Last-Minute Decisions That Work in a Conference’s Favor

Author: David McMillin       

As meeting marketers work to turn prospective participants into registered attendees, it might seem like publishing a complete schedule would be key to selling the value of a three-day program. The thinking is simple: If the audience can review each session and speaker in the lineup, something will surely resonate with them and fuel the decision to attend. That rationale, however, does not apply to the American Association of Cancer Research’s (AACR) marketing plan for its Annual Meeting, held last week, April 14–18, in Chicago.

“We were still putting the itinerary together two weeks before attendees were due to arrive,” Pam Ballinger, senior director, meetings and exhibits, AACR, told a group of her business-events industry peers during a behind-the-scenes tour of its Annual Meeting, hosted by PCMA and Choose Chicago on April 16.

“Cancer research is constantly changing,” Ballinger said. “It serves our attendees well if we can continue to add education that reflects the most up-to-date news.”

AACR’s attendee turnout shows that the last-minute updates are part of the attraction. “We need large rooms,” Ballinger said. “Our scientists want to go to every session.”

The organization has been working hard to accommodate audience size. For example, the plenary environment at McCormick Place was set for an audience of 10,200, and some of AACR’s concurrent sessions accommodate nearly 2,000 people. However, with undetermined topics and attendees hungry for education, it’s challenging to predict when those big room sets still might not be enough to accommodate the crowd.

For that, Ballinger said, the mobile app proves to be a very valuable tool, helping the meetings team forecast where crowds will be biggest and making day-of adjustments. Each evening, the organization’s IT team pulls the data for the sessions on the following day to gauge which ones have been added to attendees’ personal schedules.

There’s still plenty of room for error, given that not every attendee uses the app frequently. In fact, Ballinger said that some attendees still want a printed program guide even though it’s “basically obsolete” by the time they arrive, due to the late changes. Still, while not all attendees are pulling out smartphones from their pockets to personalize their schedules, Ballinger said that the mobile app data has been key to managing the experience. “It helps allocate appropriate security personnel to locations,” she said, “and it helps determine which sessions will be broadcast in an overflow room. Even though [overflow viewers] aren’t in the session room, they’re still getting the education, and that’s what they care about.”

While last-minute additions and changes may make the on-site experience more challenging for the AACR meetings team, all that work is clearly making a difference for the organization’s audience. AACR has set a new record for annual meeting attendance in each of the past five years. Total registration numbers have not been confirmed for the 2018 event, but the organization was expecting to hit another record — more than 22,000 participants.

As the program continues to grow and cancer research continues to evolve, the main objective will stay the same. “The whole goal is simple,” Ballinger said. “We don’t want anyone to miss the science.”


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