Mixing Medicine with Pleasure: Today’s Medical Meetings Experience

Medical meetings and conferences
Medical Conferences Mix Meetings With Pleasure

By Adrianne Bowen

When Janet Skorepa, associate executive director of education and scientific meetings for the American Urological Association (AUA), began planning the 110th AUA Annual Meeting held May 15–19, 2015, she knew that she needed a destination that would produce a great experience for attendees, both in terms of learning and in being entertained. New Orleans fit the bill perfectly.

“We successfully attracted our largest audience: over 11,600 professionals plus another 4,500-5,000 exhibitors, press, and guests,” Skorepa said. 

“Our attendees loved all that New Orleans had to offer: great food, shopping, nightlife, music and entertainment. We were able to incorporate a little fun into the program by holding our AUA Grand Reception at Mardi Gras World where we featured a festival of floats, a local New Orleans band, voodoo dancers and drummers, and other performances that kept our 3,000 guests entertained.”

A healthy dose of pleasure mixed in with the most important element—educating attendees—is what makes a medical meeting successful. When it comes to medical meetings, Skorepa explained that an effective learning environment is key. “We are challenged in recent times to actively engage our attendees in learning, especially given our very large audience. At AUA, our goal is to deliver the highest-quality science to our learners in order for them to translate this information to ultimately improve patient care. So utilizing different methods of education delivery to actively engage the learner is most effective when you provide a mix of hands-on education to teach skills, scientific lectures with the ability to text questions to the moderator, pre- and post-session test questions to gauge your audience’s knowledge level, etcetera.”

The medical meetings industry is blooming in New Orleans, partly due to the newly emerging bio-medical district that is adding “teaching hospitals, innovative learning labs, simulation centers and a commitment to research, as well as a strong entrepreneurial spirit. New Orleans is welcoming more medical and pharmaceutical groups that can showcase their new products in New Orleans’ diverse community and foster their hunger for technology, education and growth,” said Cara Banasch, MBA, senior vice president of convention sales and strategy of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Part of the intrigue of meeting in New Orleans is not only to offer attendees the opportunity to explore a unique culture but also to discover the unique venues that the city has to offer, including the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine and the bio-medical district facilities such as the Louisiana Cancer Research Center, all within walking distance to the desired downtown area.

Importance Of Medical Facilities

Although it is not a must for planners to host meetings in destinations that have medical facilities, doing so does create a desired dynamic and draw for attendance from the meeting planner’s perspective.

“It is helpful to have local medical centers in close proximity to your meeting to attract local urologists, urology residents, advance practice nurses, etcetera. In addition, we have utilized local medical centers for hands on instruction. Recently, one of our live surgeries was from Tulane Medical Center,” Skorepa said.

Baltimore Convention Center
Baltimore Convention Center

Amy Calvert, senior vice president of convention sales and services of Visit Baltimore, agrees that medical meetings tend to flock to places that allow for the best medical facilities—and have the reputation as health-oriented destinations. “We have seen an increase in this market since 2009. Baltimore is and has always been a strong draw for medical and healthcare-related meetings due to the international and national recognition of our medical institutions and universities, like the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins Hospital, to name a few.

Johns Hopkins Hospital is ranked as the number one hospital in Maryland and number three in the nation by U.S. News and World Report,” Calvert explained.

“According to the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore—the EAGB—the Baltimore Washington metropolitan region is among the top five BioHealth hubs in the nation, based on employment, number of firms and venture capital investment. The EAGB ranks the state of Maryland fourth in the country in research and development expenditures at colleges and universities at the amount of $3.41 billion. Local hospitals and research facilities also have convenient, daily access to key federal agencies to facilitate the drug approval process,” Calvert said. What attendees really want is hotel options that offer unique experiences as well as excellent service, attention to detail and state-of-the-art technology capabilities, Calvert added.

“Customization options, efficiency and responsiveness are also essential in the facilities that host medical meetings, as well as an understanding of the PhRMA Codes, Physician Financial Transparency Reports (the Sunshine Act), and implications of medical meetings.

”Atlanta is definitely attracting medical meetings thanks to its position as a medical meetings mecca.

“Atlanta is tracking at 112 percent over the next eight years for meetings booked and medical meetings contribute to that success. [The city] is a hub for medical conventions due to the close proximity of Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control,” said Mark Vaughan, executive vice president and chief sales officer for the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. “For large-scale events, the Georgia World Congress Center has 1.4 million square feet of prime exhibit space needed to showcase medical equipment and hold various breakout sessions.”

For smaller events, hotels and attractions can host meetings and provide great group activities. At the CDC, “groups can take a tour of the David J. Sencer CDC Museum. The Carter Center is also available for tours, where groups can learn about President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to eliminate guinea worm through the guinea worm eradication program. Several of our world-class attractions—World of Coca-Cola, Georgia Aquarium and the College Football Hall of Fame—are designed to host private events.”Competition can play a big part in deciding on where to host your medical meeting.

“There are multiple professional societies per medical specialty and also sub-specialty societies of medicine as well. We have a good percentage of urologists who sub-specialize in urologic oncology, pediatric urology, infertility, etcetera. In addition, hospitals, third parties and industry all hold meetings to educate the medical community,” Skorepa said.

Planners have to stay on top of finding the ideal medical meeting host city in time to ensure they will have what they need. This plays a role in determining where to hold meetings and trying to plan ahead to ensure ideal host destinations. In Durham, N.C., April Ellerbe, director of sales for the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, explained that the bureau typically sees training sessions: “These meetings are in the medical/pharma fields, and also in related industries like software.” The field is growing, and as such, competition is a real part of the medical meetings industry.

An area known for a specific medical and pharmaceutical niche definitely draws medical meetings, according to Lisa LeCompte, senior sales manager for the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Louisville actually boasts more corporate headquarters in the lifelong wellness and aging-care sector than anywhere else in the U.S., accounting for more than 21,000 professionals and producing over $50 billion in revenue,” she said. “For associations in this sector, this could mean the potential for increased attendance and sponsorships as well as resources for speakers and panelists.”

Adding Elements Of Fun

Because the meetings industry has had some challenges in past years due to the recession, planners are intent on growing the business with fun experiences to draw attendees for more than just meetings. One city that is focused on fun is Durham. Ellerbe said that groups can experience entertainment that appeals to the senses and all the enticement that the city offers. “In Durham, no one is confused about where they are—the place is not generic in any way. This is a great asset for helping attendees stay focused because they are always looking forward to seeing this interesting place when the day is done.” One major draw is “Durham’s exceptional food scene. Widely lauded as one of the top food cities in the U.S., it is not uncommon to do dine-arounds and have food truck rodeos for meeting groups,” Ellerbe added.

Planners want a combination of convenience and extraordinary experiences for attendees. Sales Manager for the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau Keri Willard said, “Many of the groups prefer a downtown setting where they can walk to restaurants and attractions. A lot of them are also looking for an off-site venue that has some sort of unique experience. They want a place to be creative and versatile.” She remarked on Louisville’s one-of-a-kind offerings for attendees: “Louisville is the culinary capital of Bourbon Country, so bringing the spirits element into a meeting is always fun. You can do a lot of really unique things with bourbon like bourbon tastings with experts, bourbon-infused food, bourbon barrel décor, make your own Old Fashioned stations and more. The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience opened on Main Street last year and one of their meeting spaces is a speakeasy.”

It’s a no-brainer that people who attend meetings come to experience the whole destination and are drawn to the distinct enticements that make a city all its own. For groups looking for off-site opportunities in Baltimore, “we offer many experiential tour packages at some of our most popular attractions around the city. Visitors can participate in interactive tours and group activities such as the Science of Wine at the Maryland Science Center or a behind-the-scenes tour of the veterinarian facilities that care for the National Aquarium’s animals,” Calvert noted. “We also offer popular water activities that capitalize on our waterfront location, from sailing and boat tours to waterfront dining. We have noticed that groups are increasingly interested in corporate social responsibility and participating in group volunteer activities to give back to the community.”

Making Families Feel Welcome

With so many planners competing for top medical meetings destinations, many planners are looking toward host cities that emphasize fun and relaxation for attendees and their families along with ideal facilities for hosting meetings. The Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort and Spa hosts both large and small medical meetings, ranging in size from 10 to 500 attendees.

“Our medical conferences have been growing in size over the last few years. The pharmaceutical meetings we host are typically in conjunction with medical meetings and not as standalone meetings. Advisory board meetings dand product theater meetings seem to be the trend of the pharmaceutical companies these days,” explained Event Manager Adam Lourcey. “Large medical conferences are looking for venues that can host both their meeting and exhibits. The exhibitors at these meetings are normally the pharmaceutical companies. With the recent addition of our Coastal Ballroom, we have 40,000 square feet of available indoor meeting space that can be used for a variety of purposes from small meetings to galas or exhibit setups.”

It is no secret that beach destinations offer the relaxation that many are looking for after a day filled with scientific learning, and one trend for meetings is to bring the family for a vacation/meeting. “Our venue is very family friendly. The 400 rooms in the Emerald Tower have bunk beds that are very popular among groups who allow family travel. Several of the medical groups have sponsors for ice cream socials, margarita parties, and beach activities like volleyball tournaments or scavenger hunts. Our recreation team is very creative and accommodating to group needs to create a memorable experience that also results in great team building,” Lourcey said. “Medical meeting attendees love to mix business with family. They come prior to the actual meetings beginning with their families. They attend the conference as their families enjoy all the amenities available to them inside Sandestin,” said Dan Keyser, executive director for sales and marketing at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort.

“Sandestin has great opportunities for networking/team building to foster stronger relationships with attendees who may only see each other once a year: beach olympics, cooking competitions, an adventure zone/ropes course, resort scavenger hunts, fun runs, etcetera.”

In fact, Keyser believes that the convenient, family-oriented atmosphere has led to an increase in medical meetings. “We have been very successful with the Medical Association business because of all Sandestin offers within the 2,400 acre resort. The proximity of Sandestin’s sleeping accommodations, meetings space/conference centers and the access to family activities, restaurants and retail allows a variety of options for attendees.” Without a doubt, meetings in modern times are looking to combine business with pleasure, and for medical meetings, the mix of the right kind of facility for learning with the fun of what the host city has to offer creates a healthy medical meetings experience.

BREAKOUT: Fiesta while meeting in Miami!

Miami is well known for its hot tropical international scene, and August 5–7, 2015, FIME, the USA’s top medical show held annually at the Miami Beach Convention Center, is intermingling medicine with Miami’s pleasures. An annual event going strong for 25 years and composed of more than 1,000 exhibitors from across the globe, FIME (which stands for Florida International Medical Exposition) is the largest international medical event in the United States with more than 10,000 professionals attending the annual event to see the most current trends in equipment, technology, services, products and supplies, according to Gil Alejo, exhibit sales manager for FIME International Medical Exposition, Inc. He attributes their success to being able to “provide visitors a single location where they can find the newest products and value. This is the only event where you will find all of these types of products under one roof; it saves a lot of the travel and expenses of going to manufacturers overseas, whether in China, Hong Kong, India, Brazil or other overseas destinations.

The Expo is a way for professionals to make alliances—a lot of them are looking for representation in Central America, and Miami is the Latin hub. It is very convenient for overseas companies to fly in on direct flights and there are great hotel options to bring value to the expo participants.” In conjunction with the event is the FIME Educational Conference with comprehensive innovative learning and networking opportunities.Once the education and exhibits are complete for the day on Wednesday, FIME allows attendees to let off some steam and get a taste of the sizzling Miami nightlife with FIME Fiesta, a carnival atmosphere cocktail reception in Miami Beach’s Cabaret district. “It is a FIME tradition on the first day of the conference to have our cocktail reception at Mango’s Tropical Café where everyone can have a mojito and let loose. The laid-back atmosphere allows medical professionals and manufacturers the chance to mingle and network.” Salsa bands, food and tropical drinks, art, and live performances by Latin dancers offer attendees a chance to become a part of the Latin beach scene that can only be experienced in Miami.

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