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August 2013

The Biggest Challenges Medical Meeting Planners Face Today

By Christopher Durso, Executive Editor
to roll with those punches?

BH For years we managed to get by without a procurement office, but we have a procurement officer now, and one of her main tasks isn’t necessarily on the pricing of what we buy, but it’s the terms and the conditions and the scalability and the flexibility of what we buy or rent. And I think [that’s] putting a lot more pressure on our suppliers.

LA I’m new with [ISTH]; I started there about a year ago. And my primary role over the past year is setting up a Strategic Meetings Management plan that will then put us in the direction that you’re speaking of. I’m almost starting from scratch, because the way that the organization typically held meetings in the past is that physicians bid it — pretty much an international setup — and they would then hire a PCO. When we hit 8,000 members or 8,000 attendees, I think that the board and the [ISTH] Council took a look at it and said, “Wait a minute, we need to have some centralized management here,” realizing that the main revenue for the organization is our meeting, and that’s critical.


Barbara Smith
, CAE


What are some of the opportunities facing medical meeting planners?

BH I thought about this before we started, and as the main challenge I put uncertainty and as the main opportunity I put uncertainty. Because, in a sense, the fact that there’s quite a lot of uncertainty in the profession for which I work, within [ESC members’] own professional life they’re beginning to have fewer and fewer solid references and solid things that they can rely on, i.e., jobs and sources of funding and so on. The association is one of the few things that remains constant in their professional life, so I think that is actually an opportunity, because that means that we will have their content. They will contribute their content to us, and with the technologies that are evolving we can continue to [be] the platform where we put that content.

So the value proposition that we can offer the members and the leaders is still strong, because they need us, and new technologies are allowing us to do things that are not necessarily meeting-related, but we can meet their requirements for high-profile visibility and representation, advocacy, and so on.

BS I think that contrary to the popular press saying that people are never going to talk to each other, teenagers are never going to have a conversation, adults are never going to want to meet face-to-face — a la 25 years ago, when they said we would never go to the movies again because of video — people want to meet face-to-face. Incredible synergy and collaborations happen in the halls of hotels outside the meeting room, inside the meeting room. Our thyroidologists already have international collaborations on research, international collaborations on writing guidelines, and what a meeting like this provides is that opportunity for, as we’ve all experienced, that kind of light bulb going off. That always happens when human beings get together and sit down and talk to each other. I don’t think that will ever be replaced.

LA Our role as meeting planners has evolved tremendously over the past 10 years, and it is exciting. You look at a planner 10 years ago, before we had this influx of technology, and it was sort of managing the compliance issues, which were pretty straightforward from a logistical standpoint, and really just taking a second seat in the society. Where now, I see especially a medical meeting planner really being able to have a seat at the table — if you can grasp the whole technology and you’re on board for change. I think it’s exciting, and I’m really excited for the younger people in the profession. We’re not going to get rid of meetings, let’s be honest. But, as Ben said, I think there are other opportunities there, especially with our content and what we do with our content, which is the most valuable asset of any organization right now.

BH We don’t actually use the word “planner” so much. The people that I’ve got working for me, up and coming in event management, they’re beginning to go beyond the five-day event and they are themselves — the very people who are planning the congresses or the conventions or the shows — also involved in maintaining some kind of dialogue with the delegates and the association for the whole year.

None of the people I now employ on specific events concentrate just on that five-day occurrence. It’s becoming less of a logistical job and slightly more strategic.

FN In our case, we have not been proactive in strengthening our international base, whether it’s on a membership level or an attendance level to the meeting. Ten years or so ago, we went down that path of offering some of our sessions in Spanish, because we would find a significant attendance from South America to our meetings. So there were a few sessions that offered translation, and we stopped…. But that thought has been resurrected — to offer some sessions in foreign languages with simultaneous translation.



Lisa Astorga, CMP


Are your attendees showing up at your meetings expecting a different type of experience?

LA Well, they’re certainly expecting different technologies. I struggle with this sometimes, because we’ll go to PCMA, we’ll go to certain sessions, and they talk about how a lot of it is about the environment and different room sets. [But attendees] really like that continuity in the learning — how the learning is delivered.

However, they are expecting other things when they come to the meeting, especially technology. They want the mobile app, they want interaction; more people are using their iPads and you’re getting audience response. But where I find my challenge in creativity sometimes is, yeah, I’d love to set up a room that has couches and different areas, but for the way that our content is delivered, it wouldn’t work. So for medical meetings especially, we need to be creative in other areas, and I’d love for somebody to hit me over the head with something that I didn’t think about.

BH It’s great to talk about new technology and new learning formats and stuff, but if you alienate half of your audience by doing so, it’s not so brilliant. Forcing social media into these big sessions — some people think it’s necessary, but I think half of the people would be alienated.

But in general, to change what we’ve got, they’re just becoming more demanding. Not necessarily knowing exactly what they want, but they’re becoming a bit more discerning.

We used to have 70 percent of people who came were paid for by industry. They basically got shipped in on a coach, they were fed collectively, looked after collectively, and acted like a herd. And now that’s shifted completely the other way around.

So it’s a lot more individual people who are really deciding on their own to come, and they’re obviously, for that reason, much more demanding and harder to satisfy — but without saying what they might be expecting, what they might be demanding, what they’re going to be looking for. They simply are more demanding as a group of people. More of them have made the personal decision on their own to sacrifice their time or their holidays and money to go there.

With so much CME content now available online, what do you think your attendees are looking to get out of the live experience of your meetings — education, the show floor, networking?

FN All of the above. The question is, how much importance is being placed on each one of those categories, and has there been a shift in the importance that we aren’t catching? You know, people still will gather. I don’t believe in the medical industry that we’ll ever get to

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