. Not so much to determine whether the product is fresh, or even how many peanuts are inside, but to make sure there is a prize in every box.
Parenthetically, to touch on a related issue, in selecting the prizes, The manufacturers conduct market research with their target audience, young school-age boys and girls. What a unique concept for those of us in CME--where more often than not we ask the top one percent of our market to design programs for everyone else.
What's Your Brand? So here is the prize inside my box of Cracker Jack for you: To successfully compete and to become most attractive to potential collaborators now and until well past the expiration date on your Cracker Jack--never be perceived as a commodity. Because if you're a commodity, all you can compete on is one of two variables--price or location. Cracker Jack used to be caramel candy and peanuts--now it's a brand. Chicken used to be a commodity and then came Frank Perdue, who got us to ask for his brand of chicken. Before Perdue, nobody went into a store and asked for a brand of chicken.
Do you have a brand of CME? How do you get people to ask for it? Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric, makes the point that "if you don't have a competitive advantage, don't compete." Remember, it's competition, not the customer, that determines market share and profitability. So go where the competition is least, drive out the competition, or enter into a joint venture. Because in the natural world (a world of diminishing commercial support, a world in which CME can no longer be a cost center) the law of competitive exclusion says that no two species making their living in the same way can coexist.
A Soup-er Strategy How will you cease to be perceived as a commodity? What is your unique selling proposition? For the most part CME objectives revolve around mission and/or margin. As a final course in this discussion of food, let us look at the lessons learned from soup, and in particular Campbell's Soup.
The most common strategy for accomplishing mission and margin objectives is to increase market share (reach). For me, this is a challenging strategy for CME providers who
* have to move people away from current affiliations/preferred providers
* have to move people away from what is familiar and comfortable.
In fact, it is a daunting strategy. Instead of trying to increase share, why not take a page from the Campbell experience and increase the size of the market by increasing total users or increasing frequency of use by your existing customers?
In the early 1970s, Campbell made a product, chicken noodle soup, that was sold as a convenient lunch for children. They controlled 80 percent of the canned soup market, but were concerned with private label (store brand) soups, mostly made by its largest competitor, H.J. Heinz, eroding market share by competing on price.
The answer to Campbell's problem was not building share among the identified target audience--kids--but looking at how they could get people to eat more soup. So, they sold soup as an ingredient (Cream of Mushroom), sold it as a main meal (Chunky Soup--soup you eat with a fork!), sold a microwavable soup. And not long ago, in a healthcare meeting's exhibit hall, I came upon the Campbell's Soup booth where I found Healthy Request Soup and Low Sodium Soup. In short, Campbell never changed its market share--it's still about 80 percent--but it made the market much, much larger.
Grow Your Market! You can do what Campbell did. You can grow the market for your product. You can leverage your primary product line and create product extenders--spin-offs that in turn create activity and revenue streams year round.
To come full circle, Ed Griffin of MPI has written that "long after the best general session has been forgotten, your attendees will still be mentally savoring a particularly moist slice of Black Forest cake." While this is surely scary to all of us in continuing professional education, I would challenge you to, as Tallyrand did, "Show me another pleasure like dinner, which comes every day and lasts an hour."