The Changing Landscape of Medical Meetings and How We Can Adjust Our Planning to Keep Up
BY ASTRID ZEPPENFELD
If you have been to any kind of conference lately, you probably remember exactly which parts you truly enjoyed and which information you could have easily continued to live without. In addition, you can probably also recall what type of food was served, as well as the layout of the conference room.
As meeting planners, we are constantly trying to come up with new, innovative ideas to make the next meeting even better than the one before. You want your attendees to be happy with what they are paying for. You want everyone to go home happy and armed with that great
new knowledge you imparted during the meeting. It is natural to want to outsmart the competition and outdo yourself every time. So you up the ante. You pull out your comment cards from last year’s conference and check the “improvement suggestions” column. You remember in
minute detail what your attendees didn’t like last year and have already nixed it from your planning for this event. But what kind of improvements do you need to make this time around?
• Serve even better food and more of it. Check.• Offer a longer happy hour or another Meet & Greet right before the start of the conference. Check.
• Book a new, fantastic hotel with state-of-the-art conference rooms. Check.
• Plan even more enticing breakout sessions. Check.
• Newest technology gadgets for raffles and giveaways? Check. Check.
CAPTIVATE YOUR AUDIENCE
Historically, medical conferences were always centered around long lectures. With technological advancement, these lectures became more colorful (think: power point pictures). But even power point presentations can get boring because the human mind cannot concentrate on one thing for long periods of time; in fact, for many people 20 minutes is usually the max.
As Dr. Johnston, Dean of Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin, pointed out to me, “Everyone gets so tired of slides.” He suggests to keep presentations short and the focus on problem-solving rather than information-dumping.
Dr. Johnston explained that big medical meetings are testing new things all the time. At an international stroke conference last year, he had to prepare a TED-talk like mini presentation with a limited number of slides. The time limit was 18 minutes and Dr. Johnston told me that he thinks “it really worked. It led to more questions and more discussions in the hallway later. And that’s really what it is all about.
WHAT CAN YOU GAIN BY BEING WITH OTHER PEOPLE?
From any conference, one hopes to come away with new knowledge and new business relationships. That’s pretty much universal; otherwise, conferences would not be this popular. As a physician, the incentive is not to build relationships with new clients. If you are going through the trouble of flying across the country to attend a medical conference, you are not hoping to “drum up business” on your trip.
What you want to bring home with you is new and relevant knowledge.
But while at the conference, you want to spend quite some time connecting with the other attendees and discussing either current issues or your newly acquired information from the conference. As a medical meeting planner, you try to be intentional about creating an atmosphere that allows time for the personal connection that your attendees are looking for. In the business world, it is often said that in order to climb the corporate ladder, you need “vitamin C” – connections. This type of vitamin cannot be prescribed; doctors have to work just as hard as everyone else to form it themselves. Hard to do if the conference is all lectures.
BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD
Dr. Johnston suggests to go back to the drawing board, literally. He describes an interesting approach to medical meetings. In the past, a medical conference on epilepsy, for example, entailed a few epileptologists presenting on various related topics. They had their presentations ready to go and by asking the audience questions, they could gauge its level of knowledge on the subject. If you are inviting speakers, Dr. Johnston suggests that the “speaker needs to know the level of knowledge in the audience beforehand” to make the presentation the most
His ideal approach to teaching new concepts is to ask questions, break the audience up into smaller groups and say, “Solve this. What is the best way to optimize care, for instance?” The groups all have post-it notes and pens at their disposal and off they go to create their drawing boards. Dr. Johnson would then assign one “leader” of each group to discuss their findings, which can vary quite a bit, depending on the level of expertise in each group. He adds that, “you would ideally want to create diverse backgrounds at the tables; groups formed with people
from the pharma-industry, people with a nursing background, as well as specialists. It’s an opportunity to challenge people to solve problems together. Part of it is just giving people permission to do a different way.”
FANCY TECHNOLOGY – NO THANK YOU!
When I first set out to write this article; frankly, I was expecting to find out that I would have to soon start a follow up article on the most technologically advanced meeting places that cater specifically to the medical industry.
I had naïvely envisioned seasoned physicians sitting around tables in teams, performing virtual surgeries using their Google glasses and I asked myself, “How can a meeting planner book any venue, not knowing whether the conference room all the way across the country has the bandwidth and technology to support such a get-together. But, as it turns out, nobody uses Google glasses at a medical conference (yet!). Furthermore, there are educational simulation centers specifically designed for these activities.
When I asked Dr. Johnston about the changing technology at medical meetings and how meeting planners are keeping up with it, he informed me that at one conference he attended recently, “the least valuable part was the technology because it showed how ignorant we are”. Evidently, during the presentation, attendees were supposed to interact with the presenter and the information via technological equipment; however, the connection kept breaking, so all this great technology didn’t enhance the meeting as much as planned.
Good news for medical meeting planners and convention centers alike: no need to extend your budgets to accommodate the ever-evolving technology in presenting medical issues.
At least not yet. It’s actually still more about human connection; gaining knowledge can easily be done online these days. So medical conventions are not going online anytime soon, it seems. Keep the meetings personal. And the presentations short. And have fun. Check. Check. And check.
Astrid Zeppenfeld is a writer and MM&E’s editor/business development manager from St. Louis