“What are they doing to us now?” That was his first reaction, says Randy Bauler, CEM, corporate relations and exhibits director, American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, Alisa Viejo, Calif.
He's talking about the updated codes on interactions with healthcare professionals, issued by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and the Advanced Medical Technology Association, which prohibit noneducational giveaways and tighten restrictions on sponsorships at medical conventions. “But the reality is that we're doing a disservice to medical professionals if we think that they're coming to our show floor for the giveaways,” says Bauler. “They come for information and education, and we believe they will still visit the booths whether they get a pen or not. If they get a giveaway, it's a bonus, but that's not why they visit a booth. Although both codes are having an impact, it's not as significant as we first feared.”
Like other medical meeting planners, Bauler is taking a proactive approach, helping advise exhibitors about what they can and cannot give out on thefloor. The next AACN Critical Care Expo takes place this May in New Orleans, so exhibitors will be subject to the PhRMA code, which took effect in January, but not the AdvaMed code, which goes into effect in July. AACN estimates that close to 90 percent of the exhibitors fall into the device category, with the other 10 percent being pharmaceutical and other companies. The device companies have already been calling him. “Some exhibitors have told us they will be following the AdvaMed code even though it won't be in effect yet,” he says. “They want to show their support and will follow the spirit of the code.”
Uneven Playing Field
The most challenging part right now is what Bauler calls the “uneven playing field.” For example, he says of the 20 or so pharmaceutical exhibitors AACN typically attracts, about half follow the PhRMA code and half don't. (Both codes are voluntary.) While some of the device companies are jumping aboard to follow the AdvaMed code before it even goes into effect, others are waiting, and still others might never choose to be compliant. And still other exhibitors aren't at all affected by the codes, such as nursing apparel companies, hospitals that are recruiting nurses, and publishers of books and journals.
“The uneven playing field is the most difficult part of it for me,” he says. “How do I tell one exhibitor they can do something and another that they can't? But the fact is that they're not our codes or our rules. Each company decides whether or not to follow these codes on their own and that's their prerogative.”
While they're not his rules, he does perceive it as his job to help exhibitors who want to be compliant come up with viable alternatives. “As I understand it, the codes permit giveaways that are educational, like text books and other educational materials that can't be repurposed. For example, exhibitors couldn't give away a traditional flash drive because that could be erased and used for personal purposes, but they could give away a flash drive that's of a permanent nature,” says Bauler.
He's exploring with exhibitors the possibilities of tapping into offerings from AACN. “We offer a number of books and other educational materials through our catalog and bookstore,” he says. “We're helping exhibitors figure out what they can give away from the catalogs in their booths or as a drawing prize. Another option would be a redemption card that they can give away for the catalog that allows only certain compliant items to be redeemed.”
Exhibitors are focusing on highlighting educational experiences at their booths to draw attendees. Jeffrey D. Melin, Med, CMP, director of education at the American Epilepsy Society, West Hartford, Conn., says one idea he's heard floated is showing a short film or simulation of a product in the trade booth.
Taking that concept a step further, he says that the AES already has a scientific exhibits section at its annual meeting, separate from the exhibit hall. “They are scientific poster sessions put on by the companies,” Melin says. “They are not commercial, and marketing cannot be involved in any way. That's one way we provide face-to-face time between attendees and the researchers/scientists from the companies.”
One of the gray areas in the codes is whether or not exhibitors can offer refreshments at their booths. Interviewed for “Danger Zone,” (September/October 2008), attorney Michael Manthei, partner, Holland & Knight LLP, Boston, thought such offerings would probably be acceptable. “As long as what you're giving is truly modest and available to everybody who might walk by, then it's probably OK,” he said.
Melin says the American Epilepsy Society is exploring the possibility of helping exhibitors arrange for snacks from their booths. “We're looking to help exhibitors to access a popcorn machine, coffee bar, ice cream station, chair massage, or even a shoeshine stand,” he says. “Is that walking the line? We're not sure. The bottom line is that we will be flexible with helping exhibitors achieve the kinds of things they want and need to do.”
Bags and Bus Signs
Another tricky area is sponsorship of items and services that associations typically offer attendees, such as registration bags at counters, shuttle bus signs, bus wraps, comfort stations, lanyards, and more.
AACN will start selling sponsorships for the 2010 show at this year's event. “So far, we're not making any changes in the opportunities,” says Bauler. “Based on our interpretation of the codes, companies can still purchase sponsorships because anything that we give away would be our giveaway, not theirs.” (For a PhRMA attorney's comments on this and related issues, see “Cracking the PhRMA Code,” page 9.)
Bauler's approach to the ongoing uncertainty is to remain flexible. “We plan to accept sponsorships, support, and advertising if the individual company's compliance department allows them to do that,” he says. “Now, we may go to market with these offerings and find companies telling us they can't do it. If that's the case, we'll see if we have to change our plans for 2010.”
More On/ Meetingsnet.com
For more on the PhRMA code's ramifications for meetings, exhibits, and sponsorships, see “Danger Zone,” (September/October 2008), available at meetingsnet.com/medicalmeetings.
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Sidebar #1: Going Once, Going Twice
An exhibitors-only silent auction might be one creative way for associations to raise revenues, provide access to some goodies for attendees, and highlight exhibitors who donate. Victoria Ceh, MPA, executive director of the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery, Geneva, Ill., says the concept was so successful for her association last year that they plan to run one again this year.
The auction was a traffic builder for exhibitors who participated. “We gave all the exhibitor participants a big gold Mylar balloon so they were easily identifiable in the exhibit hall,” she says. “We also listed them in the silent auction catalog and gave special thanks to them at the podium.”
Exhibitors donated a variety of items, ranging from those their own companies manufactured such as shampoos and creams or handheld lasers for hair regrowth, to more generic donations like an iPod shuffle and other electronics.
While exhibitors would have to come to their own conclusions about whether these auctions comply with the new codes, the key here is that the donation is made directly to the association, which then auctions the item. In Ceh's case, all proceeds went to the organization's annual giving fund, a 501(c)(3).
Sidebar #2: Where are My Tchotchkes?
Associations and corporations are well aware of the changes to the PhRMA and AdvaMed codes, but that's not necessarily the case for meeting attendees. “We've had exhibitors ask us how we're going to inform attendees about the changes so they understand why they're not getting the same kinds of giveaways at exhibit booths,” says Randy Bauler, CEM, corporate relations and exhibits director of the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, Aliso Viejo, Calif.
To that end, Bauler says AACN is putting a statement in its exhibits directory as well as notices in the conference daily. “We'll call attention to the new codes [and explain] what that means to them, the attendees, when they visit booths,” he says. “We believe we have an obligation as an association to help educate our attendees about these changes.”