Medical meeting professionals flocked to a closed-door session at the end of the Professional Convention Management Association’s Convening Leaders annual conference, held January 8–11 in San Diego. It was their opportunity to talk with peers about their biggest challenges, and what they are doing to resolve them.

Among these issues were the costs of complying with government regulations and Accreditation Council for CME rules, pressures to find new sources of revenue, building traffic to the exhibition floor, and maximizing sponsorship dollars.

Complying With the Rules and Regs
One participant was particularly concerned about the Council of Medical Specialty Societies’ relatively new ethical code that is designed to limit drug and device company influence over patient care. While similar in many ways to the ACCME’s Standards for Commercial Support, it also prohibits society presidents, CEOs, and editors-in-chief of society journals from having direct financial relationships with relevant for-profit companies in the healthcare sector. One participant said her organization actually had to ask one of its journal editors to resign after her society agreed to abide by the CMSS code.

Others wondered if abiding by the code means having to give up the revenues they receive from sponsorships. One person said her organization drew the line at putting logos on anything the docs would wear “so they don’t look like company shills.” Still OK, at least at that organization, were banners, window and escalator signage, and other items that fall under the advertising program.

Then the question arises: When a company with a new product to introduce blankets the place with banners, at what point does the meeting look more like that company’s than that of the actual host organization? While those who addressed this issue didn’t have formal policies to define when promotion becomes excessive, they did say they knew where the line was and were careful not to cross it.

The rules and regs also are starting to drag on some organizations’ bottom lines. As one person said, “With the PhRMA Code, [companies] don’t want to sponsor anything anymore.” Several said their organizations were going the same route as PCMA, offering year-round sponsorships that extend far beyond the meeting rather than providing one-offs on tote bags and banners. Also, those that had moved to more of a year-long partnership sponsor program, as opposed to one-offs related to just the annual conference, said they had more control of their brand when it came to those sponsorships.

One thing sponsors particularly seem to like, said some participants, is being able to meet with board members and other influential people in the industry at board and other high-level meetings. Some said they give preferential treatment on the show floor to exhibitors that are also in more extensive sponsorship relationships, others said they kept it completely separate.

Trade Show Woes
One thing that seemed to be on several planners’ minds was concern that exhibitors were going to start asking them to provide physician attendees’ National Provider Identification numbers. Although this is publicly available information, they worried that it not only would be one more task to add to their already bulging to-do lists, but also that some attendees might look at providing their NPI numbers to exhibitors as an invasion of their privacy.

And it’s already getting more difficult for some to lure the docs out onto the show floor. With the PhRMA Code barring all giveaways—even down to coffee and pens—some said trade show traffic was a big challenge. While providing product theaters for non-CME education can help, theaters don’t appear to be a major solution to the exhibition drain problem. As one person said, “The surveys say they value exhibitions, but they don’t go. We give them food, product theaters, we’re even putting the reception on the show floor. Nothing seems to help.”

Another attendee said she was going to take the “continue the conversation” idea from PCMA (where a follow-up informal session is held after a keynote so those who want to can dive deeper into the material), only hold it on the show floor. That is fine, as long as it isn’t for credit, warned another person. Another pointed to a different angle on the problem: Maybe the problem is that the booths that aren’t so attractive. Her organization offers its exhibitors access to a consultant who can evaluate exhibitor booths and suggest ways to improve them.

Going Virtual
Some said they had added a virtual trade show component as a complement to repurposing educational content from the conference for online distribution, but it didn’t appear that the value was all that high. (One said that only 42 percent of virtual attendees visited the virtual exhibit; another said it was more like 25 percent for his group.)

Participants questioned whether attendees were getting anything from the virtual trade show that they couldn’t find just as easily on a company’s Web site.

Streaming educational sessions, with or without CME credit attached, live and archived, seemed to be pretty popular with attendees, many of whom had tried it. However, interest dropped off a cliff when members were asked if they would pay for it, one person said. Another said she had a good response to charging one fee to get access to all the content, and an additional fee on top of it if they wanted to get CME credit for it.

Copyright issues also came up during the discussion on putting more presentations online. Some worried that their presenters may not have all the permissions they’d need for online distribution. The solution, several said, was to have faculty sign a form confirming that they have obtained all the necessary signoffs, including those from any patients who may be involved. “You have to assume that everything could go online” whether that’s part of your programming plan or not, said one person. “Anyone could capture a presentation and post it using his or her smartphone.”

While CME educational grants weren’t high on the planners’ list of topics, one person did point out that, now that pharma budgets for CME grants are shrinking, the companies’ ad budgets actually are growing. Accordingly, medical organizations are beginning to put more of their focus on attracting those ad dollars to support their meetings.

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