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#PCMA12 Day 3: An open discussion among medical meeting planners

I spend a lot of time with continuing medical education providers, but not so much with the meeting planners who make those meetings at which the CME is conducted happen, so it was fascinating to have the chance to sit in on a frank discussion of what their biggest challenges are, and what they are doing to resolve them, as my last session of PCMA 2012.

One thing that seemed to be of huge concern was the idea that exhibitors were going to start asking them to provide physician attendees' National Provider Identification numbers. Since this is public information, I'm having a hard time understanding why that is the meeting planner's problemwhy can't the exhibitors just look them up? If someone can explain why this is potentially a big issue for exhibitors, please let me know. I tried to find out from a few folks after the session ended, but everyone was in a rush to leave so I didn't really get much other than if an exhibitor demands it, it's their problem. Which I get, but I don't get why exhibitors would demand this from them. Light-shedding on this would be welcome!

Other big issues were the costs of complying with government regulations and Accreditation Council for CME rules, pressures to find new sources of revenue, building traffic to the exhibition floor, international initiatives (including visa-related challenges), CME credit interchange with other countries, and all the various codes and rules and regulations they are supposed to follow nowadays.

One participant was particularly concerned about the Council of Medical Specialty Societies’ newish ethical code that is designed to limit drug and device company influence over patient care. While similar in many ways to the ACCME's Standards for Commercial Support, it also prohibits society presidents, CEOs, and editors-in-chief of society journals from having direct financial relationships with relevant for-profit companies in the healthcare sector. One participant said her organization actually had to ask one of its journal editors to resign after her society agreed to abide by the CMSS code.

Sponsorships and exhibit dollars on the decline had most of the crowd at least someone frazzled. As one person said, "With the PhRMA Code, they don't want to sponsor anything anymore." Several said their organizations were going the same route as PCMA, offering year-round sponsorships that extend far beyond the meeting rather than providing one-offs on tote bags and banners. (Note: This article offers some good tips on how to get more sponsorship dollars. And here's another one.) One thing sponsors particularly seem to like, said some participants, is being able to meet with board members and other influential people in the industry at board and other high-level meetings. Some said they give preferential treatment on the show floor to exhibitors that are also in more extensive sponsorship relationships, others said they kept it completely separate.

From what people were saying, I'm not sure they'd buy into this snip of research finding that physicians aren't eschewing the trade show floor now that the tchotches are out due to PhRMA Code restrictions. It sounds like, for medical meetings as for other types of association conferences, it's becoming more and more of a push to get people on the show floor and interacting with exhibitors. While product theaters can help, they don't appear to be a major solution to the exhibition drain problem. As one person said, "The surveys say they value exhibitions, but they don't go. We give them food, product theaters, we're even putting the reception on the show floor. Nothing seems to help."

One said she was going to take the "continue the conversation" idea from PCMA, where a follow-on informal session is held after a keynote so those who want to can dive deeper into the material, only hold it on the show floor. Which is fine, as long as it isn't for credit, warned another person. Another pointed to a different angle on the problem: Maybe it's the booths that aren't so attractive. So that organization offers a consultant who can evaluate exhibitor booths and suggest ways to improve them.

Some said they had added a virtual trade show component as a complement to repurposing educational content from the conference for online distribution, but it didn't appear that the value was all that high (one said that only 42 percent of virtual attendees visited the virtual exhibit, which I thought actually sounded pretty good. Another said it was more like 25 percent for his group). Streaming the educational session, with or without CME credit attached, live and archived, seemed to be pretty popular among attendees of most of the planners who said they had done it. However, interest dropped off a cliff when members were asked if they would pay for it, one person said (shocking, I know!). Another said she had a good response to charging one fee to get access to all the content, and an additional fee on top of it if they wanted to get CME credit for it.

They didn't talk a lot about CME educational grants, but one person did point out that, now that pharma budgets for CME grants are shrinking, their ad budgets actually are growing. Accordingly, medical organizations are beginning to put more of their focus on attracting those ad dollars to support their meetings.

There was morea lot morebut I'll leave this one with two of the wildest promotional ploys I've heard of:

One was a company that brought colored chalk and proceeded to draw its logo on the sidewalk in front of the medical conference's headquarters hotel. Another person told of a company that put its logo on the mainsail of a big sailboat and had it sail up and down the harbor in view of the meeting (I'm not sure if this was in San Diego, but I could see it happening there.)

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