The pursuit of knowledge and the chance to meet with peers seem to be outweighing visa glitches and other obstacles for overseas doctors attending U.S. medical conferences. While many convention managers are complaining that more invasive security measures are scaring international attendees away, medical meetings seem to be holding their own.

Visa problems were “something we were worried about,” admits Elizabeth Wilson, senior director of business partnerships for the American College of Cardiology, which held its annual conference in New Orleans in March. But international attendance actually improved over last year. Of more than 16,000 professionals, nearly 5,881 traveled from overseas, compared to 5,200 in 2003. The Bethesda, Md. — based college didn't field any distress calls or e-mails from attendees or speakers who had to pass on the meeting because of visa troubles.

The Radiological Society of North America also saw an increase in the number of international delegates at its annual meeting in Chicago last November. “Our meeting drew just over 25,000 attendees, 7,000 of them from overseas, says Pam Kaminsky, senior manager of registrant services for the Chicago-based society. “We had a full recovery” from 2002, when overseas attendance dipped after 9/11.

Why the uptick? “We're thinking science conquers all,” Wilson says. “[The opportunity to] get together with other professional colleagues will transcend some of these travel and political hassles.”

Welcome Mat Shrinks Again

Visitors from many developing countries already face a daunting and often protracted process for obtaining visas to attend U.S. conferences and trade shows. In January of this year, the US-VISIT program went into effect; it involves capturing fingerprint images and photographing all visa holders entering the United States.

Now it seems likely that beginning this fall, even visitors from the 27 countries that are part of the visa waiver program — those who can enter the country without a visa for general business or tourist purposes for a maximum of 90 days — will be forced to undergo the same biometric identification process at U.S. immigration points.

Originally, visitors from VWP countries were expected to be issued passports with embedded biometric data by October. At press time, however, tourism and Administration officials were lobbying Congress to extend that deadline by two years because few countries are expected to have the technology in place. Even the United States won't have the capability to read the high-tech passports at all points of entry this year. An extension on the deadline seems likely.

The potential fallout from these new requirements is difficult to predict. “I think people will resent the biometrics in the beginning, but if it expedites the process it will help,” says Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, which operates the largest trade show in the United States. “A lot also depends on the attitude of the officials.”

However, many fear even more negative impact on travel to the United States, which is already off more than 30 percent compared to pre-9/11 levels. “The U.S. has put out a big sign to everyone saying ‘We don't want you,’” Shapiro says.

A new policy implemented in 2003 requires a personal interview with a consular or embassy employee. That demand has not only taxed the overseas state department employees, it has inconvenienced visa applicants in countries like China and certain African nations, who may have to spend time and money traveling hundreds of miles for interviews. “Now, they have to take a trip before they take a trip,” says Edward Fluhr, manager of legislative affairs for the Travel Industry Association of America.

“There is a lot of stuff going on — a lot of new rules being created and implemented — without enough attention to resources,” Fluhr says. “That's why you're getting such long waits for visas.” He advises anyone organizing an international meeting in the United States to start early to ensure that attendees are applying for visas in a timely manner.

While the United States will continue to be a magnet for healthcare professionals worldwide, the new procedures are likely to deter some medical meetings. Sue Potton, marketing director with MediTech Media, Princeton, N.J., helped organize a conference that brought 600 Chinese healthcare professionals to Boston three years ago (see “Beijing to Boston,” MM September/October 2001, available at mm.meetingsnet.com). She says the logistics of doing a similar event today would be daunting.

The International Association for Exhibition Management, TIA, and others are lobbying for a fast-track visa program that would streamline the application process for foreigners with a history of business- and occupation-related travel.

Meanwhile, U.S. meeting planners expecting a lot of overseas attendees can bone up on the new US-VISIT requirements by downloading a brochure from www.dhs.gov/us-visit.

For tips on how to help attendees cope with visa hassles, see “Rx for Visa Hassles,” June 2003 issue, also available at mm.meetingsnet.com.
Megan Rowe and Mike Bassett

The Alliance Tackles Attrition

After a close call with attrition at this year's annual conference in Atlanta, despite the second highest attendance ever, the Alliance for CME, Birmingham, Ala., decided it was time to get proactive. “Our history has been good — we usually run between 96 and 105 percent in terms of meeting our room block,” says Bernie Halbur, PhD, the Alliance's professional development and meeting management director. “This year, though, we went in thinking we didn't make our block. Fortunately, after asking the hotel to cross-check their list, we found an additional 339 room nights.” But it was a wake-up call: “If we don't hit our room block, we'll have penalties — and that will be passed along in other ways, probably a higher registration fee. That's something we'd rather not have to do.”

So her department recommended to the Annual Conference Planning Committee Leadership that they survey their membership on two fronts: Why those who attended this year's conference did or did not stay within the block; and why those who didn't attend gave the conference a pass.

“It's a double-edged sword,”says Halbur. While the information is useful, she worries that just raising the question of going outside the room block might prompt some who hadn't thought about it to do some shopping around next time. “From the results, we know that some people really hadn't thought about it before.”

From Results to Actions

The results showed that the majority of those who stayed within the block this year (59 percent) did so because it was convenient. Seven percent said they did it to support the conference's room block. Those who went around the block at the headquarters hotel did so because they could get a lower rate on the hotel's Web site (42 percent) or get their advance room deposit waived (25 percent). Seventeen percent said the conference rate was unavailable, and 8 percent each said that they found lower rates outside the Alliance block or lower government rates. For those who reserved a room at another hotel, the majority (62 percent) said they did it to get a lower room rate. A smattering of others said they couldn't find a government rate at the headquarters hotel, had an unhappy prior experience with the hotel, desired to stay elsewhere, or worked for an organization whose policy demands that they stay elsewhere.

The post-con survey also allowed Halbur and her team to get a better handle on what would help people stay in the block. For example, numerous respondents commented about the unsatisfactory quality of the rooms they received for the conference rates, and others said they were disappointed by the lack of activities and shopping within walking distance.

And for those who didn't attend the conference this year, 26 percent cited conflicts and/or workload; 19 percent said it was because of cuts and/or constraints in budgets; 13 percent said cost of the conference kept them away; and another 13 percent said there were limitations on the number of people from their office who could attend. Other reasons included undesirability and/or cost of the location (9 percent); medical problem and/or personal situation (8 percent); limitations and/or freeze on travel (4 percent); and attendance at another meeting (3 percent).

While “it made us more sensitive to price issues,” the results also leave the planners with another challenge: whether or not to make participants aware of what goes into the group room rate. “It's another double-edged sword. It's something the leadership is going to look at,” says Halbur.

Another outcome from the survey, she says, is that “the data has sensitized the leadership about the complexity of the meeting, all that goes into selecting a site and negotiating group rates.” Among the recommendations that resulted from the survey and other evaluations: Consider different types of destinations, rethink the architecture of the meeting, and possibly set up a rotation between four cities.

“Our strategy is that it's best to be informed, even if we don't like the information we get sometimes,”says Halbur. “We appreciate that our participants are very good at being candid with us, because the only way we can make the changes they need is to know what's really going on.”

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