Twenty-five meeting planners spent two days behind the scenes at RSNA 2013 — and learned that the bells and whistles of the world's largest international medical meeting aren't so far out of reach.
To many meeting professionals, a visit to RSNA, the Scientific Session and Annual Meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, may seem like taking a tour of a dream home. While there are lots of enviable features, and you might marvel at the sophisticated styling, it mostly seems the stuff of fantasy, beyond reach financially and logistically.
That's because in many ways, RSNA is the dream house of meetings. Although attendance has fallen from its pre-recession high of 62,501 in 2007, RSNA remains the world's largest international medical meeting. RSNA 2013, held on Dec. 1-6 at Chicago's McCormick Place, drew more than 53,000 attendees and filled 450,000 square feet of exhibit space with 662 exhibiting companies. Larger exhibitors, such as GE Healthcare, paid between $30 and $50 per square foot (depending on exhibitor status) for vast booths that were as big as 100 feet by 300 feet, and advertising on well-positioned pillars went for $25,000 a pop.
But at its core, the meeting is still just a meeting, working to serve its attendees’ needs, and striving to establish loyalty and achieve event goals. Those are challenges relevant to meetings of any size, and RSNA offers meeting professionals lessons in how to address them. That's what a group of 25 planners learned when they were invited to a behind-the-scenes tour of RSNA 2013 as part of PCMA's Innovation Exchange. The two-day event, sponsored by Choose Chicago, provided the planners with access to RSNA staff and key partners. Most of the planners said they arrived at RSNA expecting to be blown away by what they saw; what surprised them was that they walked away feeling inspired and empowered.
“I expected it to be so massive and so unrelated to our reality that we couldn't imagine translating it down to our smaller levels,” said Joyce Paschall, CMP, CAE, director of education and meetings for the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, whose annual meeting draws about 1,100 attendees. “But I was pleasantly surprised by how much of what I saw was translatable.”
Karen Bradley Burnett, senior director of conferences and meetings for the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), plans an annual meeting for 8,000 to 10,000 attendees, and had the same reaction. “I went there thinking that because they're so big and their budget is so much bigger than my budget, it would be interesting to see what they do, but [that] I wasn't going to be able to apply anything to our meeting,” she said. “What I found was that it's all very scalable.”
In interviews with RSNA staff and meeting planners during the event and after, Convene identified three takeaway lessons that can be applied to meetings of any size and to organizations of any capacity.
TAKEAWAY #1: BRAND YOUR ORGANIZATION FIRST, YOUR ANNUAL MEETING SECOND.
Upon entering McCormick Place's Grand Concourse, the main entry point and thoroughfare between RSNA 2013's two exhibit halls, attendees were greeted by dramatic fabric banners and a giant mobile hanging overhead, all swathed in RSNA's logo and branded, two-tone blues. The concourse was free of sponsorship, and RSNA branding greeted attendees at every turn. The meeting's theme, “The Power of Partnership,” received secondary billing. The overall effect was to immerse attendees in the organization's brand immediately upon entering the space, according to Janet Cooper, CMP, RSNA's director of convention operations.
That emphasis is a relatively recent change for RSNA, which is four years into a show redesign. As part of that initiative, RSNA, working with partner and general services contractor Freeman, decided to make a strong organizational statement, with less emphasis on the annual meeting theme. “In the past, almost every year there was a new look and feel, so things would have to get reprinted,” said Dustin Sparks, vice president of experience design for FreemanXP and a longtime RSNA consultant. “It was very costly, and we found that every year we were reinventing what we looked and felt like. The decision was made to come up with a unified look and feel — using consistent fabric, lighting, and materials — that extended the RSNA brand throughout the meeting, with secondary emphasis on that year's theme. From a logistical and strategic point, it made sense to create a brand that is consistent year to year and have areas where we could infuse that year's tagline into the event.”
Sparks points to the Grand Concourse and its centerpiece mobile as an example of how RSNA achieved that. “Between the fabrics and the mobile, 80 percent to 90 percent of the Grand Concourse is the ongoing look and feel, but the center ring in the mobile gets reprinted each year, with the year and the year's theme,” he said. “You have the template orfoundational element of the brand, and then each year's theme builds on that in a very strategic and succinct way so as not to conflict.”
That said, it's not the same old, same old every year. “When RSNA debuted the new design elements four years ago, the organization invested in a custom design that would be able to live several years at our meeting,” Cooper said. “Though structural elements have been reused, each year we look at the overall footprint of the meeting and reconfigure, add, or remove, if necessary. Each year we create a new annual meeting logo and theme. Items such as these serve to differentiate one meeting from another, but strong RSNA branding is always apparent.”
The strong organizational branding struck a chord with many of the meeting planners touring RSNA 2013. “We currently brand to our show, but I would like to mirror more of what RSNA does,” said Caroline Hoskins, CMP, manager of convention operations for the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), whose annual meeting draws about 5,000 physicians and 350 exhibitors. “Their theme was secondary, and we do the opposite of that. I would like to see us flip that. Our brand means something to our members, but I'm not sure they would remember a tagline or theme specific to a year.”
Ann Marie Bray, CMP, director of meetings and educational experiences for the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, also hopes to flip the branding prioritization of her organization's annual meeting. “We brand the meeting, but I found RSNA's emphasis on branding the association interesting,” she said a few weeks after RSNA 2013, “and have already begun discussion on this tactic with our internal marketing team.”
Bradley Burnett said AAPA's annual meeting theme was starting to drown out its organizational identity, and seeing how RSNA managed the two inspired her to make some changes to the event, which is called ImPAct. (The “PA” is a play on the abbreviation for “physician assistant.”) “We found attendees were thinking of it in terms of ImPAct and not as presented by the Academy. They had no idea who was planning it; it was just ImPAct,” Bradley Burnett said. “Starting with this year's meeting, we're reducing the usage of ImPAct dramatically, and next I want to get to a place where people simply say, ‘I'm going to AAPA,’ just like they say, ‘I'm going to RSNA.’”
Of course, one of the reasons that RSNA is able to create strongly branded, evergreen pieces is because the show is held at McCormick Place each year, meaning it doesn't have to worry about packing things up and fitting them into a different space the following year. So while some planners on the behind-the-scenes tour liked the idea of establishing a strong