Doctor’s orders: What’s needed to host a successful medical meeting

The American Holistic Nurses Association’s (AHNA’s) largest annual conference draws more than 600 people.
The American Holistic Nurses Association’s (AHNA’s) largest annual conference draws more than 600 people.

Planning any type of meeting or event can be a difficult task, but perhaps even more so if it is medical or pharmaceutical-focused.

In this particular scenario, the meeting usually comes with a number of rules and regulations—not to mention the desires and needs of the potential attendees. Determining the best way to juggle all those aspects is what medical meeting planners must do, and to host a successful event, they must figure out how to do it well.

Specific Space Needs

This particular balancing act is something Nicole Malcom, BSB-HRM, CMP, of the American Holistic Nurses Association (AHNA) knows well.

She plans the association’s annual meetings and regional conferences, the largest of which can draw more than 600 attendees. The association is required to follow the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) standards so they meet the needs of registered nurses, and one of those requirements is heavily focused on promotional opportunities.

“We have to be very clear during a conference that there can be no promotions of any kind during a presentation,” Malcom explained. “If any presenter has a book to sell or an item to promote, it cannot be discussed in their presentation. No particular brand can be mentioned and the items cannot be in the room.”

The association can allow items to be promoted and sold at the event, but only in a separate exhibit hall, and it cannot be in a spot attendees must walk through to get to the meeting space. This means more space is needed, and to manage that, the association requires a venue to have at least 50,000 square feet of space for the annual conference to be held.

The need for plenty of square footage is also a requirement of facilities to host meetings and events for the American College of Rheumatology (ACR), notes Crystal Green, the organization’s senior director of meeting services.

The association’s largest event is its annual conference, Convergence, which draws upwards of 16,000 attendees, but the group also holds a variety of smaller conferences and meetings each year. Regardless of the size of the meeting, the group typically needs plenty of space so attendees can all meet together and then breakout by specialty, topic, or interest.

“Flexible space is important to us,” said Green. “A destination may think it is just a meeting with 25 people so why do we need four meeting rooms, but that is why.”

The Society of General Internal Medicine (SGIM) was supposed to host its annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala., this year, but it was canceled due to COVID-19.

Regardless, one of the big attractions for organizers was the amount of space found at the scheduled venue, the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC). The BJCC boasts more than 100,000 square feet of meeting space and another 220,000 square feet of exhibit space.

“All of its breakout facilities are in one area, so it is great for groups needing a lot of space,” explained Birmingham CVB director of convention sales Steve Pierson. “Medical groups also tend to need good, reliable air walls in breakout facilities, and the BJCC recently replaced these, so it is as technologically soundproof as it can be.”

With nearly 16,000 attending Convergence, the American College of Rheumatology’s (ACR’s) annual conference, organizers require of plenty of square footage.
With nearly 16,000 attending Convergence, the American College of Rheumatology’s (ACR’s) annual conference, organizers require of plenty of square footage.

Beyond the Space

While plenty of meeting space is a must for medical groups, there are other important requirements the market looks for in a host destination. According to annual meeting manager Corrine Melissari, another detail that attracted SGIM to Birmingham is the city’s location.

“One of the biggest draws for us is how easy it is for attendees to get there, no matter where they are coming from,” said Melissari. “We also like the distance to the airport from the hotels, the city’s reasonable prices, and the various hotel options for attendees.”

Another top item on the list of must-haves for ACR is flexibility when it comes to changing the hotel room block. While the group tends to book with a hotel a year out, closer to the meeting date—typically 45 to 90 before, according to Green—there are frequently changes regarding some attendees’ arrivals and departures.

“Because our attendees are medical practitioners, we have to be flexible for them to come and go,” Green explained. “Some need to leave early, and sometimes we have special invited guests so we need to add more rooms to our block later on.”

Also important to the association is the city itself and what it offers to event attendees.

“Whether it is one of our larger meetings or a smaller one, a common denominator is we want a city with high walkability,” Green said. “Our attendees like to be somewhere they can easily go to dinner or go out to lunch between meetings.”

The city should also offer unique opportunities, which is often a draw for Malcom’s meetings with the AHNA. When she can book a destination with one-of-a-kind activities or natural attractions, she tends to see attendance increase.

This was the case for a conference in Bonita Springs, Fla., when she was able to plan a sunset dolphin tour, and also in Branson, Mo., when she booked an activity aboard the Branson Belle, a riverboat cruise on scenic Table Rock Lake.

“If I am able to book a destination offering activities you cannot do just anywhere, I have more people opting to attend that particular conference,” Malcom said. “In Branson, I only planned for 100, but we ended up having more than 300 sign up.”

The Society of General Internal Medicine (SGIM) was supposed to host its annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala., this year, but it was canceled due to COVID-19.
The Society of General Internal Medicine (SGIM) was supposed to host its annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala., this year, but it was canceled due to COVID-19.

New Trends in the Market

Ample square footage and a fun destination will be constants with medical meeting requests, but the landscape is changing on what these groups want.

Creating an ideal environment has become just as important as the actual programming.

The ACR has put more emphasis on the actual experience attendees have each year at the annual meeting. The association created lounges meant to allow participants to recharge, network, and relax.

“We’re taking a step forward and reimagining what it means to have our medical practitioners come together,” Green said. “We have rooms with custom furniture and seating so attendees can unplug but still converse with others. We also introduced a wellness pavilion where they can hang out and grab a coffee and relax, and we also brought in therapy dogs and an art gallery.”

Green added with a group of 16,000 at the conference, smaller spaces like this makes attendees feel more connected and not isolated in a large group.

Another trend in the medical market is greater emphasis on technology. While at one time offering meeting apps was a nice perk, today they are no longer optional, Melissari explained.

The first question I am always asked is regarding the Wi-Fi login, and then the very next question is about downloading the app. People really rely on that now,” she said.

Because of the impact of COVID-19, technology has become increasingly important to meetings and conferences, as more groups are exploring going virtual. While many had already implemented some sort of virtual aspect into their meetings, others have not, but they are seeing the need.

For example, ARC is looking into how technology could change its meetings.

“We are looking at the potential of doing more hybrid events, whether that means live streaming some sessions or putting recordings out more often,” Melissari explained. “COVID-19 definitely pushed it forward, but it is a chance to step back and evaluate what we do and how we can best provide value to our membership.”

Adding the virtual component can not only keep the meetings going as many attendees may still not be able to travel, Green adds, but also is an opportunity to get more people involved.

“Reaching a dynamic market you may not have been able to before because people could not physically attend is what the virtual meetings enable you to do,” Green said. “We have had a streaming service already, but we will be ramping that up even more so it is part of our planning process as an alternative.”

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